South Africa: Old World or New?

The question is this: should South Africa be considered an Old World wine country or part of the New World. The answer is easy: it’s both. The reasoning (and why it matters) will take a bit of time to explain. Here’s the first installment.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction. Thanks to Wines of South Africa and the Nederburg Auction for facilitating my visit. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

The New South Africa

The conventional wisdom classifies South Africa as part of the New World based mainly on geography. Europe is the Old World. Everything else is New. QED. Fine, if that’s how you want to have it, but wine has been made in South Africa for more than 350 years and some of the vineyard estates (sensibly called  “wine farms” here) have been in family hands for six or seven generations — longer than most Old World vineyards and far longer than anything you might find in California. So it’s not really new, even if it’s not entirely old.

The stronger case for the New World classification is that South Africa’s modern wine history is less than 20  years old. When the period of isolation ended and the post-apartheid era began, the South African wine industry was suddenly reconnected with a rapidly changing global wine industry. Significantly, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand all also emerged on the international scene in the decade bracketing South Africa’s opening, changing the face of global wine. It didn’t all happen at the same time and certainly not for the same reasons, but looking back you can see that the seeds of today’s New World of wine were being sowed.

Each of the countries I’ve just mentioned has navigated the new ocean in a different way, finding markets, raising quality benchmarks, avoiding crisis (or not avoiding it) and trying to steer a clear course through uncharted seas. South Africa is New World wine in the sense that it is constantly changing, adjusting, learning. There’s something new around every corner and inside every bottle. Visiting Cape Town and tasting the Cape wines was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.

The Old South Africa

But then there’s the Old World connection. The new industry did suddenly or magically appear, it grew or evolved out of the older wine industry — and this complicates things in South Africa as elsewhere. Adjusting to the new external environment obviously also required considerable internal re-negotiation and it is understandable that this came as a shock. Much of what I will write in up-coming posts will explore this theme.

But the question I want to consider here is what those pre-global era (the “old” South Africa) wines were like? Many of them were below the current international standard of course (as was true in the other New World countries and the Old World ones, too). But some of the wines were apparently spectacularly good, as a pair of older wine seminars I attended at CapeWine 2012 made clear.

The first, organized by Michael Fridjhon and Simon Back, surveyed white wines from the early years of the new era and red wines from the 60s, 70s and 80s. You can see the list of wines in the top photo and the colors of the wines in the glasses in the lower photo.

I am not an expert taster but even I could appreciate the quality of these wines and, especially in the case of the reds, how time had transformed them into something very different and special. My spirits were lifted by this tasting. If the New South Africa is built upon a foundation that includes wine like this, I thought, it is in very good shape indeed.

The second seminar afforded a rare opportunity to taste older Pinotage, starting with the 1964 Lanzerac shown here. Everything about Pinotage is contested, I believe, and everyone seems to have an opinion. But if the question is whether Pinotage can age (as Old World wines are supposed to do), the answer is very clearly yes it can. These particular older vintages have evolved into quite fascinating creatures — interesting enough to make a fan of old Burgundies stop and think. Another eye-opening experience.

We were fortunate to have some of the old timers in the room — the people who made these wines or were involved in significant ways in the process. As they talked about how the wines were made back in the day I got the impression that the session was meant to be much more than nostalgia. I think there was a concern that today’s wines might not age as well — that the adjustments necessary to compete on international markets came at a cost and that cost is that these wonderful old wines were becoming (figuratively as well as literally) things of the past.

Old and New again, but in a different relationship. More to follow.


Top photo: A tasting or older South African wines that was moderated by Michael Fridjhon. Michael is shown carefully extracting corks along with Simon Back of Backsberg Estate Cellars.

Lower photo: I love the subtle colors of older red wines such as those at the Fridjhon tasting. Can Pinotage age? This 1964 Lanzerac Pinotage still had a lot to say.

4 responses

  1. This is such an interesting article – as a South African wine lover I’ve always been unconvinced by the uniform categorisation of our wine as ‘new world’ – Harriet

  2. South African wines are regarded as New World wines masquerading as Old World wines (this is what I was told in my wine classes : )) . My personal experience confirms that – when we blind tasted Russel Hamilton Pinot Noir (blind) I could swear it was a classic Burgundy…

  3. Absolutely fascinating! Like most lovers of South African wine, I have had no experience tasting anything from the Apartheid era, and so it is fascinating to learn that the wines both hold up and are part of the complex history of South Africa. I have always tasted South African wines and seen both their affinity with so-called “old world” styles, but almost always with a “new world” twist. Your post here shows that like almost everything else in SA, simple classifications are as pointless as they are misleading. I look forward to reading further on this!

  4. This seems a favoured discussion in SA and I’d be very curious to know whether South Americans ever argue the same topic as Argentine wine history precedes South Africa’s by a hundred years.

    I think that if there was no pause from the end of the 19th century to the end the of 20th century in production of Constantia dessert wines, a continuation of that legend would unquestionably have put the country firmly in old world territory. True old world wine to me suggests an instantly recognisable style connected to a long tradition but imo most new world producers compete too much around the same set of varieties, across borders. Are super Tuscans really old world for that matter?

    PS. Great fan your book!

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