Travels in Wine

South Africa: expanding horizons

Master of Wine student Matthew Horsley visits Cape Wine, South Africa’s premier trade tasting and producers old and new alongside our buyer for the region, Joanna Locke MW.

Matthew and Jo in South Africa

Last October I was lucky enough to join Joanna Locke MW to the Western Cape to attend Cape Wine, South Africa’s premier trade tasting, and visit many of our longest-standing producers (and a few fresh faces) over the course of two weeks. I last visited South Africa in a different life as a budding cricketer, spending two weeks in Johannesburg as a 13-year-old. Never did I think that it would take me almost 20 years to return to this special country, and I certainly never thought it would be for work. 

In 2003, South Africa was still a volatile and divided country. We weren’t allowed to leave our hotel rooms unaccompanied, and when we did venture into the city it was by police escort only. Most of our time was spent in the safety of a large private school where the tournament we were playing in was based. I don’t remember seeing many, if any, non-white children or teachers.

On our trip last year we spent a lot of time with one of our most important UK importers, Richard Kelley MW of Dreyfus Ashby, who lived in South Africa for several years at a similar time to my previous visit. It was fascinating and inspiring to hear how far South Africa has come in those 20 years. What had been for me a fairly sterile experience was now one full of life and colour. 

Everybody talks about there being a buzz in South Africa that sweeps you up and carries you along at the beat of an entirely different drum. This new life and purpose, I believe, is seen with great clarity in the wines, where enormous strides are being made to encourage inclusivity and expression. It’s an exciting time to be involved in South African wine, and it was a joy to join both Jo and Richard, two Masters of Wine who have ridden the wave over the past 20 years on a voyage of discovery.

Following the trip, Jo has put together a fantastic selection of South African wines. I’ve picked out a few personal favourites from the visit that I hope will help you soak up the new South Africa. 

Fabulous value at £10 and under 

Villiera in Stellenbosch are the producers of our own-label Society’s Chenin Blanc, a crisp and refreshing unoaked expression of South Africa’s signature white grape. With its characteristic brisk, linear acidity and green-apple freshness it’s a great canvas for flavours that pair with all manner of foods, complementing them but never dominating. But Villiera are so much more than a winery, as some members may already know. 

Firstly, they’re a family. Founded by cousins Simon and Jeff Grier back in 1983 and soon joined by Cathy Brewer (née Grier), all of whom are very much still involved. They’re also champions of sustainability and social responsibility, following sustainable vineyard practices such as a no-spray policy and a significant rewilding and conservation projects (they have a 220ha wildlife sanctuary on site) and are also the home of the Pebbles Project. Find out more by listening to our online leading voices forum and the articles in our sustainability pages. 

Winery of Good Hope in the Western Cape are showing a different side of South Africa’s signature red grape, pinotage. Few grapes cause such a divide, this cross between cinsault and pinot noir, with many historical examples giving a rubbery, burnt-tar aroma. This example, however, makes use of carbonic maceration, a practice usually found in Beaujolais, where whole berries begin intercellular fermentation, producing juicy fruit aromas and flavours without extracting excess tannin or extreme varietal character.  

>Read Jo Locke MW’s article on pinotage here
>View pinotage wines here

Wines ripe for exploration 

The aforementioned Richard Kelley MW is better known in the Cape as ‘The Liberator’, having spent the past 20 years ‘liberating’ unused or unloved parcels from cellars across South Africa and bottling them under his brilliant Liberator label. Look out for Richard’s latest deliverance – Keep Me In Your Heart – a reference to red wine’s perceived cardioprotective benefits, especially those from Madiran’s tannat grape. Here, Rick has teamed up with Glen Carlou to produce a rich, brooding but also supple and balanced tannat with a slug of cabernet franc thrown in for lift.  

From the tannat of Madiran to the malbec of Cahors, Mama Afrika are a fabulous initiative championing black ownership, not just black inclusion in South African wine. Founded by Mpelo Sikhwatha and inspired by the mountains around the township where he grew up, Mama Afrika source some of the finest fruit from around the Cape.

