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No sour grapes as the empire strikes back

It's worth giving South African wines another go, says Nina Caplan.

“They don’t differentiate,” the man says firmly. “It’s all one big Dark Continent to them.” My disbelief is impolite but genuine. This Florida-based South African wine importer is telling me that Americans see Africa as one place – one with a big desert, a lot of corruption, a complicated colonial past and a fraught history of slavery.

He is generalising: he’s talking about people local to him who express surprise that Africa makes wine. Plenty of Americans will have a notion – or even a memory – of South African apartheid and the achievements of truth and reconciliation that followed; they’ll know that the country, with all its problems, is something of a special case. Yet what interests me is the whiff of Victorian England: that lordly homogenisation must have  been how our ancestors viewed their distant colonies. And it is still, Lord help us, how Britain views the world’s wines.

South Africa is a good example of this. “Today, praise be to God,” wrote a Dutch settler in 1659, “wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes.” South African wine was revered until the 20th century, when it all started to go wrong. A production quota system prioritised hot regions and high yields: if you wanted to make Burgundy-style Pinot Noir on a nice, wind-cooled slope (Pinot hates excessive heat), you couldn’t. Anyway, you couldn’t mention Burgundy, because South Africa had signed an agreement to exclude all mention of French wine regions.

In return, the French imported their lobsters. So there you were, a vigneron with a strong connection to France (it was French Huguenots, who arrived on the Dutch settlers’ heels carrying cuttings, who first  planted vines), made to feel less important than a crustacean.

And I haven’t even mentioned economic sanctions. No wonder it took the South African wine industry, post-apartheid, time to recover. When I was there five years ago, the Chenin Blanc was terrific; there   were great reds but a lot more awful ones and the South Africans’ incomprehensible pride in pinotage – a red grape that no one else has adopted, for excellent reasons – wasn’t helping. But they were selling the stuff: their exports of bottled wine grew more than 200 per cent between 1998 and 2010. The place they exported to was Britain.

Partly this is because South Africa is a former colony; partly it’s a result of our crap climate. Until recently, we had no wine industry of our own worth mentioning. Oenologically speaking, the sun still hasn’t set on the British empire and the result is a superiority complex even more profound than our thirst. Everyone wants to sell wine to Britain, and Britain – or her supermarkets, anyway – responds by battering down prices. This makes for happy Brits and impoverished foreigners. Just like the good old days.

Faded glory

South Africa, at least, is rebelling. In 2000, it exported to 11 countries; now, it’s 24. Its wines get better all the time, particularly the Sauvignon Blancs (try Iona or Paul Cluver), Syrahs (Mullineux, Boekenhoutskloof), Bordeaux blends (De Toren), Chardonnays (Chamonix, Saronsberg, Vergelegen) and Chenin (Raats, among others), and we’re still appreciating them. Last year, we drank £75m worth.

Can we accept that we no longer rule the wine world and learn to pay properly for our drinking pleasures? If not, we’re stuffed. The only compensation for our miserable climate is a broad range of wines with which to dilute it. Never mind the national anthem: we are no longer victorious or, come to that, glorious. Can’t we at least be happy?

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten