Harvesting the future: South African wine continues to transform

by | Feb 27, 2024 | Article, Production

As the country celebrates 365 years of winemaking, award-winning wine writer Malu Lambert asks what forces are shaping the future of South Africa’s wine industry, which is evolving exponentially through ongoing innovations, inclusivity and socioeconomic programmes, as well as a commitment to sustainability.

Much like 365 years ago, since the first recorded harvest, grapes hang plump in the Cape’s vineyards, waiting to be snipped from the vine. The South African wine harvest 2024, one of the earliest in recent memory, has set off at a gallop, accompanied by the hum of tractors as they amble from site to cellar, the whirr of optical sorting tables and the pleasing hush of the pneumatic press.

The Cap Classique harvest – which generally begins two weeks before still wine – was also early. ‘We started picking on 4 January,’ says Krone Cap Classique winemaker Stephan de Beer from the estate in Tulbagh. ‘It’s the earliest harvest in the 16 years I’ve been at Twee Jonge Gezellen.’

No stranger to innovation, the estate has been night-harvesting its grapes since the 1980s, a tradition that helps retain acidities and pure fruit flavours. Cold fermentation in South Africa was also pioneered here, in the 1950s.

More recently, in 2016, Krone released South Africa’s first site-specific Cap Classique, from the iconic Kaaimansgat vineyard. Two more bottlings have now joined the Site-Specific Series, which comprises a vineyard from the Ceres Plateau as well as a special block on Twee Jonge Gezellen.

‘Producing a vintage wine from a single vineyard is the purest expression of transparency and authenticity,’ notes Rudiger Gretschel, Krone’s cellarmaster. ‘It is an exercise in courage and passion, leaving no place to hide.’

Gretschel also works closely with Johan Reyneke of the eponymous estate, whose gentle approach to viticulture incorporates the fundamentals of organic, biodynamic and regenerative farming. Reyneke has long been at the forefront of these practices in the Cape.

“Waste is a cultural concept that doesn’t exist in nature,” states Reyneke, part-owner and viticulturist of the Stellenbosch estate. “If you farm regeneratively you align multiple organic systems in a synergistic way that feed off of each other.” Part of this is using grazing animals to bind carbon in the soil, a crucial and natural way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Winemaker Barbara Melck has whole-heartedly embraced the movement. “We know we are only custodians of the land and regenerative farming is a way to farm for the future. You look differently at problems. You look for natural solutions.” An example of this she says is the waste material of the skins, pips and stems of the grapes, which is ‘normally a headache for a cellar to dispose of’. “We feed it to our cattle,” she enthuses, “… it goes back into the circular system.”

Furthering their commitment to tread lightly, Reyneke is currently exploring a light-weight bottle with Consol Glass. The people who take care of the land are also empowered through the Cornerstone project, with the aims of poverty alleviation, education and financial independence for all farm and winery workers.

‘Waste not’ is a philosophy to which Stellenbosch contemporary Spier Wine Estate has subscribed since November 2021. According to May 2022 data, this ‘zero-waste’ policy resulted in 62 301 kg less CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere. Further minimising its carbon footprint is the wonderful Tree-preneur project, which guides members of impoverished communities on how to care for indigenous plants, such as the carbon-busting spekboom, Once the seedlings they’ve been given to nurture are big enough, these are exchanged for food vouchers, clothing, bicycles, educational support and other essentials.

Also doing its part in the face of climate change, Stellenbosch estate Vilafonté has developed revolutionary new irrigation tech. All its irrigation is now direct-to-root. Owner Mike Ratcliffe points out that ‘a leaf needs no water, a trunk needs no water, the top 50 centimetres of the soil need no water…’ He says the system has reduced water usage by about 70 per cent. ‘It’s like a blood transfusion to the vine,’ enthuses Ratcliffe, who says that previously it took about six hours to water the property. ‘It takes about 40 minutes before we see the leaves literally plumping up in front of our eyes.’

Ratcliffe says this new technology will be open-sourced to the industry at large, in a bid to help other wineries use the system to mitigate water scarcity, as well as the ongoing load shedding and the impact that has on farmers’ crops.

Ratcliffe, who is chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, which was the country’s first wine route, established in 1971. There are many venerable estates that make up its 150 members, one of which is Alto Wines, the oldest premium red wine brand in the country, with its first harvest recorded in 1922. It has released a 100-year commemorative wine in tribute to this.

Delheim was one of the pioneer farms to drive the Stellenbosch Wine Route, and today still has an actively progressive attitude. ‘It’s wonderful to be in an environment that looks to invest in your potential,’ says winemaker Nongcebo ‘Noni’ Langa. ‘Cellarmaster Roelof [Lotriet] has been instrumental in shaping my career, from taking me in as an intern to handing over the winemaking reins.’

Langa recently participated in a project by the Chenin Blanc Association, which is leading the way for wine language inclusivity. The association recently released aroma wheels that have been translated into isiXhosa, isiZulu and Shona. Langa was part of a set of tasters on the isiZulu panel tasked with describing a range of chenins using indigenous taste references.

Stellenbosch is also the home of South Africa’s very own variety, pinotage. Its champion, Beyers Truter of Beyerskloof, formed the Pinotage Association in 1995, followed by the Absa Top 10 Pinotage Competition. ‘Since then there has been enormous growth in quality,’ he says. ‘Pinotage has transformed from an everyday drinking wine to a world player. These days, pinotage winemakers are in sync with their terroirs.’

‘Our access to quality pinotage is better than it’s ever been,’ agrees Anri Truter, son of Beyers, who now heads the winemaking at the family estate. ‘The cultivar is coming into its own.’

One of the newest wine routes, Wine of Origin Greyton, was designated in 2009 as a direct result of the acclaimed Lismore Wine Estate. Winemaker-owner Samantha O’Keefe is rightly proud of this fact, and also that Lismore has an all-women team. Adding yet another feather to her cap, this year she was announced as the new chair of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild.

Along similar lines, HER Wine is a collective brand that is an offshoot of Adama Wines, an all-black, all-female wine company, a first for the South African wine industry. Also black-owned is the remarkable project Visio Vintners, which through vineyard land ownership is geared for long-term sustainability. Visio Vintners grows its own grapes on land next to Kleine Zalze, an initiative born through a collaboration with the famed Stellenbosch estate’s Empowerment Trust.

According to the latest stats from industry organisation Wines of South Africa (WOSA), 269 096 people are employed both directly and indirectly in the wine industry. This is augmented by an estimated 36 406 people employed in wine tourism. There are currently 89 384 hectares under vine, the majority of which are said to support the biodiversity guidelines for sustainable farming, set out by industry bodies such as SA Wine and Vinpro.

Another exciting development in the national vineyard noted by Ginette De Fleuriot, Wine Training and Education Manager at Vinimark, is ‘the shift in focus regarding plantings and varietal wine production’. A far greater understanding of what varieties flourish in which terroir has meant that South African winemakers are exploring new frontiers, she says. ‘They are moving from the French varieties to lesser-known ones, and to Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Greek grapes, which will survive times of drought and higher temperatures.’

De Fleuriot has observed a return to more traditional winemaking practices as well as a less-is-more approach in both vineyard and cellar. ‘This has resulted in an incredible diversity of wine styles, many of which are gaining international acclaim.’

As tanks and barrels steadily fill with the juice of 2024, 365 years of winemaking was celebrated at Groot Constantia’s Wine Harvest Commemorative event on 2 February – the date in 1659 that Jan van Riebeeck scrawled in his journal, ‘Today… wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes…’

Long may the tradition continue.

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