While contributing towards economic realities, this collective wailing about South African wine being too cheap is a one-sided affair. For in this call for higher prices, fair remuneration and a premium image, those calling for a pricier proposition are not including the interests of the most important part of the wine industry, namely the customer.
To go tasting Madeira wine, you stop in downtown Funchal, capital of this magical volcanic island in the Atlantic and closer to Africa than it is to Portugal. Jacaranda trees are in full mauve bloom, and grassy public spaces show bright with red and yellow and pink flowers which add to the realisation that Madeira is a garden island where nature, soil, sea and growth are vital, and the earth is looked on by the inhabitants with pride.
Anyone with a nose to the local wine industry will have heard industry pundits, propagandists and prophets implying that this country’s wines are undervalued. Which is nothing more than a euphemism hinting that local and international consumers should be paying bigger for South African wines, and producers should be charging more.
We had just stopped to see the waterfalls of Madeira when appetite struck. All that oxygen-rich air spilling in from the dense green plant growth and flowing out of the Atlantic Ocean had made us hungry like wolves, and the bowl of peanuts with the granadilla rum punch back in Funchal was not helping.
I am standing 400m up on a mountain overlooking the town of Stellenbosch, Table Mountain lurking in the distance. The steep slopes are covered with vines, as are those on the other side of the Jonkershoek Valley. Directly below, the white-washed old buildings of Lanzerac hotel and winery sparkle in the midday sun. I brace myself for the wine maker’s viticulture insights, notebook poised for words on soil types, harvest yields, vine-spacing and average daytime temperatures.
“Over there,” says the wine maker, Wynand Lategan, pointing away from the vineyards to the town. “That’s where I was born, right there in Stellenbosch Hospital.”
In what is turning out to be an extraordinary year for Durbanville-based Diemersdal Wine Estate in terms of wine awards, the Diemersdal Private Collection 2016 won the Riedel Trophy for Best Bordeaux-style Red Blend at this year’s prestigious Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. This accolade follows the estate’s superb showing at the recent International Wine Challenge where its MM Louw Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 won a Gold medal, one of only two South African Cabernet Sauvignons to do so.
The sweetest grapes in South Africa, wrote Afrikaans short-story maestro Abraham de Vries, are found in Vermaaklikheid. And as a former resident of this rural community on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River some 300km east of Cape Town, the recent vinous ambitions shown here are being watched with interest.
It must have been just after the first Cape Town hipster had tragically died from beard-oil poisoning while drinking an almond latté when I first heard of the Dog’s Bollocks. I initially assumed this to be the name of one of these ridiculous shooter drinks or a vogueish new tattoo pattern. Instead, the Dogs Bollocks turns out to be a place in the Gardens flipping burgers which the in-crowd deemed to be the best thing to hit town since Dis-Chem started selling a ladies’ underarm grooming kit.
I had scarcely mentioned my attendance at the KWV’s recent swanky 100th birthday party in its Cathedral Cellar when I was reminded from some circles of all the bad things the KWV had apparently committed in the South African wine industry. As usual, these comments were devoid of any fact or substance, purely wishing to remind me that the KWV was “a monopoly”, had a “tarnished legacy” and was “broederbond”, the latter being an organisation of which most who throw its name around know about as much as Patricia de Lille is familiar with the domestic water systems of ancient Rome.
Regular attendees of wine events will have experienced an inspired wine maker or marketer stating that “wine is made in the vineyard”. Which is, with respect, becoming a bit of a cliché.
The role of the human hand in making wine can never be underestimated. As Duimpie Bayly, a true South African wine legend and former head of production for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery says: “Wine might be made in the vineyard, but I’ve never seen a horse winning the Durban July without a jockey.