SA wine quality still on the up thanks to quality innovation, says Tim Atkin MW
International wine critic and commentator Tim Atkin MW is upbeat about the South African wine industry and says it is “producing the greatest wines in its history” despite the prevailing economic and structural setbacks faced by many. The reasons, he believes, are: “Better viticulture and site-selection, superior virus-free plant material and a broader palette of grape varieties.”
In his recently-released 319-page 2023 South Africa Report, now in its 11th annual edition, he contends that the country’s whites are “some of the best on the planet” and claims “the Cape has eclipsed the Loire Valley as the source of the world’s best dry Chenin Blancs”. Meanwhile, its reds “are now a match for … its world-class whites”.
The only wine to gain full marks is a red, the Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2021, underscoring his confidence in South Africa’s expression of this Rhône grape. Two reds crack 99 points. They are the Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2020 and the Porseleinberg Syrah 2021.
He notes that: “acidity rather than sugar levels is the current focus, backbone and spinal cord” of what he describes as the country’s “New Wave reds”.
Cap Classiques, with their distinctively South African profile, he finds “increasingly impressive”.
He is also optimistic about the growing foreign investment in the winelands, for the expertise it brings to local viticulture and winemaking, as well as to global brand building.
Atkin acknowledges the decline in the national vineyard that has shrunk from a peak of just over 102 000 hectares in 2006 to the present 89 400 hectares, but also points to its increasing diversity. There are around 110 wine grape varieties currently under cultivation, with South Africa’s vines growing “in the oldest viticultural soils in the world”.
He highlights the extent to which terroir is increasingly defining South Africa’s best wines. While there is “more and more focus on the best areas for individual varieties and wine styles”, he believes the industry could benefit from “greater precision” in demarcation. There should be greater official accent placed on sub-regions, he asserts. This could accelerate the country’s focus on site-specific and soil-specific wines. He praises the growing emphasis on soil health and regenerative viticultural practices among local growers. This is an increasing necessity as more marked variations in vintage take hold, the result of climate change, with the occurrence of more random weather events and rising temperatures. He welcomes how climate change challenges are being addressed by leading viticulturists like Rosa Kruger. She advocates for “planting smarter” by cultivating higher and cooler, choosing varieties with higher levels of natural acidity, working with the contours of the land to channel rainwater and fight erosion and promoting intra-vineyard biodiversity.
Kruger’s work is being supported by initiatives within academia and industry bodies to explore “different grapes, clones, rootstocks, trellising systems, cover crops and ploughing techniques”. These varieties include Assyrtiko, Carignan, Roussanne, Tinta Barroca and Vermentino.