This article was first published in the first-quarter 2012 edition of Personal Finance magazine.
Wine, more than any other agricultural product, is a living narrative. Within the bottle rests a story of challenges and triumphs – each bottle a unique account stretching back hundreds of millions of years to how the soil was formed when great continents smashed into each other.
It is a tale that reflects how the grapes suffered in the summer heat and the leaves were battered by the drying wind. Each sip will reveal details of how conscientiously and lovingly the wine was crafted, and how well it has survived the journey to your lips.
I recently found myself on the edge of the New Forest near Bournemouth in Britain with a few hours of free time. In 1079, William the Conqueror named this area his "new hunting forest". It is a vast, ancient, magical landscape that has been preserved and renewed down the generations.
Legend has it that William tore down numerous parishes in the area to make his hunting forest, and, because of this dastardly deed, his offspring suffered horrible fates in the forest. Two of his sons died there while hunting. Prince Richard in 1081 was blasted to death "with a pestilent air" and King William II was "shot through by an errant arrow" in 1100. His grandson, Henry, was "hanged among the boughs" while pursuing deer and died a gruesome death.
I had just arrived at the famous wine-themed hotel, Terravina, and needed a robust ramble to rid my limbs of long-haul flight stiffness, so I walked over the road and straight into the twinkling luxuriance of the forest, sodden and springy underfoot, while all around each leaf danced in dappled light and sparkled from the earlier rain showers.
It was unbelievably lush, quiet and green. The only sounds were the crisp ratchet of cicadas and the song of doves and woodlarks. It smelt simultaneously of wet earth full of potential, faintly rotting leaves and that charged verdant freshness that follows rain. There was moss and there were mushrooms and towering oaks, birches and beech trees. As I ventured deeper in and further away from the road, I kept expecting to come across Robin Hood braaing pheasant and tapping into a barrel of illicit cider.
I decided to walk in the same direction as the clouds skirting overhead, which I could spot now and again past the tops of huge old trees or when I walked unexpectedly into a clearing obviously inhabited by gnomes. I ignored the paths, just following the clouds. I startled the odd fallow and red deer in the undergrowth and revelled in that wandering headspace you slip into when walking in beautiful places.
I was thinking how it amazes me that people can sell ordinary wine at hugely over-inflated prices, way beyond reason. A diatribe of exclusivity characterises the marketing. Everything from such producers is better. "My terroir is superior to anyone else's, so is my tradition, my culture, etc …"
Slick aspirational lifestyle associations and what I think of as "bling" pricing abound. I just do not buy it anymore.
I believe you can taste integrity in wine no matter its origin. This was not always that obvious in South African wine – not because we are liars by culture, but because, for a while after sanctions were lifted, we were still learning how to do this wine business thing from the rest of the world.
We had not figured out what was a good lesson to learn and what behaviours to avoid copying. It is difficult to work out what not to copy when you do not know what the real deal is. And the international wine industry is full of make-believe.
For South African winemakers to start finding our way as a winemaking community, we first had to work out that our path begins at our own farm gate and heads, not into the world, but backwards to our own vineyards, our own soils and climate and, ultimately, our own folklore. We needed to look inward at the stark reality of what it means to be a winemaker crafting in this often-difficult South African context.
For starters, we work in a unique socio-political context, and with unusually differentiated, difficult soils. Only by grappling with these and other elements of our situation can we start to measure our responses and resourcefulness to each challenge.
But it takes fearlessness and an exposing abandonment to pursue the truth passionately, and – once we have found it – to reflect this in our work, or wine. I do not see many winemaking communities elsewhere doing this soul-searching with the same candid, collective recklessness. I had walked for about two hours without meeting another soul. The sky was turning a darker blue as evening approached. I turned and confidently headed back in the direction I had come.
Soon into a nice walking rhythm, I was lost again in thought. What's happened in our community has been necessary, because for years we mimicked other winemaking communities, believing if they could get away with the smoke and mirrors, so could we. But the successes felt hollow, the wines seemed to lack something, falling short of their potential.
In all our lives there comes a time we have either to stare back at that face in the mirror or turn away, disheartened, if not embarrassed, by what we see. I think our community is working through that process of self-awareness now. We are less entranced by the marketing sleight-of-hand and snake-oil-salesman patter we saw other countries use. We even used to envy this when we first got back into international markets. Perhaps now we have been around long enough to have seen behind the circus curtain, and I do not think many of us like what we have seen. To many of us, it just feels that is not who we are.
I am starting to see a determination and desire to present a South African truth in our bottles, unaffected by what others say or do. It is slowly dawning on us that to make world-class wine, we have only to make authentic South African wine and to tell our South African stories. The new, confident poise in our best wines comes from believing in our own truth, one that journeys through our own mysterious jungle – and somehow knowing it will be okay. That confidence is more solid and sustainable than the bloom of arrogance that accompanies commercial success. It is born from an understanding of our own situation, from the soil up, and a belief in the authentic story of our land – all encased in our peculiar South African ambition, tainted as it is by our being human.
The best South African wines are starting to demonstrate something we have not seen for decades: a confidence, a wow factor, integrity and an authenticity that is powerful and authoritative.
Consumers of wine can sense this rough groping at truth. I know I would rather believe in a fallible character who strives for brilliance but suffers the odd stumble – that is as close to truth as you can get in this crazy world. And I think we can all sense an awakening, a yearning for truth at the centre of our souls. Wine is not essential to life, but after the essentials, it is a beautiful way to get closer to life. It took another hour of walking until I realised I was totally lost. Eventually I found a stone path and headed down it in the hope of finding someone who could point me in the right direction. After a further hour, I recognised a small bridge I had crossed once before and realised I had walked in a big circle. This was embarrassing, especially for a South African farmer who is quite confident in the bush. So I looked around sheepishly and then clicked on the Google maps icon on my mobile phone. I was miles away from where I should have been.
I started walking, following my slow progress on the little screen. It was now quite dark under the canopy of trees and, except for the call of owls, the forest was eerily quiet.
The most direct route back to the road also seemed to be through the thickest part of the forest. I pushed around a small tree, and with my eyes glued to the little screen, I did not see a very big brown pony. The New Forest, I was about to discover, is also famous for its rather wild, and sometimes unfriendly, ponies.
This one must have been sleeping, because I walked straight into it – or, more accurately, straight into its right bum cheek. I am not sure who got the bigger fright, but this huge pony jumped straight up into the air and did a violent about-turn before charging at me, wide-eyed, with snorting, flared nostrils. In clumsy retreat, my only weapon was an umbrella, which opened with a pathetic "pop" as I swung it in the general direction of this fiendish forest beast. Momentarily taken aback by my umbrella, the pony halted. I turned and ran, and did what all sensible African primates do when about to be killed – I scrambled up the nearest tree. And there I sat, while the blackness closed in around me and an irate pony crashed around the tree in the darkness below.
What a funny way to die, I thought – trampled to death by a pissed-off pony in the most remote corner of a spooky forest in England. I am not sure why, but I started singing My Sarie Marais to it. Bizarrely, this calmed it down and it soon headed off in a state of pony bewilderment. When I thought the coast was clear, I climbed down cautiously and continued on my tentative trek homeward.