Several weeks ago, I spent an entire day in the basement of a London vinyl store. I wasn’t on a quest for some rare Prince LP, although I had to pass through the store itself to get to the large subterranean space. I imagine the store’s carefully hip customers are after the authenticity of music played from a turntable – just as the crowds of people in the basement were there to experience the authenticity of the South African wine on show. Because this wasn’t just another tasting: it was the biennial New Wave South Africa event, a gathering of about 50 top artisan producers, there to show their latest releases to the trade.
More than 850 guests registered to attend; these were mainly buyers from UK restaurants and retailers, some key media figures, and a scattering of trade from nearby countries who’d made the trip to London for the event. Within two hours of opening, the place was so full it had reached maximum capacity. There we were, in a packed basement, with some of the major UK wine figures upstairs, standing in line on the pavement, waiting for someone to leave so they would be allowed in. A South African wine tasting. In London. And this much excitement. Why?
The answer is quite simple: South Africa is producing the most exciting wines in the world right now. Over the past 10 years, the local industry has steadily – consciously or otherwise – become an easier place to produce wine, and a new generation has taken full advantage of it. This “new wave” of winemakers creates wines of quality, diversity, individuality and expression like never before – because now they can.
A decade ago it would’ve been unheard of for a young winemaker to release their own wine label a year or two after finishing their studies. Now it’s commonplace. Most of the winemakers in the room poured wine brands they had started in the last decade. More than half don’t even own their own cellar or vineyards. For some, this is still a side hustle – they pay their bills through full-time work at larger commercial producers, though likely not for much longer.
The days of working at an estate for 20 years and then leaving to start your own brand are behind us. Accessibility (to grapes, to winemaking facilities, to the market) and acceptability (by the public, by the trade – both locally and internationally) provide fuel for this movement, and allow young winemakers to enter the market much more quickly with their own goods. Aside from fearless creativity, this accessibility and acceptability will bring faster transformation to an industry that struggles to represent the true demographic of our country.
Adventurous wines made from unusual grape varieties by a generation of young entrepreneurs unhindered by tradition – wines that, just like music from an LP, show how technically better isn’t necessarily subjectively better. The next time you’re after a good bottle of wine, look out for one of these.