Is there a power struggle in South African wine? Well, it is an industry, so that really goes without saying. Even in the most symbiotic business sectors there is competition, even in communism there is business competition. Power struggle is a slightly over-dramatic term, but ultimately everyone wants their sweet piece of the market share. And despite billions (yes) of drinkers worldwide, that piece is never enough.
That is a monetary battle. In South Africa, there seems to be a bit of an ideological battle. Not really sure which is worse, but at least neither is actually a real battle. In fact, most of what I’m going to be saying is quite abstract, so don’t quote me out of context!
In fitting with the general changing trend in South Africa, the wine industry has also seen formation of new “factions” and philosophies. People have been planting vines in odd areas, like the Karoo, which might as well be on the moon. Some of the wines from there are stellar. We also have women now! That other species, who also are allowed into cellars, and seem to make better wine than men. Perhaps, the rise of non-white members of the wine industry into more senior wine/viticultural positions is the next goal of positive change. It is still very much a white man’s industry.
Improving all of the above is an ongoing process, being handled by able and responsible people. These are fairly quantifiable problems. However, one of the major discords outside these areas is the lack of camaraderie between regions and producers. This topic has been broached a few times, and is hardly fresh food for thought.
The Swartland is still in its own little bubble, quarantined from serious consideration by the traditional powers that be. Labelled a radical, when in fact, it might be the most conservative wine region in its approach. The Swartland Independent Producers adhere to rules not too dissimilar to French appellations: Burgundian bottles only, spontaneous ferment only, specific varieties, no more than 25% new wood and the list goes on. This being said, it seems “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, a famous wine reference. These “guidelines” being enforced in a rather cooperative atmosphere. A cooperation that has led to the rise of the Swartland as a brand, mutually benefitting all those involved.
If the Swartland has been quarantined, then it has been done so quite clinically. While the infected lab rats build skyscrapers in their cage, the scientists watch and draw up blueprints; the general influence of the Swartland has been strong. The Cape Winemakers Guild auction this year saw numerous submitted wines fermented naturally, with lower alcohol levels and reduced wood contact. A signature style the Swartland flagships. 10 years ago, at the CWG auction, this would not have been the case. It provides a reflection of the rest of the country.
This isn’t to say the Swartland are the only ones to have changed direction like this. They were simply the most uniform and proud of it. Some might even call it “flaunting” – not me. Pioneers all of over the Western Cape have moved into a more minimalistic approach. For better and worse result. The unity, does seem to be the key though:
In Elgin this year, the first Chardonnay Colloquium was held; Hemel-en-Aarde have been holding a Pinot noir expose for a few years. Quite symbiotically, both of these regions receive mounting acclaim each year for consistently stepping up their wine game.
This unity, rather than rivalry, seems to only produce acceleration. Do the other wine regions need to band together? Does the entire country need to?