The world awaits the forbidden fruit: South Africa's wine exporters are keen to make up for lost time, says Anthony Rose

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South Africa produces nearly 10 million hectolitres of wine annually, making it the world's eighth largest producer. There are nearly 100,000 hectares of vines, 4,786 wine producers, 70 co-operatives and 82 estate wineries. Centred on Cape Town, with its warm, Mediterranean summers and wet, cold winters, the vineyards fan out like butterfly wings in 13 districts to the north and east of the city. The majority of fine wines are produced at the mountainous heart of the region, in the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek areas. Chenin blanc is the most widely planted workhorse grape variety; cabernet sauvignon is the biggest premium variety, followed by sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinotage, merlot and shiraz.

THINGS do not move fast at the Rustenberg Estate, deep in the heart of Cape wine country. Despite the political turbulence in the rest of South Africa, pedigree and continuity are deeply entrenched at Rustenberg. Its wines, world famous 150 years ago, still score highly on drinkability and elegant understatement. This year the Barlow family is celebrating the 300th anniversary of winemaking on the estate, and the centenary of its Jersey cattle stud.

Simon Barlow inherited its cattle, sheep, mandarins and clementines in 1987, along with the wines and Etienne le Riche, who is only the third Rustenberg winemaker this century. Mr le Riche took over in 1974 from Reg Nicholson, whose father's first job in the vineyards in 1892 was to pull out vines sucked dry by the phylloxera louse.

Set in the mountainous hinterland of Stellenbosch, behind Cape Town, this Cape Dutch homestead, with its gabled library and formal gardens, is one of many fine historic estates in the area. Their winemaking heritage, dating back centuries, feeds the much-repeated claim (disputed, perhaps, by South America) that South Africa's is the oldest of the new- world wine industries.

Yet beneath the ornamental facade, South Africa is, paradoxically, a Johnnie-come-lately. Progress has been hamstrung by inertia, the sustenance of vested interests and political isolation. The 5,000-strong white- farmer membership of the KWV, the industry's controlling body, is much to blame for the current state of affairs. (KWV is, sensibly, short for Die Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika.) But there is a wind of change now whistling through the creaking institutions of the South African wine industry, allowing producers with confidence and flair to create new wine styles and to develop outside the established vineyard locations. As export markets open up, South Africa has a far better choice of wines to offer than it did before the sanctions era.

'In 1980, we had one chardonnay in our book,' says John Platter, author of the annual South African Wine Guide. 'We have 105 in our 1992 edition.' Producers are now planting further up hillsides and searching for cooler locations for the popular sauvignon blanc grape. Since 1986, cabernet sauvignon has been shedding its hard, old-style rusticity, ripening more easily owing to improved plant material and maturation in small oak barrels. The native pinotage grape, a hitherto unfashionable cinsault/pinot noir cross, has been revived, thanks to the faith and efforts of estates such as Kanonkop and Simonsig. Methode champenoise fizz, re-named Methode Cap Classique, is making waves.

Neil Ellis is one of the new breed of winemakers. Apparently unafflicted by an abiding Cape problem, delusions of grandeur, Ellis makes wines which get straight to the point, offering honest drinking at an unbeatable price. Having no vineyards of his own, he buys premium grapes from a variety of prime sources to fashion Bordeaux blends, innovations such as sauvignon plus chardonnay, fine chardonnay under the Louisvale label, and sauvignon blanc from Elgin with an aromatic herbaceous quality missing in much South African sauvignon blanc.

Another exuberant innovator, Gyles Webb, of Thelema Mountain (motto: 'Do what thou wilt'), was advised that his property was too cool to grow cabernet sauvignon. Made from new clones, his cabernet sauvignon has a minty, bramble fruitiness that stamps it as distinctly new- world in style. 'Many South African reds are too bloody hard, and not that nice to drink,' says Mr Webb. 'Our flavours are a lot different. People say they recognise our reds.'

Despite the growing band of gifted winemakers - among them the former Springbok rugby star Jan 'Boland' Coetzee, whose tree-trunk physique belies the elegance of his most recent chardonnays and Medoc blends - South African wine is still dominated by three lumbering giants: Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW), Distillers Corporation (and its sister company, the Bergkelder), and KWV.

