A Five-Star Vintage for South African Wine
There’s nothing like an exceptional vintage to bolster a winegrowing country’s reputation and highlight its potential. South Africa has experienced a couple of these over the past decade.
The 2009 vintage was widely considered one of the best in South Africa’s history, and its wines have easily stood the test of time. In many cases, though mature and beyond primary in character, they continue to age gracefully, especially cool-climate white wines, structured Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends.
But that was nearly a decade ago. Much has changed for the South African wine industry, from vineyard management to winemaking techniques and technological advances. Growers and winemakers better understand their vineyard sites and the potential challenges faced within certain terroirs or appellations.
“I think we understand the effect of the weather and climatic conditions now better than in 2009,” says Rosa Kruger, a vineyard manager who works across a range of appellations with clients like Reyneke Wines, Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons and Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines. “I see more farmers using methods to increase soil health and increase water holding capacity in the soils during the last three years.”
What followed 2009 was a string of solid, though not ideal, vintages. Then along came 2015. Right off the bat, the vintage was regaled. It’s considered one of the best, if not the greatest-ever vintage for South African wine, earning a rating of 95 points on the Wine Enthusiast vintage chart, the highest rating a South African vintage has received to date.
“South Africa as a wine-producing country has evolved and grown immensely, in talent, technique, variety and experience,” says Charles Williams, winemaker at De Toren Private Cellar in Stellenbosch, who has worked at the winery since 2008. “To me, the 2015 vintage is the perfect culmination of all that.”
Tastings and reviews of 2015 releases corroborate that sentiment. They offer the most exceptional quality, purity and vivid expressions of grape and terroir that I have tasted across the board in any given year from the country.
The Magic of 2015
There are many factors that made 2015 such a majestic vintage. It saw generally mild daytime temperatures and cooler evenings, which is key for slow and even ripening of the grapes. It also benefited from consistent winds during the growing season, without any blistering or overly forceful influences to damage the vines.
“Wind is a misunderstood factor in many winegrowing areas,” says Bruce Jack, winemaker and owner of The Drift Farm, Bonfire Hill and a new namesake brand to be launched this spring. “In South Africa, it is the main co-conspirator with the mountains to screw with one’s generalizations about a vintage. South Africa is easily the windiest winegrowing country in the world, both in terms of average wind speed and volume of wind.
“Vines spend 50% of their energy growing skyward. Even with trellis frames to support this ambition, a vine which is continually pounded by the wind turns from vegetative focus into fruit ripening as soon and as decisively as possible. This is one of the reasons South African vineyards produce such nicely concentrated, chemically balanced grapes at lowish sugars.”
Another factor for the vintage’s success was ample water reserves, or the soil’s readily available water (RAW) levels. These stores from previous years kept the vines healthy, despite 2015 being one of the driest vintages in recent years. (Ultimately, that dryness would be trumped by the 2016 and 2017 vintages.)
“The 2015 vintage was one of, if not the best, vintages from a viticultural point of view I have ever seen,” says Kruger. “Many winemakers started picking earlier in 2015, as compared to 2009. That helped a lot with freshness and expression of terroir in the wines.”
While it’s difficult to generalize vintage assessments for a country with wine-growing regions across a variety of climates and soil types, 2015 was unique in that it was one of the most consistent and high-performing vintages for South Africa across nearly all registered appellations (called WOs, or Wine of Origin) and varieties.
“[It] was an unusual year, not just because it was a seminal quality vintage in Stellenbosch, but because it was good in many subregions, from the Swartland to the Overberg Highlands,” says Jack. “On our estate, we achieved tannin ripeness at low sugar levels, which equated to naturally high acids, and low malic-acid levels. This allowed us to pick when fruit was really vibrant.”“Even in great vintages…we’ll do some fruit sorting, if necessary,” says Chris
Alheit, winemaker and co-owner of Alheit Vineyards, along with his wife, Suzaan, also a winemaker. “In 2015, we did virtually none. The grapes were really pristine. I would say that all the districts that we work with, namely Citrusdal Mountain, Swartland, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and the Overberg, all had very good vintages in 2015.”
Many 2015s show masterful balance and elegance, with ideal interplay between ripe fruit characteristics, good natural acidity, pleasant textures and ample structure across both white and red wines. This harmony results in wines that are easy to appreciate in their youth, while simultaneously having the elements required for positive medium- to long-term aging, capable of evolving further into more complex, layered wines of finesse and character.
One wildcard for the 2015 vintage was timing the harvest, which some winemakers struggled to properly gage. Though the growing season was largely consistent and even-keeled, warm weather during August (late winter in the Southern Hemisphere) resulted in earlier bud break. That was followed by more warm, dry and moderately windy conditions through the summer, which ultimately accelerated ripening by about two weeks for most winegrowers.
“[The 2015 harvest] caught most people by surprise by being the earliest vintage in decades,” says Alheit. “Early ripening and moderate temperature meant quite good acidity at full ripeness in the white wines. If anything negative can be said, it’s that some folks were caught off guard and ended up picking a bit later than they should have, resulting in quite rich wines. However, most of these are still very impressive and not really overripe…many of the good white wines show great natural concentration, while the reds I’ve tasted are structured and serious.”
“The 2015 vintage has all the trademarks of a classic wine,” says Williams. “It is expressive, yet restrained. It has power, yet complete elegance and sophistication. It showcases the vintage and place, and has vibrancy that will transport the wine over many more years to come. The 2015 vintage will reaffirm and cement South Africa’s position as one of the world’s most exciting wine-producing countries.”
More Red and White Wines
It’s clear that 2015 is a vintage to buy without hesitation. While white wines have begun the transition to the 2016s at retail, you can still find some top 2015 bottlings, like those from Alheit Vineyards, Mullineux and Paserene. The red wines are widely available, with some just starting to hit the shelves. Stocking up to enjoy now or to cellar for later shouldn’t be an issue.
“If well-stored, they’ll be drinking very well within about four years after vintage,” says Alheit. “I think that 2015, 2016 and 2017 will easily last for 15–20 years or more before they begin to fade.”
But where do we go from here? Should South Africa fade out of mind once the 2015s are gone?
Absolutely not. Despite warm and very dry conditions, the outlooks for 2016 and 2017 are opimistic, though slightly moreso for the latter.
“[The 2016 season] was very dry and warm—early picking was essential,” says Alheit. “The wines will be less fleshy and a bit tighter than 2015. I think 2017 will be remembered as a really stellar vintage, especially for white wine.”
“[Last year] was a more typical strong vintage,” says Jack. “We held crop levels back on purpose, dropping a lot of fruit at veraison—2017 may prove to be as good as 2015 as a result for us.”
But there’s a lot more beyond advantageous vintage conditions happening in the South African winespace. Innovation and drive have fueled the push to produce wines of site expression and exceptional value. The quality and excitement for these selections will only increase in the years ahead.
“[The growth is] helped along by the many new winemakers, young and old, that make site-specific wines, and wines that express the place it comes from,” says Kruger. “Wines are made differently by different winemakers, now more than before. It really shows the diversity of soil and climate and landscape of our country.”
“What is happening now in Cape wine is much bigger than one good vintage,” says Alheit. “There is a semi-fanatical movement taking place right now in the Cape to make the highest possible quality wine with very low intervention, or zero intervention.
“It’s an extremely exciting time to be involved in Cape wine. If you like 2015, you won’t be let down by 2016, and then 2017 will come along and blow your mind.”
We’re ready for it.
Published in Wine Enthusiast