The first stirrings of a revolution in South African wine became noticeable around the time that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president.
Suddenly, Cape wine could creep out from under its stone and find a welcome in the wider world — and learn in that brighter light what was wrong with itself and even, a little, what was right. This set in motion a remarkable process of change, of extraordinary and exciting developments in the wine industry, even if the social aspect lagged somewhat.
In 2001, in the context of the early years of the wine revolution, I conducted a poll of local wine professionals to establish a top 20 list of producers. Continuing change meant new entrants to the game and ever-shifting reputations, and it was worth repeating the exercise in 2003, 2006 and 2010 — and again now.
This is not a definitive list — how could it be, especially when the number of producers and brands has doubled in the last decade or so alone and no one can regularly monitor them all?
But to make it at least plausible, I persuaded 29 professionals with different perspectives to do the poll: five sommeliers, five retailers, four eminent critics from Britain — South Africa’s biggest foreign wine market — and 15 local wine writers and judges.
Each submitted two lists, one giving, in any order, their top five wineries and the other listing another 15 to give an overall top 20.
In the end there was a remarkable degree of consensus hiding behind the large number of wineries nominated. Of those 95 wineries, in fact, 41 were named only once or twice. It is cheering, though, that quality is sufficiently widespread for 54 wineries to have been considered good enough by at least three voters to appear on a top 20 list.
At the peak there was essential agreement and also a new element of consistency in that the top three were the same as in 2010. But previously the top five had been close, whereas now only those three jostled for top spot — and then came a big gap. It is worth noting that the leading three come from different wine regions, reflecting the spread of excellence.
Change continues. There are four new entries this year, one re-entry and five disappearances. Only eight on 2001’s list still find a place in 2012. Of the top five in 2001, two (Vergelegen and Rustenberg) have slid down the rankings and two (Veenwouden and Neil Ellis) have been squeezed out of the list altogether by hungry newcomers.
And just on the outskirts of the top 20 this year are Badenhorst, De Trafford, Hartenberg, Le Riche, Morgenster and Rust en Vrede. They — and new contenders — threaten to break through.
Indeed, a top 20 list in the South African wine world is far from a settled thing.
1 Boekenhoutskloof: This major winery with a magnificently sited base in Franschhoek is one of only eight remaining from the initial 2001 ranking and heads the list for the second time. Boekenhoutskloof’s phenomenal success owes much to both its cellarmaster from the start, Marc Kent, and Tim Rands, its dynamic founder. It is not just that Boekenhoutskloof makes cabernet, shiraz, semillon and noble late harvest wines that are hard to outclass (and often hard to find), the breadth of achievement and sheer growth has been equally impressive. The Chocolate Block red blend is made in locally unmatched quantities given its price and quality; at more easily affordable levels the Porcupine Ridge and Wolftrap wines deliver more than expected at their price points, but that judgment could really be made of all the wines.
2 Sadie Family Wines: This winery tied for second place with Kanonkop in 2010, but had not even released its first wine, Columella 2000, at the time of the first poll in 2001. Since then Eben Sadie has led a quality revolution in the Swartland region and has arguably done more than any single winemaker for South Africa’s international profile as a fine-wine producer. It is a combination of charisma, talent, hard-won experience and sheer hard work. The chenin blanc-based Palladius soon joined Columella and founded a new category of distinctive Cape white blends. The two original Sadie wines, off vineyards that Sadie controls but does not own, have been joined by the Old Vineyard Series — fascinating wines made in necessarily tiny quantities. They are made, like the others, with minimal cellar manipulation, transparently expressing their origins.
3 Kanonkop: Of the great Cape wineries, this family-owned estate is maybe the most lovable: the people are unpretentious and warm and the place is authentically farmlike (not a pompous gateway or grand gable in sight). It is the only winery to have come in the top section of this poll each time it has been conducted — and no other winery can compete with Kanonkop for consistent excellence over 30-plus years. It was Kanonkop that first proved that pinotage grapes could make good wine; its Cabernet Sauvignon and cabernet-based blend Paul Sauer have been illustrious for a generation. Abrie Beeslaar is, significantly, only the third winemaker here since 1973, but his modesty belies his eminence. In fact, Kanonkop has reached the level of the great European domaines in that it is now not really about winemakers, but about soil, slopes and vines — and a tradition of fineness.
4 Paul Cluver: It is hard to believe, with Elgin now replete with good wineries, that the first bottling of pioneer Paul Cluver was only in 1997. Not a dud in the mostly white range — the Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling (a brilliant Noble Late Harvest version, too) and Sauvignon Blanc are all among the Cape’s leaders. The sole red is Pinot Noir and it is equally starry.
5 Tokara: Banker G T Ferreira, owner of this grand winery atop the Helshoogte Pass outside Stellenbosch, once remarked that “return on ego” rather than return on investment prompts vineyard purchases. His ego must be gratified as Tokara’s range, made by Miles Mossop, gains increasing prestige. The Director’s Reserves, White and Red stylishly lead the way.
6 Chamonix: This year marks a huge ranking leap for this well-established producer, which started dazzling critics and wine-lovers soon after Gottfried Mocke took charge a decade ago. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were always good here, but hard, intelligent work in the Franschhoek vineyards and sensitivity and flair in the cellar have worked like magic on the reds, especially the Pinot Noir, now among the Cape’s best.
