The Oldest New World wine country

© Cape Times Friday 10th August 2012

People are very fond of terming South Africa ‘the Oldest New World wine country’ and I really do think that we offer the best of both worlds when it comes to wine. But in terms of how the industry is structured and how change is brought about, SA is still relatively young, and so it came as a surprise to me to receive a recent press release about the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild which is turning 30 this year.

In case you don’t know, the Cape Winemakers Guild is an association of most of the finest winemakers in South Africa. Membership is by election only and you need to have demonstrated at least five years of consistently outstanding wines before being invited to join the Guild. Once ‘in’ you have access to all the Guild’s events including local and international benchmark tastings, the latest reports and technology, a wealth of experience and knowledge spanning more than three decades and, most prominently, to the exposure and prestige of the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction. At present, there are 45 members with various industry luminaries also judged honorary members which enables the Guild to retain the knowledge and services of people such as Norma Ratcliffe, Francois Naude and Lynne Sherriff MW, to name but a few.

Over the years the Guild has been active and instrumental in shaping the Cape wine scene, standing up for smaller, independent producers and relentlessly driving the quality of Cape wine onwards and upwards. For most people, the work they do is ‘behind the scenes’ and involves changes to wine legislation and mapping out trends for the future, but for the general public, there are two aspects which are highly visible and which give the best indication of the Guild’s importance in today’s wine industry – the Guild protégé programme and the Auction itself.

Way back in 1982 when Billy Hofmeyr convened the very first Guild meeting at his home in Welgemeend, there was a clear and stated aim – to pool their resources and knowledge in order to craft great South African wines that would stand out amongst the best in the world. In 2006, with the support of Nedbank, the decision was taken to extend those resources and knowledge and make them available in a real and practical way to promising winemaking students via a mentorship programme. The CWG Protégé programme is now in its sixth year and has so far put 8 talented winemakers through its ranks with another six still in the scheme. It involves a three-year series of internships with the various members of the Guild and allows the students to learn first-hand from some of the finest winemakers in the country.

The protégés also get the chance to make their own wine, thanks to barrel donations from Cape Cooperage, and this is then sold at the annual Cape Winemakers Guild Auction (this year to be held on Saturday 6th October) along with small parcels of the very finest wines made specifically for the Auction by the Guild members. Previously, wines were selected by a tasting panel, but in the last two years, the Guild has encouraged more freedom of expression and, as long as a wine is technically correct, a member can submit any wine he or she chooses. One important element of the Auction is the international exposure it affords South African wine with pre-tastings taking place both in the UK and the US and buyers flying in from all over the world. For us lesser-mortals, without the big bucks to spend on spec., there are several public tastings available and tickets can be won below. There are five members of the Guild – Kevin Arnold, Jan Boland Coetzee, Etienne le Riche, Peter Finlayson and Braam van Velden – who were there right from the very start and who will be entering wines for the thirtieth time this year. I’m looking forward to it!