Drinking South African wine used to feel almost like a charitable act. In apartheid years it was competently industrialised, but no one drank it in this country for fun. To celebrate liberation we tried to overlook earthy reds and fairly fresh whites in the name of progress. The white wines, all agreed, led by Sauvignon Blanc,crept ahead of the reds. Then in the mid-90s came the shock (I can still remember it) of a totally convincing Chardonnay. Then more surprising still a Pinot Noir better than California’s. Then a series of Cabernets cleansed of earth and iron, juicy, full of ripe currants: the very thing.
Yes, there are well-established classics. The classic of Walker Bay is Hamilton Russell, the pioneer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard Finlay son is equally established and respected and their neighbour Newton Johnson, we found, makes Chardonnay at least as well as either. They have to keep pedalling hard, though, with half a dozen serious challengers on their doorstep. Nor are the Burgundian grapes the only ones to benefit from the sea-cooled conditions.Cabernet Sauvignon finds it too cool, but Cabernet Franc, the key grape of St Emilion and the Central Loire, finds its brighther by/minty flavours here. And one surprise was to find a farmer whose father came from Madeira growing Verdelho to make what almost amounts to Vinho Verde. Super-fresh white with a prickle at a mere 11% of alcohol was precisely what we needed for our lunches in the shade.
A surprise, to our party, was how far the Cape has progressed with its champagne method (if I’m still allowed to say that) bubblies. ‘Méthode Cape Classique’ is the official formula. We found at least half a dozen that pressed all the right buttons, a process with no pain at all, either gastronomic or financial. The most we ever paid for any wine, and that a mature vintage of one of the Cape’s finest Cabernets, was £35.