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Testing South Africa

A fledgling industry has overcome many obstacles, but challenges remain

James Molesworth
Posted: February 4, 2005

South Africa and its wine industry have spent the last 10 years crawling out of the ruins caused by apartheid, and it hasn't been easy.

Outside investment hasn't been nearly as abundant as in Chile or Argentina—no Mondavis or Kendall-Jacksons have ventured into the Cape. Producers bite the bullet on pricing as they scrap for international retail shelf space while their country's currency fluctuates. They're even making the hard decision to dump their one-time signature grape, Pinotage, in an effort to put their best foot forward.

No, it hasn't been easy. But the country's best wineries stand on the threshold of greatness.

A generation of young, driven, quality-conscious winemakers such as Teddy Hall, Rudi Schultz, Chris Williams and Eben Sadie are giving us glimpses of what can be done there with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. In turn, they're spurring the generation that came before them—Charles Back, Mike Dobrovic, Gyles Webb and others—to work harder. The potential is terrific.

But it's not going to get easier. The South African wine industry is about to face its toughest test yet. The next challenge facing high-quality South African wine producers comes from opportunists in their own industry.

The number of wineries now tops 500, almost double what it was six years ago. With its myriad of microclimates, South Africa could be successful modeling itself on the Burgundian model—lots of small producers making a range of different but high-quality wines. But success based on the Burgundy model would be qualitative, not financial, at least at first.

Exports to this country have increased dramatically—over a half-million cases were shipped here in 2003, more than double the total in 2000 (final 2004 numbers are not yet available, but should increase yet again). But some of these brands are more interested in exploiting South Africa's improving image than in contributing to the progress in quality.

A flood of low-end wines is now heading this way, trying to copy the success of Australia's Yellow Tail and South Africa's own Goats du Roam labels. Almost all of them are labeled with some sort of wildlife image—my unofficial poll has the giraffe in the lead—along with a cutesy user-friendly name, like Cheeky Zebra or Long Neck. The new Golden Kaan line goes so far as to put the image of the African continent on the bottle, as if the wine speaks for Libya and the Congo as well as the Cape. Yet from what I've tasted so far, none of them provide a reason to rush out and start drinking South African wine, and that's a shame.

Most of the quality-oriented producers are shrugging it off—they're not in the volume game, and they're willing to let the quality of their wines speak for themselves. But the consumers who decide to try that $8 South African Shiraz with the swank-looking zebra on the label are likely to be disappointed. And then getting them to step up to the Syrah at $20 or more will suddenly become more difficult.

There's no quick buck if quality is the goal. Hopefully, the weak wines will shake out quickly, and the opportunists will turn tail and head in another direction. It's going to be a tough test for South African winemakers—and you, the consumer, will need to help them out by looking for quality first, not price.

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