Co-operatives are the heartbeat of the South Africa wine industry, some would say the unsung heroes. They produce large volumes of wine, most are situated in locations deemed untrendy by commentators on matters vinous and co-ops are run by white and predominantly Afrikaans-speaking farmers with whom some nosey labour-liberals have issues.
Yet it is the co-op contingent that keeps the industry breathing. It is they who employ the most people. Who supply the bulk wine for the big corporates and foreign clients. Who keep the South African vineyard planted, groomed and growing. And if an estate is looking for a few thousand litres of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon to bottle under its own label thus making a healthy profit, who are you going to call? Mister co-op.
I cut my teeth harvesting at Simonsvlei Co-op in Paarl, back in the early 1980s. And visiting co-ops today the changes are incredible, as are the improved quality of the wines.
In my day even a famous co-op like Simonsvlei would just open on harvest morning and take in every load of grapes available. Everything was pumped together into separators – my job – without any real thought that Fanie’s Chenin Blanc might be of a different or superior quality than Piet’s. The grapes were lumped together, the wine was made and the wine was sold.
Today all the co-operatives I deal with harvest to an approach that begins in each member-farmer’s vineyard. Blocks are identified for harvest on a certain date and are vinified separately. The better the quality, the more money said farmer gets for his grapes, encouraging him to take quality into account and not only yield.
It is harvest management to a military-like strategy. Winemakers and viticulturalists sit down each day to plan the following, co-ordinating with farmers who in turn must execute their own picking plans.
The result is a standard of excellent co-operative wines, something I for one am really proud. A bottle of Chenin Blanc from Perdeberg, for example, at below R30 displays great farming on the land, skilled winemaking and the kind of logistical management the smaller players are not aware of never mind the public.
I mention Perdeberg because it was the wine that set me on my wicked ways and the prospect of glass or two at the end of a day had my hands itching at the tender age of 17, if I recall correctly. And smuggling a case into Paul Roos boarding-house was a risky business, I tell you what.
The co-op variety that has me going at the moment is Chardonnay. Unwooded or with a bit of oak, chardonnays made by the bigger wineries are serious value for money and splendid drinking.
Bonnievale Wines is a given for good Chardonnay with all that chalk, gravel and clay in thar them vineyard soils. The 2013 Chardonnay from Bonnievale is slightly wooded to round off the edges with a burnt-butter edge, but displays exuberance of fruit, stony and mineral refreshment and a great purity of mouthfeel. At R40 a bottle it punches way, way above its weight and I’ve got cases.
The guys from Du Toitskloof Cellar in Rawsonville are arguably the most marketing-savvy co-operative around and it is hard to miss their wines among the current clutter of labels. Besides driving a wine-writing competition and sponsoring the Kokkedoor TV-show, which has twice the viewership of Masterchef, Du Toitskloof continues to make show-stoppingly good wines that do not make a credit card tremble.
They are famous for their Sauvignon Blanc, especially, but dig the Chardonnay, man. It has a whiff of sagebrush and rose-petal, leading to a hit of citrus, Packham pear and buttercup mild on the palate. Hugely refreshing, massively satisfying, I drink it in big cold glugs from a glass chiming with ice-cubes.
Yes, I have my Corton-Charlemagne moments, but as get-down-and-enjoy Chardonnay, you can’t do better than those from a South African co-operative cellar.
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