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Recognizing the Wine World's Fastest-Rising Star, with 25 Years of Retrospect
By Michael Franz
Sep 18, 2018
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I began writing about wine in 1993, first for The Washington Times and then, eight months later, for The Washington Post, where I stayed for 11 years before leaving to help establish Wine Review Online.  I note this with a bit of a shudder at the rapid passage of time, but hitting the 25-year mark offers an opportunity for reflection, which is always a good thing.  From the outset, I’ve been especially interested in reporting on the world’s most rapidly-rising and hence most “newsworthy” wines and regions, even at the cost of minimizing coverage of the most “enviable” wines.  I love Bordeaux, for example, but Bordeaux makes great wine whenever the weather is good, and I’m simply keener on documenting breakthroughs than doing weather reporting.  And after a quarter century of observations, including more than 100 trips to Europe and another 27 to the Southern Hemisphere, I’m certain that the most impressive breakthrough has been achieved in…South Africa.

I’ve been planning this column for over a year, and though I just returned from South Africa four days ago, the trip and the tastings there didn’t give rise to my choice--they just sealed the deal.  Still, I’m no more interested in writing puff pieces than weather reports, so some of what follows won’t be flattering to the South African wine industry’s relatively recent past.  Indeed, if I had written a retrospective in 2003, at my 10-year point, South Africa would have won the dubious distinction of “Biggest Disappointment.”

I was dying to write about wines from South Africa when they started showing up in the USA after Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, having followed the country’s struggles for years under my other occupational “hat” as a professor of political science.  I had tasted some very good examples even during the apartheid years, as a fellow graduate student from South Africa had brought some along with her.  But the first post-apartheid wines commercially sold here were, frankly, awful.

I’ve written about the South African industry’s early woes before, so I’ll only do so concisely here, and simply because a breakthrough is only possible if there’s a lamentable past to break through.  The first wave of wines to arrive in the mid 1990s were routinely flawed before they even hit the water, and were then often heat damaged while in transit to the USA.  Label design and general packaging were…in a word…hideous.  The culprits behind these wines were mostly big, complacent companies that had been sheltered from the rigors of international competition for a long time, and their comprehensive unreadiness for that competition resulted in the squandering of a vast reservoir of interest and good will among consumers as well as the press and trade. 

If an image is worth a thousand words, then the appropriate image is one of an eager and courageous boxer who is knocked flat by the first punch in a bout, and who then stumbles around in a dazed attempt to recover.  South Africa’s recovery took another six or seven years after the first decade--roughly speaking, of course, as I’m generalizing about an entire industry rather than a single producer.
It isn’t possible to assign a precise date to South Africa’s breakthrough to the top tier of global production, simply because we’re considering a process rather than a discrete event.  However, it is definitely possible to identify the key factors, which I discussed with multiple producers last week in South Africa, during my seventh visit to the country.  Among them are:  Greatly improved plant material and viticultural practices; the rise of small, independent producers as opposed to big, state-sheltered cooperatives; an influx of technology and expertise during the post-apartheid years, and--perhaps most important--the ascendency of a young generation of wine professionals who have traveled the globe, studied and tasted top wines overseas, determined to focus on quality above all, and started cooperating with one another while also competing to demonstrate that they can make some of the best wines in the world.

The fact explained largely by these factors is this:  South Africa has now clearly joined the ranks of the world’s very best wine producing countries.  Here is what that means in more specific terms:

--Indisputably excellent wines are increasing in number so rapidly that it is virtually impossible to keep up with them--and though I’ve tasted there three times during the past four years

--Coterminous with the rise of excellence is the decline of mediocrity, as the percentage of flawed wines has dropped from alarmingly high a decade ago to a level that’s actually below what one now encounters in France or Italy

--Excellence is now remarkably broadly based, with multiple appellations now making superb wines beyond Stellenbosch, including fairly warm ones such as Swartland and cool ones like Bot River and Hemel-en-Aarde

--Global contenders are no longer limited to varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, as other varieties are now at least as good, including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Cinsault, Pinot Noir and others

