I’ve often commented how much the wine world has changed in the first 2 decades of this century, but nowhere is this more true than in South Africa. Looking back to the 1990s, the isolation of the Apartheid years had left their wine industry in a terrible state: outdated winery equipment, winemaking methods firmly stuck in the 1950s and everything controlled by the dead hand of the Co-operative Growers Association meant that the country had a mountain to climb to meet the challenges ahead.
Fortunately, a whole generation of young wine producers was just waiting for the opportunity and quickly began travelling the world’s wine regions to gain understanding of new techniques and inspiration (and often investment, too) for their projects back home. Historic areas, such as those around Stellenbosch, where wine had been made since the 17th century, were transformed into a hive of activity and interest, but new areas also started to emerge.
Among these was Elgin, a district to the south-east, cooled by Antarctic currents, that was previously a centre for apple orchards. But, where apples will grow, the climate is often suitable for grapes, too and the family estate of Paul Cluver was well-placed to explore the possibilities, having owned land there for around 100 years.
We opened a bottle of their Pinot Noir recently (Majestic, £14.99, excellent value) and straight away recognised the distinctive Pinot Noir smell, most politely described as ‘farmyardy’. On the palate, the wine is medium bodied with slightly bitter red cherry flavours and attractive earthy, mushroomy hints leading to a long, savoury finish. The 2018 vintage was still a little tannic but worked well with our meal (pan-fried pigeon breasts with mushrooms – yummy!). The 2020 is also in the shops but, if you buy this, it may benefit from a couple of years before opening.
It is inconceivable that a wine of this quality could have come out of South Africa – and certainly not Elgin – 30 years ago. Further proof, if needed, of how far that country’s wines have improved and why they are really worth looking out for now.