It is generally accepted that the radical overhauling of SA wine industry legislation in the early to mid-1990s changed our world for forever.
Power shifted away from politically-aligned, self-interested strongmen and impinging institutions like the old KWV. This new-fangled freedom gave us, then the young Turks, the space to contribute and help shape the ambitious, yet unsteady, Modern South African Wine Industry.
However, there was a very solid foundation in place – something people forget – centuries of patient, established agriculture; centuries of hard work.
And at the demise of Apartheid, it was the unique combination of enthusiastic, questioning, challenging upstarts and rock-solid farming that ensured the new SA industry was unique, and would remain so for many years to come.
A bit like our rugby, we had been champing at the bit prior to the release of Nelson Mandela – as we were not able to play in the global arena until then. So we had been doing a lot of hard practicing, but not enjoying much international game-time. When the opportunity eventually afforded itself, the lack of game-time showed – the rough edges were exposed by better drilled, more innovative sides. But we were still difficult to beat and could draw from a well of intense tenacity that is part of our national character. The parallels with the wine industry are obvious.
[The Drift Vineyards]
When we started competing on the international market our efforts were marred with poor plant material, marketing naiveté, a lack of self-confidence, many staid wine offerings and outdated oenological practices.
But the bedrock was there – 330 odd years of winemaking experience, of understanding our soils and our environmental challenges; of hard-earned secrets-of-the-land, passed down from generation to generation. Like the rugby boys, this meant step-change improvement required considered tweaking, introspection, and re-alignment, rather than wholesale reinvention.
Farming, winemaking and technology aside, some serious overhauling of the cultural mind-set was necessary. You can’t leave your brain in the locker room when you run onto a rugby field. To unlock the new opportunities in a sustainable way proved harder to do than get our wine styles right.
Apartheid has obvious evils to answer for, but there are many shades of the devil in such momentous wrongdoing. And some of the smouldering scars are more subtle and less explored.
One such has been the intense shame that engulfed white South Africans at the implosion of Apartheid; something that gurgles away like the destabilising presence of underground rivers. The farming community, in particular, have spent decades slowly sifting through the mythology and belief constructs of what used to constitute a collective psyche.
Alongside South Africans of all backgrounds, we’ve been trying to establish what is good about us and our past, what has relevance for today, what is worth fighting for, what will sustain and what will exonerate us into the future.
It’s like your country burnt down and not everything in the ashes brings back proud memories, but also there in the rubble lie the remnants of goodness, proof of positive living, evidence of constructive endeavour, of honest faith and true love. The trick, while picking through everything, is to find enough of the good stuff to piece together something you can see your spirit reflected in, and so become whole again. This is a recurring and collective South African journey.
This reconstructive transformation can be seen in the wine industry over the last twenty years. The naivety and arrogance with which we made mistakes in the early and mid-90s was mostly because, at some very deep, perhaps subconscious level, we couldn’t trust ourselves to know who we were then.
There’s also evidence of blind bravado and inexperience in those awkward early years, but a lack of self-belief is most evident. And the mistakes weren’t just on the international stage. Blocking our bright African sun, the looming shadow of internal self-doubt fuelled energy-sapping in-fighting and short-term opportunism. In the beginning, there wasn’t much innovation in the clean production of virus-free plant material, quality-focused grape growing, winemaking or marketing.
[The Drift: smack bang in the heart of the beautiful Overberg District]
We simply hadn’t had enough time to sift through the rubble of ourselves. We were too busy rolling with the punches. Farmers were on the defensive. And that’s never a secure footing on which to engender confidence or grow value in a long-term business like wine. We were rightly criticised for those blunders.
I am impressed at how quickly we’ve regained an element of composure however. We’re a less arrogant winemaking community than most as a result of the trauma we’ve been through. But the winemaking community in South Africa was lucky. We were better positioned than the previously disadvantaged, the civil service, the mining industry, or most others… We had this tangible energy to draw on – our connection to the secrets-of-the-land. We just had to find it in the rubble. It took time. It required us to be flexible, to change our mind-set and continuously re-evaluate our worth to society. But at least we had something to hold onto.
The same flexibility can be seen in the way we collectively approach our craft now. By rediscovering an empathy for the land we’ve created nuanced complexity in our wines across all price categories. New areas are adding to the increasingly mesmeric range of wine styles and the reinvigoration of older areas is doing the same.
