South Africa
hosted by Tim James

Introduction

From Tim James, January 1997

The Cape winelands must be the most beautiful in the world - as to the wine, well, I'll get on to that later, perhaps and not be so unequivocal about it, but it seemed a good idea to begin my first offering to this page on a positive note. I have been living in Cape Town (also a lovely town, if you're not one of the many living in squalor) for about ten years, after returning to South Africa from England where I'd been for eight years avoiding ongoing military service.

I'll complete the seemingly compulsory personal introduction in terms of my wine interests as far as possible. At present I'm tinkering with the hope of starting my sixth (chronologically) career: being a wine writer, although the scope is limited in South Africa, where there is a fairly small market for such writing.

I write the occasional article for one of the local wine magazines, which goes by the brilliantly ingenious name `Wine', and is frequently rather disappointing and bland and pacificatory of its advertisers. (My previous, sometimes overlapping, careers were - apart from being a student for an embarrassingly long time - in picture-framing, arty-crafts production, freelance desktop publishing, teaching English literature at the University of Cape Town, and what I do now which is various media-related things for an energy research institute at the same University. Jack of many trades, master of none, unfortunately.)

My wine interests

Wine consumes a large part of my leisure time, perhaps partly to escape my involvement in grassroots politics, which I find depressing. I have studied formally for a few years and have just started working towards the Cape Wine Master Diploma (similar to the British Wine Master thing). I have a `cellar' which is actually a wooden shack at the bottom of the garden, with lots of insulation and an air conditioner. In it are, according to my newly-acquired WineBase, 512 bottles of wine, of which two-thirds are South African, followed a long way behind by French and German, then various other countries. Its too many for me, really, but the number just seems to grow....

Twelve bottles of Australian wine there, by the way. On the basis of not much experience, I don't much care for most Australian wine, which I find tends to be over-wooded, over-fruity and over-hyped. National characterisations of wine are largely nonsense, of course, and I've no doubt there are many Oz wines that don't conform to the standard image. Please tell me about them, especially the good reds. One that I have really liked was a Penley Estate Cabernet (1990?).

On the whole, and being reductive, my favourite wines are red Bordeaux, USA cabernets, Rhone syrah (`shiraz' in South Africa as well as Australia), Sauternes, German riesling, Rioja reds. And Port and some Sherry. Chardonnay, on the whole, unless its great, rather bores me. I prefer, generally and unfashionably, elegance to whopping oaky fruit broad-shouldering its way down my gullet. And I like bottle-age on wines - almost the wine necrophilia that some modernists (and French wine industrialists and others wanting a quick turnover) accuse the `English palate' of being.

Apart from the bit of writing I do, and the tastings I go to, and the various more or less useful contacts I make, I have another relationship to the local wine industry that is important to me. Through admiration of their wines in the sparse 1980s, I become friendly with the owners of Welgemeend Estate. This is a small producer (about ten hectares, about 4000 cases of red wine) just outside the wine-town of Paarl. The father of the present winemaker (Louise Hofmeyr) produced the first South African `Bordeaux blend', at the beginning of the '80s, and it remains one of the best, to my mind, though there are many competitors now.

I am starting to prepare a WWW site for Welgemeend, and will list it when it's available. Being involved there gives me the opportunity of being a (small) part of the harvest and the winemaking process, and has taught me an enormous amount about how wine is made and developed. Also, it was when I was cataloguing the private cellar there, of about 3000 bottles of predominantly French wine, that I became fascinated with the multitude of wines that I had never heard of, and aware of my own ignorance (something I learn more about every day, unfortunately, the more I learn and explore).

Development in South African wine

Having made my prejudices clear, and left out South Africa from the list of my favourite wine styles, I should proceed to say something about my native land. There are, in fact, many South African wines that I like, and some that I think are good. Perhaps at some stage I will list these, if anyone is interested. In fact, I'm not quite sure what is expected or wanted in terms of `input' to these pages from regional contacts. Please let me know via email. I'll start off, though, by a brief and fairly loosely irresponsible suggestion of what I think is happening here now.

There's been a lot happening, in fact, since the rest of the world welcomed us back into the ranks of kind, lovable,socially just, happy, etc, nations, and, amongst other things, started buying our wines in hugely increasing volumes. Apart from local shortages of the best wines, prices for all wines, especially the best or most fashionable ones, are rising dramatically, and South Africa is now importing cheap wines from Argentina, southern France, etc for the lower end of the local market.

Many new wineries are springing up, rendering Ken's database on South African producers sadly out of date. Local winemakers, exposed at last to international markets and judgement, are learning about their inadequacies (some of them at least). The industry is in something of a ferment (to use an appropriate metaphor), and it's an exciting time to be involved in South African wine. The overall standard is definitely improving, and there are fewer of the green-tannined, hard, over-acidic wines of the 80's.

Perhaps too much of the international fascination with oak, though. In some ways, I suppose, its much like what happened in Australia and California a few decades back. With the difference that our winemakers are mostly being exhorted by importers and local industry hacks to make their wines `more Australian', as that seems to be what sells overseas, at least in the low and middle-price brackets where most South African wines find themselves.

I, and many others, hope that the improvements in standards will not be accompanied by an abandonment of the French tradition to which our better winemakers have aspired. Being bombarded by one-dimensional fruitiness and the flavours of expensive French oak is not what wine should be about, I think. South African wine is, to some extent, poised between `old world' and `new world' styles, and that seems to me to be quite a good position to develop.

Recent Vintages

Unfortunately, given all the experimentation that is going on, the 1997 harvest looks like being even more problematical than the 1996 one was, when cool weather greatly delayed the harvest, causing particular problems for the many estates with virus-infected vineyards. They just wouldn't ripen properly. There was certainly vastly more sugar sold in Paarl and Stellenbosch last year at harvest time than usual (though there is often a bit of illegal chaptalisation going on, I imagine).

This year, summer arrived very late. A damp spring led to a good deal of Downy Mildew and the like, and vineyard managers who didn't spray against it in time (and even some of those who did) have lost large numbers of grapes, even whole vineyards. Fruit set has tended to be rather poor. So crops will be down, the wines will probably not be of the best, and expensive as the estates try to recover the large amounts they spent of spraying. Another early autumn could be particularly disastrous.

The wines of 1995, though, are looking to being even better, generally, than those of 1994, which was a good year.

Developing this page, etc

I would be very pleased (if anyone ever starts reading my contribution, let alone gets this far into it), to have some feedback, and some indication of what should be included in it. So please let me have topics, questions, comments, etc.

Personally, I would be very interested to have people's responses to South African wines they have tried. If any wino is coming to Cape Town, I might be able to be of some use. And I'm always interested in acquiring new wines from elsewhere in the world, so if you are coming over and would be interested in doing some swopping (or selling), I'd be very pleased (the local supply of foreign wines is limited.)

You can contact me via email at TIM@energetic.uct.ac.za