Master of Wine South Africa trip (11 – 20 November 2023)
South Africa, and particularly the Western Cape’s wine country, is a nation of visual impact. No matter how many times one gazes across its weathered mountains, dramatic vistas, and vividly-coloured scenery, one is astonished by its rugged primeval beauty. Add to this the melting-pot of cultures, and sporting a vinous culture as old, and in continuous existence as long, as almost any in the southern hemisphere, then it comes as no surprise that South African wines are often deemed to sit stylistically betwixt the Old and the New Worlds (an increasingly unacceptable term, I know).
So what was in store for 41 Masters of Wine from 16 countries spending 10 days attempting to better understand the Cape’s wine scene? The most startling revelation, even for those seasoned visitors to this country, was the variation in climatic terroir. We travelled from the cool climate coastal regions of Hermanus and Elgin, through the variations in altitude, aspect and soil of Stellenbosch, to the baked-in heat and light of the Breede River, even tasting wines from extraneous regions along the way. This then isn’t a single wine story, but a patchwork of contributing texts.
What were the highlights? There were far too many to mention, and every day brought a surprise. For my part, one of the most useful exercises was (and bear with me here…) taking a Porsche 4×4 excursion up into the vineyards above Uva Mira in the Helderberg. Looking down on most of Stellenbosch, even across to the Kasteelberg in Swartland, suddenly made sense of the local terroir. Here were visible the various aspects of Bottelary, Simonsberg, Jonkershoek, and Banghoek, plus the influences of nearby False Bay, coming into reassuringly better focus. It was fascinating to pick-out well-known properties and to better appreciate the manifold influences of aspect and elevation.
Other delights were found in the variety of regional tastings that sought to make sense of local terroir, grapes and stylistic imperatives. Some were outdoors under canvas, or even just outdoors in impossibly exotic settings, such as the striking natural amphitheatre at Oldenburg, or atop Table Mountain which shed its morning wreath of clouds to give us awe-inspiring views of oceans that surround it and the sparkling lights of the City Bowl below when we descended late in the evening. Others were just too civilised to take in, whether in Anthony Hamilton Russell’s Hemel-en-Aarde garden, sipping Vin de Constance at Klein Constantia, or gazing out from lunch at Iona where you gaze out across the vast vista of vineyards, orchards, forests and natural vegetation that make up the high-altitude plateau circled by mountains that is Elgin. Some were delightful in their sheer exuberance and innovation; none more so than the infectious enthusiasm generated by the Zoo Cru.
Whatever the magic potion was: beautiful scenery, startlingly delicious wines, making new friends, catching up with many old ones, or just enjoying the camaraderie in the company of related professionals from the world over, all convening in this magical place, it was the welcome and enthusiasm that we witnessed that truly charmed us all and that led to many an epiphany. We know that South Africa can turn it on, and countless wine encounters proved it, but it’s the development of this country’s wine story that is so impressive. Michael Fridjhon’s closing address painted a challenging scene of a land haunted by the spectre of its past, though one with limitless potential bursting through seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Today’s South African wine industry is increasingly one of inclusion and celebration, regardless of background or colour. In this exciting but troubled corner of the world, there’s so much to celebrate. But no trip is possible without good planning. Cathy van Zyl MW pulled out all the stops to make this revelatory trip happen. In this she was aided and abetted by Richard Kershaw MW, who provided much needed technical know-how, and Natasha Hughes MW, who shared the heavy load. Belinda Eaton kept her cool with us all, which was nothing short of a miracle.
Photo credit: Mark DeVere MW