Something has been happening in South Africa over the recent years. A wind of change. Much like the winds that blow through the vineyards we’ll be talking about below, it cannot be ignored.
People are drinking differently.

Let’s back up a bit. The wine landscape in South Africa has a rich history but a boring one. Big reds. Old school reds. Reds full of tannins that conjure up images of the farms they were made on. Colonial buildings with high gables. Thick carpets, massive fireplaces. Leather. A ridgeback. Two ridgebacks. A box of cigars, somewhere.

That’s changing though. The new age South African wine drinker is being introduced to much lighter styles and varietals like cinsault, grenache, gamay and pinot noir. There’s a fresh bunch of young-gun winemakers on the scene focused on channeling the real character of a vineyard into the end wine. You’re more likely to catch them surfing or building smokers in their backyard than perched in a cane chair on their porch.

One man responsible for this new wave is David Cope. Not content with just producing his own wine (the hugely popular Alphabetical; a red blend which has now spun off into a white and a rosé), David also runs Publik Wine Bar. From branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town, Publik sells wines that are interesting and delicious. This intersection is the holy grail for any serious wine drinker and Cope has nailed it. “That’s the sweet spot for us,” he confirms. “Either side of it and you’re left with something rather boring or something that is cool but compromised in terms of drinkability.” Unearthing these wines and introducing people to them is Publik’s greatest strength. Cope has a growing distribution business too, which has allowed open-minded restaurateurs to showcase a much larger range of wines.

That’s an important point because food is changing too. Those big reds from years gone by suited a type of food. Big plates of meat essentially; smeared with rich, reduced sauces. Cabernet sauvignon. Merlot. Shiraz. Pinotage. These wines were all very comfortable sitting alongside these plates. Probably on a white tablecloth.

But just like the new winemakers, there’s a new generation of chefs. Young bloods with no egos. These guys share suppliers, recipes and ideas. They are steering South African food in a new direction and wine – through Publik and places like it – is playing a part in that. The restaurant scene is tough in Cape Town right now and standards are as high as they ever have been. “An easy way to differentiate your offering is a well-considered wine list, with things that stand out from the norm,” explains Cope. A simple policy that makes total sense.

At The Commissary, for example, Wesley Randles is slinging small plates with clean, fresh flavours and high acidity. The wine reflects this. Cope agrees and also points to Eike and Spek+Bone (both by Bertus Basson) as well as Marble (in Jo’burg, now being curated by Wikus Human) as other good lists to watch out for.

There is still room for the traditionalists and if you are looking for the best execution of pinot noir in South Africa it’s still, for the time being, a straight shoot-out between the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley and Elgin. The latter is represented by powerhouses like Oak Valley, Paul Cluver and slightly smaller producers like Catherine Marshall. All are fantastic and deserve credit. Most locals still agree however, that Crystallum is king. With brothers Andrew and Peter-Allan Finlayson at the helm, these third-generation producers and are just absolutely crushing it. Cope describes their Mabalel as “intriguing but beautiful”, with the Cuvee Cinema being slightly weightier; a bit more classic.

It was unheard of a few years ago that a bunch of South African men would be standing around the braai, drinking red wine. But that’s what’s happening. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a boerewors roll and a cold beer. But pinot noir, and other newer varietals, opens up all kinds of food pairings due to its versatility. Slow roast a pork shoulder, tear it into chunks and dress it with fish sauce and guess what? A glass of pinot works just fine. So does a slightly weightier pinot with a classic steak and frites. This exciting new world has been brought in with that gentle wind of change. And the wind is picking up. 

WORDS: Andy Fenner,