At a recent wine tasting, hosted by The Wine Village in Hermanus, online editor Anton Pretorius managed to grab five minutes with renowned wine writer and journalist, Tim Atkin (MW), and asked him what his thoughts are of SA’s wine industry.
Q: You frequently visit our shores, and often describe it as a “labour of love.” What’s special about South African wines?
TA: That’s probably the wrong way of putting it. It implies that I don’t enjoy visiting South Africa, but I do enjoy it. In fact, I love it. In South Africa, there’s an energy and excitement that reminds me of Australia during the 80s. There are so many diverse, young winemakers here. South Africa is a wonderful emerging market. Not only do you get wines of amazing quality that everyone can afford, but the sheer size of SA’s wine regions is also incredible. I think all of the different regions, sub-regions, micro-climates and various altitudes and aspects contribute towards making South Africa fascinating in terms of winemaking.
Q: You mentioned South Africa having ‘low’ or ‘affordable’ wine prices compared to the rest of the world. Is it an image problem? And what’s the solution?
TA: It probably is an image issue, and I wish I knew what the answer or solution is. I think the quality is definitely there. Maybe it’s a marketing thing? I guess it’s about putting glasses in more people’s hands. It’s a slow process. South Africa needs to keep on doing well in tastings abroad and get people to come here. South Africa’s wine tourism has been affected by the recent drought, but now that it’s looking less critical, I think it’ll help the trade. It’s important for young winemakers to travel the world and keeping pouring, pouring, pouring. Eventually the message will get through. Quality will always win in the end.
Q: The New World vs. Old World debate: Where does South Africa fit in?
TA: I think those terms don’t mean much anymore these days. New World used to be shorthand for big and ripe and Old World for cool and elegant. But if you look at the hot bits from the Old World and the cool bits from the New World, it’s easy to get confused. There are too many characterisations. In a way, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s not New World and it’s not Old World. It’s just South Africa. I think we need to promote South African wines without the Old or New World tags – which I feel slightly devalues what winemakers are doing.
Q: During the tasting, you mentioned that Chenin Blanc should be position as our ‘signature variety’ to the rest of the world. But what about Chardonnay?
TA: I think there’s exceptional Chardonnays being made in South Africa, especially from the Robertson region. What’s great about Robertson is that it has significant amounts of limestone. But in a way, I feel that Robertson is underachieving and can make better Chardonnay. I think it makes a lot of good Chardonnay, and some make VERY good Chardonnay. There’s a lot of stuff that’s machine-picked, but again, it’s still good quality. However, I would like to see Robertson join the top trio I talked about earlier, which is Elgin, Stellenbosch and Hemel-en-Aarde.
Q: Experts predict that the low harvest yield in 2018 could push up prices. Do you think it’ll help the wine trade?
TA: Yes, it has the potential to help the trade. In my opinion, South Africa needs a longer pricing ladder, from basic grapes which are bulk produced to the very highest quality highest wines. I think at the moment, the ladder doesn’t have enough runs. I think your best grapes should be priced higher. The highest price that producers get is probably around the R20 000 per ton-mark. Stellenbosch’s Cabernet – which is one of the premium varieties in a premium area of South Africa – only get about R10k or less. I think it needs to be at R20k, R30k or even R40k per ton. South Africa ought to get the same kind of prices for grapes as what they get in California. The price of grapes needs to go up, particularly of the old vines, to make it viable for growers to keep growing those grapes.
Q: What’s your favourite wine region in South Africa?
TA: I think Hemel-en-Aarde has the highest incidence of quality. There’s very little bad wine made here…