--Stylistic diversity has been achieved at the highest level of quality, which is a very rare achievement that few countries other than France and Italy can claim.  By this I mean that South Africa is not only making big, concentrated, intense “statement wines” that show its potential, but also lean, fresh, restrained wines that are marked by purity more than power…and the country is making wines in this style from a range of different grape varieties while also turning out very complex and classy blends

--The breadth of excellence now includes many sparkling and sweet wines.  These are tough categories in commercial terms, due to brutal international competition on price for sparklers and fairly slack demand for dessert wines.  With that acknowledged, it remains true that competition is simply impossible without superb products, and South Africa now has them in both categories, and in serious numbers

--All of this excellence comes at a price, by which I mean…a remarkably low one, generally speaking.  This is largely a function of the weakness of South Africa’s Rand versus the Dollar, Euro, and other currencies, and also because South Africa’s vinous reputation lags far behind the quality of its wines.  This latter fact simply comes with the territory when a country is improving at breakneck speed, but markets always adjust to such realities.  So, consumers and would-be importers are hereby notified that there’s a window of opportunity now open for superb wines at bargain prices that hasn’t been seen since the mid-1990s in Spain.

Mention of Spain brings me back to my main point.  Five years ago, Spain would have been my choice for top breakthrough wine producing country over the past quarter century, with New Zealand, Austria and Chile also in the running.  But South Africa’s industry has overcome much tougher difficulties than any of these other four, and is now making wines that are as impressive as any of them.

I’ll review many of the top wines I tasted in the country during the next four weeks here on WRO, and then pull all of those reviews together in a wrap-up column with a concluding assessment four weeks from now.  But don’t wait until then to seek out my recommendations…there were quite a few other writers and trade buyers tasting in Cape Town last week, and my extremely enthusiastic conclusions are not hyperbole, but rather the consensus view among all the tasters with whom I spoke in that peerlessly beautiful city.

*         *         *

Questions or comments?  Write to me at [email protected]

Postscript:  Hitting the 25-year mark is not only an occasion for reflection, but also an opportunity to extend thanks to some of the many individuals who helped me get started writing about wine, and who assisted me in important ways over the years.

I’m sure to forget some of those individuals in my jet-lagged state after spending 32 hours on planes, so let me apologize for that while also extending a general note of thanks.  It would be very hard for those not involved professionally in wine to believe the level of generosity shown consistently by growers, winemakers and agents in the wine trade.  Few other lines of work (if any) include such an overwhelmingly high percentage of people who are “in it for love,” rather than pecuniary interest or an obligation to take over the family business.  As a young professor with an intense drive to learn but no connections and very little money, I could never have started writing about wine if not for the amazing willingness of scores of relative strangers to make appointments for me, or open bottles that I couldn’t afford, or to drop their work to drive me though vineyards and show me around wineries. 

Because these kind souls were themselves in it for love, they could recognize one of their own, and helped me into their world long before they could hope to get any tangible return on their investment.  Most members of the wine trade and most wine writers will know what I’m referring to, because the story is the same for almost all of us.  If you are a wine lover considering a move into the ranks, let me encourage you, and if you’re a wine lover with no professional aspirations, let me assure you that your love is not misplaced when it comes to the people involved in making and sourcing this most beautiful, fascinating result of natural bounty and human handiwork.

Special thanks, for various reasons and in alphabetical order, to:  Michael Apstein, Sotiris Bafitis, Jim Barker, Richard Boothby, Aurelio Cabestrero, Rory Callahan, Jim Clarke, Roy Cloud, Bart Farrell, Christina Franz, Felicia Forbes, Peter Gago, Emanuele Gaiarin, Odila Galer-Noel, John Genderson, Joe Gigliotti, Ben Giliberti, Loch Jones, Bobby Kacher, Lars Leicht, Paul Lukacs, Nancy McKeon, Jeanne McManus, Katrin Naelapaa, Robert M. Parker, Jr., Jeff Pogash, John Polis, David Roswell, Renée Schettler, Thomas Scheye, David Strada, Sally Swift, Karen Taylor, Terry Theise, James Tidwell, Marguerite Thomas, Marina Thompson, Roland Varesko, Mark Wessels, Robert Whitley, Jay Youmans, and Lelia Zenner            

Read more from Michael:    Michael Franz
Connect on Twitter:   @Michael_Franz