BLENHEIM, New Zealand. – When renowned American wine writer and critic Matt Kramer referred to it as the biggest single success story the modern wine world has seen, he wasn’t kidding. The category known as New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has in 46 years grown from literally zero vines and nada litres to 24 000ha of vineyard planted in the dry alluvial and clay soils on the South Island’s Marlborough region, seeing 340 000 tons of grapes crushed annually and making 255m litres of wine.
Being a notoriously slow up-taker of fashion and mode, I only decided to embark on the eating programme known as “Banting” at the end of 2018. This was about six years after Professor Tim Noakes, South African celebrity sports medicine practitioner, runner and enfant terrible of mainstream academia, began advocating the benefits of a diet devoid of carbohydrates.
Well, not so much advocating as hysterically ranting against the eating of any item that might contain a microbe of carbohydrate or – heaven forbid – trace of sugar. Daring to let these pass thou lips would, according to Noakes, increase the chance of obesity, diabetes and a muddled mind – known as “carb fog” – to befall the eater of a crust of bread, a linguine marinara or ice-cream cone.
Yes, I replied, in Dutch the word “Breede” does refer to a certain wide, broad object, natural or otherwise. (Think of your mother’s behind, for example.) And although the Breede River in the Southern Cape might not be quite as expansive and vast as the waterways of British Columbia, by South African standards this is a pretty wide river.
1. As a result of Britain withdrawing from the European Union at the end of March, France, Germany, Italy and Spain agree on a boycott of wine exports to the UK, resulting in an unheard-of surge in demand for wines from outside the EU. This leads to South Africa scrapping all bulk-wine exports, with its packaged wines experiencing incredible demand and commanding extraordinary prices in Britain – a bottle of Four Cousins Rosé hits the shelves at £49.99, while riots break-out in Leeds as wine-drinkers clamour for a special offering of Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc at £36.95 in Tesco.
Across the globe, a number of unsung heroes are flying the flag for South African wine. Not as part of some personal crusade, but simply because their passion, zeal and personality – coupled with suitable professional environs – create an exciting platform for the country’s wines and wine makers. And they don’t come much more colourful, knowledgeable and engaging than Neleen Strauss, Bloemfontein-born co-owner and manager of High Timber Restaurant in London. We asked her for her own words.
Write something for my blog, he said. Perceptions and impressions of your restaurant customers regarding South African wine, he said. How has things changed during my almost two decades in London, he asked. (I did ask nicely. – Ed)
Oh, and write in English, he said.
“You want me to drink South African wine? Why?!” This was possibly the sentence that became the greatest leveller in my restaurant career. The year was 2003, London’s best weathered summer prior to 2018. As a newcomer to the London restaurant scene, I quickly realised that I might think South Africa can make wine, but the majority of the people that came to the restaurant most certainly didn’t share my enthusiastic views. Thank god this was in London, and it was mostly the English I had to convince in rethinking their opinion on my country’s wine. Imagine trying to do this in Paris or Madrid? Nay.
One of the many colourful stories about Paul Sauer, the first owner of the famour Kanonkop Wine Estate, concerns a train ride. During the 1950’s South Africa had a railway system to be proud of. Sturdy, gleaming steam locomotives transported passengers and goods through the length and breadth of the country. Efficiently and punctually. And as Minister of Railways at that time, Paul Sauer preferred to travel by train whenever possible, loving nothing more than to have his fellow politicians and other high-browed friends on-board to witness the fine state of the trains, tracks and stations he was overseeing. In between bouts of wine-farming at Kanonkop in Stellenbosch, that is.
The North Pole
While most of you have been very good this year, your parents need talking to. Okay, I know, authority requires respect, the negation to do so leading to a label of disobedience and naughtiness, aspects known to hinder the prospects of getting some good stuff at you-know-what.
But if there is one time of the year you deserve to bend the ears of your mother, father, gender-neutral parents or guardians, Christmas is it. Tell them I said so. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t have to drop off the odd jug of after-shave, Jamie Oliver cookbook or mysteriously packaged toy for their wishes, too.
My Top 10 for 2018, in no specific order.
Olifantsberg Lark Chenin Blanc 2017
Assertively Chenin Blanc with whacks of cantaloupe, pear, citrus plus a whole mountainside of fynbos to make this wine very seductive and interesting.
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2016
Sharp as a razor clam in mating season. Rapier-like thrust on which hangs delicious fleshy bits of Chardonnay-beauty.
Ataraxia Chardonnay 2016
Wonder and amazement, as this takes classic Chardonnay and punts it skywards with floral spice.
Nuy White Muscadel 2006
Just-crushed grapey sweetness, fortified and aged to tantalising confection, kept fresh and alive by integrated acidity.
Tokara Telos 2015
Majestic and regal, as accurate as a Medieval long-bow archer in presenting pure Simonsberg Cabernet Sauvignon expression.
Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
A powerful stomp to announce its arrival, moon-walking into a forest filled with brambles, autumn leaves and fairies singing in Louis Armstrong voices.
Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Terrific thiols of the tropics rise sunnily, before hit by the thunder of a breaking wave bearing maritime aromas and tastes.
Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2015
Gevrey-like in its deep, velvety plushness with brooding, haunting flavours that can only be unique and only Pinot Noir.
Edgebaston GS Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
New World style with confident, promiscuous dark-fruited sweetness, yet intoxicatingly well-made and expressing the wonderful glory of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve 2014
Note of mint announces the classic-style, a cool red-blooded denseness off-set by cardamom-stuffed prunes and sun-baked old leather.
The wine world is constantly in a notorious state of disagreement and debate. From Bordeaux to Bellville, Dunedin to Durban and Margaret River to Mendoza a constant buzz of diverse opinion is heard as to who is drinking what wine, where and why. What styles and which grape varieties are set to rope in hordes of modern consumers, and from where should the world’s next gem of a wine region pop-up?
Despite the triumphal ascendancy of South Africa’s quality wine offering, it is still the sweet wines of Constantia for which the country is best known in serious global circles, the kind where things vinous count. We can tweet, back-slap, comment, praise, #hashtag, selfie and gush for all we like, but if South Africa had to enter an international showdown with one wine showing provenance, legacy and brilliant individuality it would be a Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia or Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.