In his 2018 guide, UK’s wine guru Tim Atkin continues to spread a simple message to the world: South African wines rock!
The USA has Robert Parker, we have John Platter and in the UK, there’s Tim Atkin. They are the writers and experts who publish guides and ratings that stoke debate among aficionados; and help the rest of us to decide what wines to try and what to buy.
Atkin targets UK consumers, but for the past seven years, he’s published a specific SA report that keeps getting better. Last year he asked, “Why don’t more people realise what’s going on in South Africa?” And now he suggests that 2015 and 2017 are “two of the best-ever harvests” in the 350-year history of Cape winemaking.
Proving the point, he rates 160 wines as 95 points or more and gives the 2015 Kanonkop Paul Sauer a perfect 100 point score – his first ever for a new world wine.And it’s a classic Bordeaux blend: mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
He also awarded 99 points to the 2017 Alheit Vineyards Magnetic North and 2017 Sadie Family ’T Voetpad. The former was made by Chris Alheit (also named as Winemaker of the Year): a Chenin Blanc coaxed out of ungrafted bushvines from the Skurfberg Mountains in the Olifants Rivier area. Truly a wine with a sense of place.
And as for ’T Voetpad, it’s one of Eben Sadie’s unicorn wines. Getting your hands on any of his cult-status nectar is difficult (and pricey), but ‘The Footpath’ is exceptionally rare. It’s a “field blend” of Semillon, Palomino, Chenin Blanc and Muscat d’Alexandrie, all growing together in the same vineyard they were planted in over 100 years ago.
All three of these wine producers make the list of 25 wineries that Atkin rates as “First Growth” – a slightly awkward adaptation of the Bordeaux classification for producers of the finest quality wines.
NEW WORLD NEW SCHOOL
Interestingly, fewer than half are from the old-school districts of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Constantia. The rest are spread out from the Swartland to Bot River, where younger winemakers are breaking new ground and experimenting in ways that previous generations never imagined.
He also picks out our Chenin, Semillon, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault and Syrah for special mention. Again, this is cause for celebration in a local market that finds it hard to see past Cab Sav, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
SUBJECTIVE, SURE, BUT…
As always with rankings and ratings, contention abounds. Critics rightly point out that it’s one man’s subjective opinion, the tastings are sighted not blind and any listing of 250 top wineries that omits the likes of Beyerskloof and Meerlust simply cannot be considered gospel. But the fact remains that an influential commentator is telling everyone that our classic wines, like the Paul Sauer Bordeaux blend, can compete with the best the world has to offer, and so can our Chenin and other “unusual” blends.
So don’t think about this moment in terms of winners and losers, rather recognise it as the coming of age of an industry that started in the 1600s, but was only liberated 25 years ago when the pre-democracy government lost control of what was planted and how it was grown. In this new era of creativity and innovation, consider it a call to action: it’s time to explore new styles and new varieties and find out for yourself why our wines are finally getting the attention they deserve on the global stage.
The Top 25 South African Wines
Here are Atkin’s top-ranked “First Growth” SA wine producers
David & Nadia
Mullineux & Leeu
Thorne & Daughters
WORDS Brandon de Kock