My Round: The lost continent

South Africa makes some of the world's finest mid-priced wines. The only problem is, no one wants to buy them
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The scene is a tiny, whitewashed barrel house in the midst of vineyards in the Swartland district of South Africa. Eben Sadie is talking non-stop while drawing tasting samples from oak barrels of Columella, his £40 Rhône-style blend which ranks among South Africa's best and most expensive wines. And he is worried. "I'm having a nervous breakdown. I sleep four or five hours a night. My Spanish wine sells out in five days, Columella takes one month of travel and then it takes six months to get paid."

The scene is a tiny, whitewashed barrel house in the midst of vineyards in the Swartland district of South Africa. Eben Sadie is talking non-stop while drawing tasting samples from oak barrels of Columella, his £40 Rhône-style blend which ranks among South Africa's best and most expensive wines. And he is worried. "I'm having a nervous breakdown. I sleep four or five hours a night. My Spanish wine sells out in five days, Columella takes one month of travel and then it takes six months to get paid."

Sadie's worries arise in part from a dilemma facing the South African wine industry: the world wants cheap wine, but this is not South Africa's strength. One producer says that his production costs are £5 a bottle, which leaves little room to compete in a UK market where the average spend is lower than £4 a bottle. Sadie makes another high-priced wine in the sexy Priorato appellation of northeastern Spain, which is easy to sell, unlike the pricey wine of his native land, even though it is of world-class quality and just waiting to be discovered. Why should this be?

A recent whirlwind tour of South Africa leaves me in no position to help Sadie. I can say, however, that South Africa is one of the best areas of the New World for wine selling between £5 and £15. And I'm willing to bet that, eventually, wine in the higher price ranges will pose a serious challenge to Europe. But like everything in South Africa, it will take time.

If a single dominant theme arose from my tour, it was a faith in terroir: in the distinctiveness and quality of South Africa's best vineyard sites. Sadie takes this to an extreme, cherry-picking tiny plots for their distinctive characters. But even large producers recognise the variety they can get from different soil types, and there's a lot for them to play with: because of the way the vine-growing areas were formed millions of years ago, a single vineyard can have smaller blocks containing many different soils, each producing grapes with different qualities.

"No one knows what it is about the soil, but there is a definite effect," according to soil scientist Dawid Saayman. He also emphasises the importance of interactions between soil and weather, however, and one distinguished winemaker, Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, insists that terroir means nothing to him: "I look only at the fruit, not at the soil."

South Africa's top terroir-reflecting wines are expensive, but spending £10 here will often get you more than £10 in Europe - and often much more than in Chile, the USA and especially Australia. For middle- and top-end wines, a selection of my favourite producers would include Springfield, Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Findlayson, Neil Ellis (whites especially), Jordan, Flagstone, Iona (whites), Boekenhoutskloof, Brampton and Vriesenhof. And another notable feature of the winemaking philosophy down there is that they make wine to go with food, which isn't always the case in the New World.

There's also some good stuff to be had at the lower end of the South African wine market: a surfeit of decent grapes gives canny packagers plenty of opportunity for creating large commercial blends. One name to look for is Cape Grace, a collection of wines with wide supermarket availability and all selling at around £4 to £6. For one of the country's very best bargains, however, look no further than the Van Loveren Sauvignon Blanc 2005, a light, very fresh style selling at Tesco for just £4.69. Outside the supermarkets, two retailers with good lists are Swig (details below) and www.sawinesonline.co.uk.

It'll be worth your while, even if Sadie Sadie has to continue with his nervous breakdown for a little bit longer.

Top Corks: South African stars

Danie de Wet Limestone Hill Chardonnay 2004 (£7 to £8, Sainsbury's, Asda, Majestic) Unwooded Chardonnay with a rich mouth-feel balanced by mineral flavours and nice, fresh acidity.

Springfield The Work of Time 2001 (£15.50, Swig, 08000 272 272) A Bordeaux-style blend dominated by Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Silky texture, ripe flavours but solid structure. Fantastic.

Graham Beck Shiraz 2003 (£7.99, Thresher, Asda and Sainsbury's) An abundance of warm, ripe berry flavour, generously spiced and with soft tannins. Develops well in the glass; would age well.

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