Where the current hysteria and unruliness in Stellenbosch is going to end is written in the stars. But if one thing is for sure, it is that the misguided efforts to wipe Afrikaans from the face of the town’s University, as well as from Elsenburg Agricultural College, cannot be viewed without a stiff drink.
The other indisputable fact is that whatever happens, the character of the South African wine industry – of which Stellenbosch is the centre – is dominated by its Afrikaans nature. And so it shall remain.
I was reminded of this during a chat with Anthony Lane, the country’s leading wine graphic designer and visual strategist. Anthony reckons Afrikaans-orientated labels provide producers with an edge due to their offering of an original profile in the saturated local and international marketplace.
“Heritage and tradition play a larger role than effort when it comes to the global wine space,” says Anthony. “As far as the South African industry is concerned, if you want to communicate authenticity being able to do so through Afrikaans names and packaging should be seen as a definite advantage.”
He is, of course, spot on the money. And in the process Anthony, a cultured and courteous man of English-speaking origins, reminded me of the mundane, archaic views stating that “foreigners struggle to pronounce traditional Cape wine names”.
Looking at local producers who are having success in the foreign markets, it is noticeable how many of these don Afrikaans or Dutch titles. It would appear that international sommeliers, wine-sellers and customers have no problem pronouncing Meerlust, Kanonkop, Vergelegen, Vrede-en-Lust, Boschendal, Simonsig and De Wetshof – all leading brands, the world over.
There has never been a problem with Chassagne-Montrachet, Pichon Longueville and Rotschiefer Van Volxem, so why should Rust en Vrede or Welbedacht be seen as unapproachable tongue-twisters? New Zealand, pound-for-pound probably the most successful wine producing country in the New World, keenly uses its Maori culture on labels. Care to try something from Ngatarawa cellar’s range?
Recent developments in the Swartland offer superb examples. This exciting, cutting-edge wine movement has grabbed the international headlines as well as the imaginations of British wine writers such as Tim Atkin, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford and Jancis Robinson who deem the Swartland to be one of the most exciting wine regions on earth.
The fact that this area is rural and visceral in platteland authenticity, with English mostly spoken for self-defence, has obviously contributed to the Swartland’s stratospheric success – along with the old vines story and top wines.
And in all this, the Swartland has remained true to its Afrikaans roots, with names such as Die Lam, Pofadder, Porseleinberg and Treinspoor now finding their way into the international vinous lexicon. The local characters like Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst have also remained true to their 100% boerseun roots, reminding the world that our is not an industry built by Wasp colonialists and Francophile wannabees.
The self-appointed marketers who trended in the 1990s, encouraging wineries to “play to the end zone” and “create buzz-word brands” with “maximum use of hip, happening English wine names” have been proven wrong as the reverse has happened.
But the intrinsic Afrikaans character of the South African wine industry is found deeper, far deeper, than in names and on labels. The identity and soul thereof is irrefutably Afrikaans, and without a grasp of the language no wine commentator, marketer or influencer is truly able to access the nuances spun throughout the local wine world. Yes, they speak English in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but to feel the heartbeat, French is a must. Non?
Any English speaker who doubts the required understanding of Afrikaans to get to our industry’s roots is welcome to conduct a conversation with Jan Boland Coetzee, for example, on the influence of Dijon Chardonnay clones on the Cape vineyard and see where that gets you.
This is the great thing about wine. Wine and its people are forged from culture and identity. And it is this identity that grabs the imagination of wine lovers world-wide, helping to make wine that specific country’s national treasure.
And it is a voice that will not be silenced.
Translated from my article in Die Burger (11 September 2015)