7 Vergelegen: This magnificent historic estate near Somerset West, owned by Anglo American, has slipped out of the top five, but the wines guided into bottle by obstreperous André van Rensburg are as fine as ever. Perhaps the problem — if there is one — is that the top whites and reds are classically inspired and a little uncompromising, needing time to show their best.
8 Cape Point Vineyards: The vineyards, a mere shout from Noordhoek beach on the Cape Peninsula, are planted mostly to sauvignon blanc, but there is also chardonnay and semillon for the excellent Isliedh blend. Duncan Savage gets many winemaking kudos, but it is his amazing work on the wind-battered vines that allows his wines increasing ripeness and complexity as well as finesse.
9 Hamilton Russell: This early champion of chardonnay and pinot noir remains among the leaders of the Hemel-en-Aarde region, just inland from Hermanus, where it was the lonely pioneer in the mid-1970s. Wines are made here only from those two varieties, but with exceptional examples like these (the Chardonnay being particularly fine), that is enough — and the restraint matches the style.
10 Mullineux Family Wines: Another Swartland winery leapfrogs into a high ranking. It is a new entry and it is rare to arrive on the South African scene with the impressive force shown by the fledgling winery of Chris and Andrea Mullineux, whose first bottled vintage was only in 2008. The elegant Syrah, rich White Blend and sweet Straw Wine have deservedly shared the honours — and what honours!
11 Meerlust: Where else has quite this aura of history and fine wine? The wine has never been better since Roelie Joubert started work on the vineyards in 2001 and Chris Williams took over winemaking in 2004. Williams imbued traditional styling with the spice of modernism, expressed through brighter, often riper fruit. The Rubicon red blend is just one of the wines to show reinvigorated class.
12 Thelema: Thelema seemed revolutionary in the late 1980s with proprietor and cellarmaster Gyles Webb’s pure-fruited wines — possibly the Cape’s first emphatically “modern”
winery. A firm structure and essential classicism were also always there, however, and were revealed in the longevity of fine wines such as the Cabernet Sauvignon and the occasionally brilliant Merlot Reserve.
13 Waterford: This estate on Stellenbosch’s famous Helderberg range was hovering just outside 2010’s top 20. Its high entry recognises continuing developments, with the wines gaining in depth and subtlety. The Jem is among the more convincing of local super-priced reds, but the whole range offers reliable high quality — including the cheaper Pecan Stream wines.
14 Jordan: Which Cape winery has quite the same image of consistent sheer professionalism that Gary and Cathy Jordan bring to this family-owned Stellenbosch-kloof winery? They are probably best known for modern, fruit-driven red Bordeaux blends (Cobblers Hill and Sophia) and rich chardonnays, but the whole range delivers quality and value.
15 Bouchard Finlayson: The second-oldest winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley continued the tradition of focusing on pinot noir and chardonnay (Peter Finlayson was Hamilton Russell’s winemaker before setting up on his own). Good examples they are, too, but there is also their Sauvignon Blanc — and Hannibal, a bizarre but wonderfully successful red blend.
16 Rustenberg: This historic Simonsberg property is surely one of the most beautiful estates in the country, perhaps the world. Mixed stylistic messages and uncertainties of direction since the mid-1990s have perhaps confused observers. But the wines are good, now settling into a fairly modern style — from the site-specific leaders like Peter Barlow Cabernet down to great-value Ida’s Red.
17 Klein Constantia: A re-entry after an absence. Despite continuing international renown for its sweet elixir Vin de Constance, the reputation of this historic property was tiring — but a reinvigorated team started showing what was possible. And now its new owners since last year are committed to more fine-tuning. Sauvignon Blanc is likely to remain the other star turn.
18 Newton Johnson: A new entry. This quintessential family winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde area has been steadily building its reputation for a decade and a half. The Family Vineyards Pinot Noir confirms the possibilities for real excellence here, but few wineries can match Newton Johnson’s quality across a wide range.
19 Steenberg: These southernmost Constantia vineyards are bundled with upmarket houses and a golf course, but the wines are more than rich people’s playthings — especially the age-worthy whites: excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, not to mention the blends of the two.
20 De Toren: Attention to detail and a clear aesthetic style characterise this Stellenbosch property that debuts on the list. There are two rich, ripe red blends — one usually based on cabernet, the other on merlot — often more appreciated overseas (particularly in the United States) than here.
Voters — Sommeliers: Hansi Blackadder, Josephine Gutentoft, Higgo Jacobs, Francis Krone, James Pietersen. Retailers: Carrie Adams, Mike Bamfield-Duggan, Carolyn Barton, Vaughan Johnson, Roland Peens.
Wine writers and judges: Sarah Ahmed, Tim Atkins, Christian Eedes, Michael Fridjhon, Jamie Goode, Edo Heyns, Tim James, Matthew Jukes, Angela Lloyd, Cathy Marston, Fiona McDonald, Norman McFarlane, Melvyn Minnaar, Ingrid Motteux, Myrna Robins, Christine Rudman, Jonathan Snashall, Cathy van Zyl, Philip van Zyl