The South African wine industry is remarkable for the flexibility and creative approach within a very structured and bureaucratic traceability system. In other words, our system, complex and impressively detailed as it is, showcases a flamboyant creativity that is mind-blowing. One sees the opposite in similarly controlled wine industries elsewhere.
We’ve welcomed foreign investment and gratefully learned from the insights these investors have contributed. Personally, my world has been expanded by working within multi-national businesses such as Constellation and Accolade. Working alongside the likes of Troy Christensen, James Lousada and now the irrepressible Paul Schaafsma has not only been enjoyable, but also hugely educational.
[Vegetables, raw honey, mountain olive oil and very special wine]
There has been criticism of WOSA’s (Wines of South Africa’s) Biodiversity positioning. But there is no doubt in my mind that in time, and given enough honest reflection, it will be hailed as a stroke of genius. This positioning allowed us; in some cases, forced us, to look back from our farm gate to the land, rather than beyond the borders of our farms – out to the gold-paved streets of marketing spin.
Perhaps unintentionally, this positioning gave us permission to be proud again; even if it was pride in an indigenous flower whose long-buried seeds were germinated as a result of the revolutionary fire that swept through our country and over our land. Initially it didn’t seem relevant enough to some. It wasn’t that easy to communicate a connection between biodiversity and our wines, even though to a farmer like me there is obvious viticultural relevance. But this new focus unlocked the related stories of the land which were untainted by Apartheid. The creative sap flowed, reimagined, honourable myths flew again. The layers of meaning, like time, that make up our soils also make up our collective story – one of tenacity, canny inventiveness, heroic individualism and generosity of spirit.
The early days saw a flailing need to knock our competition, an irritating distrust of our customers and a childish dismissal of our critics. All that has changed as we have pieced ourselves together and rediscovered a confidence that is based, not on a false sense of superiority, but on a humble remembering that we are privileged custodians of the land. We are starting to realise that to be relevant, we only have to reflect our special stories and environment through our wine; nothing more, nothing less.
This confidence has, in turn, allowed us to be comfortable with two, almost dominant, traits in our national character – edgy individualism and an irreverent sense of humour.
Francis Pratt, my old mate an Elim wheat, sheep and grape farmer, likes to tell an Afrikaans joke:
“What happens if you put two Jewish gentlemen in a room together?”
“They start a business.”
“What happens if you put two English gentlemen in a room together?”
“They start a gentlemen’s club.”
“What happens when you put two Afrikaaners in a room together?
“They have a fight.”
This is told with self-depreciating mirth, for sure; but also with a steeliness in his eye, because Francis, like most South African farmers is very aware of his intense desire to be an individual in the eyes of God. This means we like to be our own boss, in control of our own destiny. Sheep are for farming with, not following.
[Our wine is grown in extreme vineyards on the slopes of a wise old mountain]
This self-determining spirit goes beyond eccentricity, because it is a guiding principle for South African farmers. Characters, we have a’ plenty. And the fresh, different sort of confidence we’ve discovered in the rubble of ourselves, affords these characters a comfortable stage on which to bedazzle with innovative, pioneering wines that are now a truer reflection of the land and the farmer.
Our wine journey since the release of Mandela reflects our collective human journey. The spirit of South African wine is different, because the spirit of South African farmers and the situation is so different from most countries.
Other winemaking communities around the world haven’t had to concern themselves with penetrating introspection and self-analysis while building a national brand or crafting a house style. The two journeys are therefore far more closely linked in the South African context – they weave in and out of each other – at times they are indistinguishable.
Our wine journey is inescapably more human than other countries’ travails. The human element pervades the ambitions of our brands and the evolution of our winemaking. This rawness makes South African wine relevant and interesting to the consumer. We’ve had to be more self-critical and this has resulted in more tactile, believable stories, from real people with real genius, real flaws and real charisma.
Innovation, flexibility, rule-breaking, risk taking – these aren’t unique descriptors for South African wine. Many other winemaking communities celebrate these – that’s how the ever-beguiling world of wine sparkles on into the night.
The difference is that in South Africa these traits are ingrained in the re-discovered psyche of a nation. They’ve always been there, of course, but were shamefully ground underfoot during Apartheid. Smothered under a heap of ash, we’ve had to dig them out and dust them off. And now we’re all making damn sure we make up for lost time.
There’s never been a more enjoyable time to be a South African winemaker, and there’s never been a more rewarding time to enjoy South African wine. What else would you expect from a twinkle-eyed nation of idealistic rabble rousers?
Love, light and a glass of The Drift Farm wine,