It has only been three decades since attending my last university class, but I can’t remember any of my teachers being quite this engaging and enthusiastic about their subject. But then again, Professor Sanette Ferreira from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, is at the coal-face of arguably the South African wine industry’s hottest topic, namely wine tourism.
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.”
It has now been ten-and-something years since the wines of Stellenbosch property Kleine Zalze first passed my parched lips, and to this day I still have to find a wine under this label that fails to hit the spot. Starting at the entry level Cellar Selection range, made from grapes sourced from around the Coastal Region, to the top-tier Family Reserves from Stellenbosch, Klein Zalze just seems to get it right. Always.
The one thing I dread about attending any formal wine industry discussion is that corny cliché of “South African wines are too cheap” and producers must therefore simply go ahead and raise their prices. Just like those who encourage the eradication of “boring commercial” grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and propose replacing them with trendy Trousseau, Cinsault and Verdelho, the urge to raise price is usually made by folk without any real economic dependence on or general clue of the business side of the wine industry.
Being a result of humanity and culture, wine is inextricably linked to the language spoken in the regions where it is made. That is why, as I have stated before, one cannot truly understand the completer depths of the South African wine industry without a basic knowledge of Afrikaans.
Like football teams, fishing reels and expletives, every man has his favourite steak-house. One eatery where the smell is that of animal flesh being expertly grilled, the atmosphere unfettered by any sign of gastronomical pontification or superiority and where the knowledge prevails that what you are going to eat is bloody, meaty and good.
Going through the reading matter about Cape Town’s new wine district, I was surprised at how relatively simple it all sounded. Producers from Constantia and Durbanville get an idea. Apply to the Wine and Spirits Board’s Demarcation Committee to check out the possibility of creating a district based on the regional, geographic similarities between Constantia and Durbanville. Committee approves it after detailed research. The new district gets advertised for objections. None. And hey presto, Wine of Origin Cape Town is born.
Attending this year’s Backsberg Postgraduate Vino Varsity Challenge between the MBA students from UCT and Stellenbosch could have one thinking of the 1980s pop music band China Crisis. Both teams were tasked with solving the South African wine industry’s challenge of getting shelf-space, throat-approval and face-time in premium wine markets. And as far as both the UCT Graduate School of Business and the University of Stellenbosch Business School are concerned, China is the place to go.
Despite all this talk of over-supply in a cluttered wine market bursting at the seams with 7 000 labels, there can always be something more. Why so few white Bordeaux blends, for example? Good ones. Sure, many wine-makers broaden their Sauvignon Blanc with a whack of Sémillon. But focussed and harmonious combinations of these two stunning grape varieties are relatively few and far between.
Everyone needs a bit of yesteryear now and again. And whenever this feeling raises its head, Vriesenhof is my place.
Look, I’m all for progress. And having resided and worked in Stellenbosch for almost four decades I am stunned by the continuous evolution the wine industry has shown. Not only in its incomparable wine quality, but the imagination and initiative wine-farm owners have shown in turning the region into a haven for tourists and other visitors. Gourmet restaurants. Cavernous, shiny venues with gorgeous views offering detailed wine-tastings to rows of eager tour groups. Art collections and play-spaces for kids.