Lovely beyond any singing of it


The view out over Cape Point Vineyards

My hands are clenched, tightly gripping the boot of Duncan Savage’s four-wheel drive as it crawls up the slopes of Cape Point Vineyards, my legs dangling out the back. Just moments previously, as we were finishing tasting through the finest Sauv/Sem blends in the Cape, he was cheerfully telling me a “funny” story about accidentally forgetting giving a lift to someone, and seeing them tumble from the vehicle in his wing mirror. I try to act cool, attempting to concentrate on the breathtaking view out to the Atlantic as I desperately crossed any body part that wasn’t being used to secure my position.

My trip to the Cape was almost six months ago, but moments like this keep coming back to me – memories filled with sun, sublime wine and remarkable talent. Adi Badenhorst rustling up a round of espressos in the winery. Sipping Fable Mountain’s Belle Flower and watching the sun set over the Witzenberg Mountains. The twinkle in Chris Williams’s eye when he reveals the identity of a 1978 Cabernet. The magic of the Cape has truly caught me.

Recently I’ve been pondering the unique sense of solidarity I found, a fellowship of sorts – a bond of wine and waves. As I left each winery they’d ask where I was headed next, passing on their best to the next winemaker, telling them they’d see them at x beach, perhaps leading into a story about a recent close shave with a shark (not uncommon in these dangerous waters, but a risk they are willing to take for their thrills).

None of them get out to sea often enough, tethered as they are to their precious vines – mostly old and gnarly, slightly less good-looking than their owners. Of course the crew isn’t all-inclusive, some will inevitably sit slightly apart. Vilafonté’s plush set-up (funded by US investors) feels out of line with their philosophy (although the winemaker Martin Smith’s own wines offer – to my mind – a lot more intrigue). As does the delightfully dorky “Rickipedia” – Englishman Richard Kershaw MW whose Chardonnay and Syrah are so remarkably pure and elegant, who almost feverishly experiments with the latest technology and has a “clone club”; or Meerlust – the Establishment that continues to produce classically styled wines, iconic, exceptional but representative of old attitudes on a new frontier. Even Mullineux – a Swartland pioneer in my mind – seems slightly on the perimeter, perhaps investment and progress pushed too far.


Johan Reyneke

It sounds belittling to talk of these men (and all the winemakers that I met were men, not women) as simple surfer boys, happy-go-lucky even. Almost all of them have trained in Europe’s top châteaux, creating a roster of the finest names in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Spain. They are pioneers, seeking the balance that has sometimes been missing in the New World, experimenting and ultimately succeeding – whether the cult Columella, the slightly earnest but laid back Reyneke or Duncan’s immaculately balanced Isleidh. The wines all bear forth the personality of their winemaker in a way I’ve never seen, or perhaps never had the opportunity to notice.

To me the group also seems to represent something rather special, embodying that blend of the arts and sciences, balancing the work of the creator and the engineer in pursuit of truly great wine. Like any quest, there are challenges. Eben Sadie describes his search for and his devouring of South African wine history in a hunt for the country’s vinous identity. The absence of identity is echoed by Richard Kershaw, who commented, “Where we struggle is that we want to be all things to all men.”

It’s impossible to escape the sense, the guilt of white privilege, even 20 years after the end of apartheid. Restaurants filled with white faces, being waited on by non-whites. Meeting someone who spent over six hours a day travelling to and from a township to make it to work. It’s a culture that is suffocating in its alien ways, yet so beautiful, so exciting, so inspiring, optimistic and hopeful a country.

When I tentatively ask Adi Badenhorst about the lack of black faces in the industry (at least beyond the vineyards), we talk about Alex Paton’s “Cry, the beloved country” (from which the title of this piece is taken). He laments the lack of progress, “we’re all African” he says; but is confident that change is afoot, placing particular faith in the South African Wine Guild’s protégée program and its ability to nurture new talent, whatever the skin colour.


Bottling at Vilafonte

Twenty-fifteen saw the 16th Vintners’ Surf Classic – an annual event where the winemakers of the Cape take to the waves, putting their board skills to the test, each one submitting six bottles to be blended to make the “Big Red”, a wine which is sold off for charity, but a few bottles of which they uncork at the end of the day. Having met several of the charmingly boyish and raucous surfer-come-winemaker group, it sounds like a great party. But, it also seems to perfectly capture the scene’s philosophy – a sense of competition and collaboration that will undoubtedly lead to overall success.

The ubiquitous care, consideration and camaraderie suggests it would take an awful lot to halt South Africa’s stamp towards recognition on the global stage. The place is, after all, “lovely beyond any singing of it”.



    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Wine Culturalist!
      I should note that I certainly don’t mean to suggest there are no female or black faces in the wine industry at all – Andrea Mullineux and Rebecca Tanner deserve mentions too: it is clear there is, however, still a way to go – and Europe still faces the same challenges.
      I shall have to read up in Ntsiki Biyela, thank you for the link.

      Liked by 1 person

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