2010 New World Wine Experience: Old Terroir and New Ideas in South Africa

Leading producers explain the evolution of their country’s wines
Nov 2, 2010

Showcasing eight top wines and a broad range of styles, the South Africa tasting was the first-ever Wine Experience seminar on the country. For many in attendance, it was also their first introduction to some of these exciting producers.

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth asked the audience how many of them had tried wines from any of the wineries on the panel. The response was modest. That didn’t surprise Molesworth, who had invited some of the deans and innovators of South Africa’s wine industry to familiarize the audience with an old wine region that’s using new techniques to revitalize its wines.

The seminar highlighted the great strides that South Africa has made in the short time since apartheid ended. “Nearly half of South African vineyards are less than 10 years old,” Molesworth said. While wine production in South Africa goes back several hundred years, he noted that domestic instability and economic sanctions during apartheid had led to a decline in vineyard maintenance and wine quality. Overcropping was common, as were undistinguished grape varieties also used for making brandy.

The wines included whites, such as a Chenin Blanc from Ken Forrester, who Molesworth described as one of the great ambassadors of South Africa, and red Rhône and Bordeaux grape varieties, such as the Thelema Cabernet from Gyles Webb, a veteran with a solid track record, having purchased and revamped a run-down property in Stellenbosch in 1983 and frequently adjusted viticulture and vinification practices.

While most of the wines came from the prime Stellenbosch region, other appellations were represented, including nearby Franschhoek, the more southerly coastal Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and off-the-beaten-path Swartland to the north. South African winemakers are now just as concerned with expressing terroir as their European counterparts. “The wines that excite the most are those that tell the story of place,” said Anthony Hamilton Russell, owner of Hamilton Russell.

In addition to replanting their vineyards with international varieties and better, disease-free vine materials, South Africa’s vintners are mixing traditional techniques with cutting-edge ones. Louis Strydom of Ernie Els wines described how the winery takes infrared photos of its vineyards so that they can determine appropriate harvest times for vineyard blocks that have smaller sections that ripen at different times, or pruning strategies for areas of low or high vigor, all aimed at bringing a vineyard into balance.

Molesworth said such use of technology is helping South Africa catch up to other regions and produce better wines. When apartheid ended, winemakers were excited to re-enter international markets, but their old style of winemaking did not catch on with those consumers. “Fortunately all our winemakers in South Africa at the time got a wake-up call,” said Jean Engelbrecht of Rust En Vrede. “They have done their homework very rapidly since that time, and I think today … we are back on a path, especially in this country, where our wines are relevant.”

List of Producers and Their Wines

Hamilton Russell owner Anthony Hamilton Russell
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley 2008 (90 points, $32)

Ken Forrester owner and winemaker Ken Forrester
Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch The FMC 2007 (93, $65)

Thelema founder and winemaker Gyles Webb
Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch 2006 (92, $41)

Rust en Vrede owner Jean Englebrecht
Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch 2007 (92, $40)

Ernie Els Wines winemaker Louis Strydom
Ernie Els Wines Stellenbosch 2005 (94, $95)

L’Ormarins sales director Gareth Robertson
L’Ormarins Cabernet Franc Coastal Region Anthonij Rupert 2006 (93, $80)

Fairview head winemaker Anthony de Jager
Spice Route Malabar Swartland 2007 (92, $66)

De Trafford founder and winemaker David Trafford
De Trafford Shiraz Stellenbosch 2007 (95, $80)

WS Events Wine Experience South Africa New World Wine Experience 2010