SFW claims to be the fifth largest wine company in the world, 'the Gallo of South Africa', generating annual sales of 15 million cases. SFW's brands are mainly cheap and forgettable (among them Oom Tas and Virginia, which is still advertised as 'the wine for men who like to be men') and selling, typically, for around 40p a bottle. But with the 1989 Merlot and blended Dry Red of its up-market brand, Zonnebloem, SFW has upped its profile. The jewel in SFW's crown is Nederburg, which is managed by the Cape's foremost viticulturalist, Ernst le Roux, and Newald Marais, the winemaker. A buyer of grapes rather than wine, Nederburg is weathering the move towards individual estates, producing solid commercial wines, and, at their best, some fine reds. It is banking on a promising new joint venture with Dr Paul Kluver in the cool Elgin Valley, and a recent contract with Paul Pontallier, the talented young winemaker at Chateau Margaux, to sharpen its somewhat amorphous image.

The Bergkelder's commercial arm is Fleur du Cap, Stellenryck its premium brand. The company also owns, part-owns or manages 18 estates, including two of the best in the Cape, La Motte and Meerlust. A certain conformity of style has led to criticism of Dr Julius Laszlo, until this year the Bergkelder's eminence grise, a Hungarian refugee whose importation of virus-free vines and small oak barrels made a significant contribution to the industry. The more independent-minded, quality estates have now decided to mature and bottle their own wines.

KWV, established in 1918 to mop up unwanted surpluses, has until recently maintained a stranglehold over the industry, using command economy measures such as a quota system for vineyards and a minimum price for wine to shore up the privileges of its members. But with the political and economic tide turning, KWV is changing its spots. Having found a lucrative outlet for hitherto unwanted surpluses in grape juice concentrate, it abolished the quota system last year, and the minimum price subsidy to growers seems destined to follow suit. Because of its control functions, it sells its own wines only on the export market.

Some 70 per cent of all exports are of cheap KWV wines, which have done little to improve the image of South African wines abroad. Even the new up-market KWV brand, Cathedral Cellars, is inclined to be over- oaked, overpriced, and - inevitably - is over here.

Although the outside world is now licking its lips in anticipation of previously forbidden fruit, the taint of apartheid and feudal labour relations lingers on, and the wine trade and its customers have only just begun to feel their way into the country's wines. But now that South Africa is anxious to make up for lost time - particularly with the home market in decline - the more enlightened marketing arm of KWV has actively supported the campaign to export the country's wines.

Getting prices right, at both the basic and higher levels of quality, will be one of the keys to success in Britain, where the market is saturated with good wines from the new world. If the exporters do get it right, it will offer the perfect opportunity for South Africa's wine innovators to show what they can do.

THE SOUTH African wine industry produces nearly 10 million hectolitres of wine annually, making it the eighth largest producer in the world. There are nearly 100,000 hectares of vines, 4,786 wine producers, 70 co-operatives and 82 estate wineries. Centred on Cape Town, with its warm, Mediterranean summers and cold, wet winters, the vineyards fan out like butterfly wings in 13 districts to the north and east of Cape Town. At the mountainous heart of the region, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek produce the majority of fine wines. Chenin blanc is the most widely planted workhorse grape variety, cabernet sauvignon is the biggest premium variety, followed by sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinotage, merlot and shiraz.

Best of the bunch

Rustenberg (Stellenbosch area). Elegant, understated reds: from Avery's of Bristol (0272 214141).

Klein Constantia (Constantia). First-class sauvignon blanc and fine cabernet sauvignon: Avery's of Bristol.

Neil Ellis. Delicious blends and Louisvale's barrel-fermented chardonnay: Forth Wines (0577 863668).

Buitenverwachting (Constantia). Graves-style blanc fume, medoc blend, fizz and a luscious riesling: Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446).

Vriesenhof (Stellenbosch). A stylish chardonnay and medoc blend: Forth Wines.

Thelema Mountain (Stellenbosch). Fine 'new wave' cabernet sauvignon, muscat, riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon: London Wine Emporium, SE11 (071-587 1302).

La Motte (Franschoek). Smoky blanc fume, peppery shiraz and very drinkable cabernet sauvignon and bordeaux blend: Barwell & Jones (071-252 2315).

Meerlust (Stellenbosch). Classy reds in French style from Italian winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia: Barwell & Jones.

Boschendal (Paarl). Good whites: Boschendal Estate Wines (0491 577707), and Tesco.

Villiera (Paarl). Stylish sauvignon blanc and bordeaux blend, Cru Monro: London Wine Emporium.

Hamilton Russell (Hermanus). One of South Africa's top pinot noirs; elegant chardonnay: Avery's of Bristol.

Clos Cabriere (Franschoek). Classy champagne-method fizz: Southern Hemisphere Wines (071-731 4661).

Roger Jorgensen (Claridge Fine Wines, Wellington). Rich barrel-fermented chardonnay, chenin blanc and cabernet sauvignon: Lay & Wheeler.