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.
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.”
Quietly, the new category of Super Pinotages is causing a ripple through the incoming tide of things offered by Brand South Africa. Not everyone – present company excluded – is convinced that Pinotage can bear the torch as the nation’s grape: that sought-after focused ray of light, in clarity unmatched by any wine country, that cuts through the wad of global vinous offerings and makes universal consumers sit up and say, “Oh, that is South Africa in a glass, and we all like it. What a great piece of the wine world that neck of the woods must be.”
A Bordeaux-based psychologist and wine-lover, Maxine Engel, once wrote-up research showing that most male French wine critics had a greater fear of losing their senses of taste and smell than they did of erectile dysfunction. Well as they say in the classics, priorities aren’t what they used to be. But I do confess to having had a terrifying experience recently when some ’flu medicine rendered my delicate palate and keen olfactory ability just about useless.
Drooling with history, heritage, culture and all those x-factors classic wine industry marketing requires, Stellenbosch’s Lanzerac brand keeps a relatively low profile. Its setting at the beginning of the Jonkershoek valley is majestic. History goes back to 1692. Aesthetically the Cape Dutch “Prag-en-Praal” hotel and winery is crisply colonial enough to have a UCT pink liberal itching for his dung-bucket. And colourful moments in Lanzerac’s wine legacy include its name as the first ever Pinotage bottling anywhere, circa 1959.
If you can remember the Stellenbosch Wine Festival of the old days’, you probably weren’t there. This was held in the Town Hall in Plein Street, and around its heyday circa 1982 it was an ideal place to get mindlessly drunk under the pretence of experiencing Stellenbosch’s wine culture. I mean, give a few hundred 19 to 25 year olds a wine glass and tell then they can get it topped up all night for free, and the result is not going to end in spirited debates on the poetry of NP van Wyk Louw interspersed with rigorous bouts of waltzing to a boere-orkes.