Mags Janjo, Mpelo Sikwatha, Jo Locke, Mpelo's nephew Zizipho sommelier and brand ambassador
Mags Janjo, Mpelo Sikwatha, Jo Locke, Mpelo's nephew Zizipho, sommelier and brand ambassador

The sweetest of spots between £10-£20

Chris Alheit, based in the Hemel en Aarde Valley, is without doubt the poster boy of chenin blanc in the Western Cape, and it still blows my mind we have an Exhibition label produced by him. When tasted in the cellar, the 2021 showed great elegance and concentration. He has an incredible ability to add texture and complexity to a wine without interfering with the purity of the grape. The 2021 will be delicious right away but I’ll be tucking a few away for a couple of years to see how they develop.

Rustenberg was one of my favourite visits of the trip. Not only are the wines fabulous, but the setting is breathtaking (they hire the grounds out for major film productions – there was a Japanese fantasy epic being filmed at the time of our visit) and Murray Barlow, the current family member in charge of this fine estate, is fascinating to listen to. The perfect combination of supreme confidence and an appreciation for what his family has developed (the estate’s been in family ownership since 1941). His chardonnay has always been a favourite of mine, especially in magnum at Christmas time, and the 2021 was tasting wonderfully on our visit. A candidate for the world’s best-value barrel-fermented and aged chardonnay.  

The Foundry’s first vintage was 2001 having been founded by then Meerlust cellarmaster, Chris Williams. Hannes Myburgh, the owner of Meerlust, was generous enough to allow Chris to work on his own projects while at Meerlust, so long as the wines he produced weren’t in competition with those of Meerlust. Rather than focusing on Bordeaux blends, he decided to champion Rhône varieties, and this continues to be where Chris puts his focus. Chris left Meerlust in 2020 and is now concentrating on The Foundry working out of a small, garagiste winery in the Paardeberg, and his new viognier is exactly what you’d hope for: perfumed, textured and seriously impressive. 

Ntsiki Biyela grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University in 1999. After graduating she worked at a boutique winery in Stellenbosch before founding her own wine brand, Aslina, named after her grandmother. Umsasane is the nickname for her grandmother and means acacia – the umbrella tree which provides shelter, protection and comfort. It’s the name given to Ntsiki’s Bordeaux blend which focuses on cabernet sauvignon with touches of cabernet franc for aromatics and petit verdot for structure and deep blackberry flavour. A supremely generous blend with great richness on the palate and black-fruit core. 

>Read our interview with Ntsiki 

South Africa’s fine wine 

While specialising in Bordeaux varietals, Meerlust is one of the few in Stellenbosch producing genuinely elegant, high-quality pinot noir. New cellarmaster Wim Truter who joined in 2020 has produced a classically smoky, savoury pinot in 2021 with some new oak giving depth and complexity alongside the pure cranberry and strawberry fruit. 

Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc Bot River
Bot River is an oft-forgotten region of the Western Cape. Located just across from Hemel en Aarde, it’s home to Sebastian Beaumont, one of the finest producers of chenin blanc in the country. On our visit, Sebastian and assistant winemaker Chelsea took us through a vertical tasting of several vintages of their Hope Marguerite wine from 2016 to 2021 with 2011 thrown in as well. The most striking thing about the tasting was the consistency across the vintages. Bot River is a fairly marginal climate for South Africa, with great vintage variation, so to have consistency of purity of fruit was impressive to say the least. The 2021 was arguably the most elegant of the wines, with less oak being used to highlight the crisp chenin fruit and with nice grip on the palate. The 2011 still has huge amounts of life, which shows the potential for ageing in the 2021.

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance Natural Sweet 2018 50cl 
South Africa has a number of cult wines, but Vin de Constance is arguably the daddy. Famously known for being one of Napoleon’s favourite wines, its ageing potential is legendary, with its searing acidity and balancing residual sugar the perfect pairing for a long life. The 2018 is just starting out, however, with crystalline apple fruit and plenty of puppy fat. While it’s delicious now, this will develop greater apple-pie and sweet-spice flavours with age.

>Find all the wines mentioned in our South Africa section and in our up-coming Expanded Horizons offer next month

>View all South Africa wines here

Matthew Horsley

Society Buyer

Matthew Horsley

Matthew joined the Buying Department, from our Tastings and Events team  in December 2017 and took over England, Greece and Hungary in 2020 and now has responsibility for South Africa.

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