Christine Austin finds that changing attitudes are pushing South African wines to even loftier heights.

Regular readers of this column know just how much I love South Africa. Not just because you can fly there overnight leaving cold British weather far behind and have breakfast in Cape sunshine. What I love most about this country is that over the last 20 years the wines have developed from being somewhat boring and heavy into some of the most vibrant, lively and quality-driven wines on the planet.

The reasons behind this transformation are many – from government controls to attitudes. And it is attitudes that are really shaping the new styles of South African wines now appearing on our shelves.

This was demonstrated particularly well last week when London was invaded by hoards of winemakers from the Cape, all with wines to show. I tasted through as many as I could, but I also talked to the people pouring those wines to find out more about how they are developing their vineyards and their wines.


Matt Day makes top-class sweet wines at Klein Constantia

Matt Day from Klein Constantia is typical of the new generation of winemakers now in charge of serious wines. This estate was part of the Cape that produced the legendary sweet wine enjoyed by Napoleon and various monarchs of the 18th and 19th centuries. Now re-created, Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia is one of those magical sweet wines that really doesn’t need a dessert and while it partners cheese to perfection, food is almost a distraction from the wine’s glorious flavours. Apparently this new Vin de Constance was a favourite wine of Nelson Mandela.

Matt launched the new vintage 2014 and showed it alongside the previous three vintages. Each was subtly different, echoing the conditions of the year but he explained how the winemaking is changing to create more complexity and retain its exquisite flavours. ‘This has always been a wine that ages well – I have drunk wines going back to 1897, but I want it to last even longer’. To do this he ensures that the grapes are picked at absolute perfection, which might mean that pickers go through the vineyard 20 times, harvesting, in some cases, grape by grape. Some are even picked as raisins, to add the right ripe notes. Fermentation and aging are all carefully monitored but there are subtle changes in oak barrels, moving to larger barrels to retain more fruit without oak flavours intruding across the palate.

Then he modified the shape of the bottle neck and is using longer corks – ‘just one millilitre less headspace allows the wine to live longer and stay fresher’ he said, clearly as proud of his wine as a father is of his child. Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia is in high demand and is difficult to find. Bowland Forest Vintners have some of the 2012 vintage at £60. Since I last wrote about this wine the price has doubled so it makes sense to buy a bottle now and tuck it away. At this rate of price increase you might make some money, or at least enjoy a fabulous wine on a very special occasion.

While it is easy for me to pick out my favourite producers, I was delighted to find several of these favourites have been included in a new report about South Africa which has attempted to classify the Cape in much the same way that Bordeaux was classified.

Klein Constantia is one of those judged to have ‘Premier Cru’ status (see for the full report).

Also in this top 20 group are two producers with definite Yorkshire connections.

Sheffield-born Master of Wine Richard Kershaw is based in Elgin, where a ridge of land rises up to meet the ocean winds and temperatures stay cool all though the growing season.

Sheffield-born Richard Kershaw

‘Chardonnay is the key grape for Elgin’, said Richard but rather than just planting a mix of clones and making a single wine, he has investigated clones, sites and styles then created wines that reflect their precise place of origin. He scatters his conversation with exciting names such as CY 96, 95, 76 and the latest addition to his stable, a Chassagne-Montrachet clone which goes by the name of CY 548. He also has investigated soil types such as Table Mountain sandstone, Tukulu gravel and Bokkeveld shale, and his wines have pure linear character, almost elemental in style. He does the same exercise with Syrah, giving his wines a distinctly Northern Rhône, black cherry and white pepper style.

Production of these clonal wines is tiny, but the rest of his range shines with quality too. Track his top wines down at Alternatively Richard Kershaw is part of the mail order company Naked Wines ( with a range called The Cutler – a clear reference back to his Sheffield roots. I really wish one of our terrific Yorkshire merchants would give some shelf space to these excellent wines.

Also included in the top 20 for South Africa is the family-owned Newton Johnson estate. The roots of this family are in Horbury, near Wakefield but now they live in the beautiful region of Hemel-en-Aarde, part of the Walker Bay district of the Cape. From their winery on top of a hill you can see the ocean just 6 km away which brings cool south-easterly breezes to their 20 hectares of vineyards. ‘The wind blows most of the summer and it was named The Cape Doctor because people believed it kept the air clean, ’ said Bevan Newton Johnson. ‘It certainly helps keep our vineyards free of pests and diseases, while also bringing a little cloud cover to the surrounding hills. This acts like sunscreen for the grapes against the hot sun.’

Once again there are changes running through the vineyards and winemaking to promote their wines up the quality scale. Grapes are chilled post-picking to keep flavours fresh and specific sites are separated out to make the top wines.

Newton Johnson wines are available at Hoults in Huddersfield and at Ake and Humphris in Harrogate. If you get the chance taste the Newton Johnston Pinot Noir 2015 (around £29.99). These pure, elegant, fruit-driven flavours are a prime example of the fabulous development of South African wines in recent years.

About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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