Comment – Wine – South African Attitude Shines at Beautiful South

Posted on 8 October 2013 under PIWOSA News

By Chris Losh

Last month’s Beautiful South tasting, hosted by Wines of Argentina, Wines of Chile and Wines of South Africa, gave Chris Losh the chance to compare and contrast the attitudes of the three wine-producing nations. This time around, it was the South Africans that impressed the most.

The wine trade appears to be caught in the middle of a paradox at the moment. On the one hand, most tasters, journalists, buyers, etc, agree that there are simply too many tastings. This may not be the case outside the big cities, but in places like London, if you attended every autumn tasting, you would be dead of either liver cirrhosis or exhaustion by Christmas.

On the other hand, the trend amongst importers and generic bodies is for smaller, more targeted tastings – and more of ‘em.

In other words, people who attend the tastings think that there are too many, while those who put them on think that there too many by other people – and not enough by them.

The result? Ever more tastings.

Which is why the Beautiful South Tasting in London last month was a welcome innovation, bringing, as it did, three generic tastings – South Africa, Chile and Argentina – together in one place for the first time outside the vastness of the London Wine Fair.

Each of these generic events would, if run separately, have been at least one day, possibly two – and would probably have struggled to attract significant numbers. As it was, the two-dayer was steadily busy from doors-open on Wednesday to lights-out on Thursday evening, with a good number of visitors making the effort to block off both days in their calendar.

Sure, each country had to get over the fact that all the visitors were not there solely to see them, but in terms of saving time and money for all concerned, I’d say it was a definite bonus. For me, these amalgamated tastings are something we could do with seeing more of.

Leaving aside the practical advantages, it was also fascinating to compare and contrast the styles and progress of the three countries on show, with one significantly more interesting than the other two.

The Latin American wines were, for want of a better word, safer than the South Africans. There was, repeatedly, good ripeness, softness and silkiness. Occasionally there was too much wood, and there were some wines in a slightly lighter, fresher style. There was little that was bad, and not a lot that was actively exciting either. It was, in short, exactly what I was expecting.

South Africa, by contrast, was a thrilling roller-coaster ride. There was commercial and sophisticated, confected and elegant, safe and weird, execrable and sublime everywhere I looked. There were ‘bad old days’ wines with unripe tannins and sugar covering up holes on the mid-palate, and there were wines so thrillingly individual that they instantly put a smile on your face.

There were a few preening blockbusters carrying too much weight, and wearing too much make-up. But the best wines were the opposite of this. They were nervy, skittish, beat-poet kind of wines with an unpredictability and edginess that you rarely see in the New World.

There are a few people in Latin America who are pushing the boundaries and making wines approaching this style, but it would be an exaggeration to call it a movement. Whereas in South Africa there is a real wave of young (sub-40) winemakers who are happily ripping up the rule book lovingly handed down to them by the previous generation.

You could argue it’s a question of time – in ten years Chile and Argentina might be dripping with enfants terribles. You could argue that it’s a question of terroir – given the climate it’s probably quite hard to make edgy wine round the Andes.

But for me, it’s neither of these things. It’s all down to attitude.

Here are a few key quotes from a senior figure in the Chilean wine industry I ran into at the tasting.

‘You still need to listen to the market… quality isn’t an issue… Chilean wines are naturally fruity and people like fruit.’

And a few from a South African wine producer I spoke to ten minutes later.

‘We don’t believe in physiological ripeness and all that crap. We get the fruit off before it tires in the sun. We’re stepping back, trusting the grapes and letting go… the wine is imperfect, but we like it like that.’

Contrast the caution of the former with the breezy insouciance of the latter and you have, in a nutshell, the reason why one country is setting the heather alight, and the other is struggling to raise a spark.

If Chile and Argentina are well-groomed early-sixties doo-wop bands, worried about offending the parents, South Africa is the Rolling Stones. If you don’t like what they’re up to, well, they don’t give a damn.

This attitude has, I would suggest, always been there. Saying ‘South Africans are bolshy’ isn’t the most controversial statement I’ve ever made. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had so many run-ins with the country in the past over everything from Pinotage to the lack of black faces in the industry. More than most, Saffers dislike anyone telling them what they’re doing is wrong.

But that same ‘sod you’ arrogance that can make them hard to work with is, for me, what’s giving the country one of the most exciting wine scenes on the planet, with only Iberia running it close.

If the 1990s were about winemaking, and the last 15 years have been about vineyards, I’d suggest that, perhaps more than ever, the next decade could be about people – and it’ll be driven by those who think risk-taking is a right.

When South African wine started to wash into the world in the mid-1990s, the world was excited, but ultimately disappointed.

This time it looks like the real deal.