South Africa’s wine redemption – Dr Eilis Cryan’s one-woman mission


Dr Eilis Cryan is on a one-woman mission to bring bespoke South African wine to Ireland.

One woman, however, has made it her mission to concentrate solely on handcrafted Burgundy-style South African wine.  A Galway doctor Eilis Cryan became interested in South African wines after travelling to the country in 1998. She founded KinnegarWines on her return, and began a 13-year engagement with some of the bestwinemakers and wine estates in South Africa. Over the years she has amassed Irish agencies for wine estates that are fought over tooth and nail in other jurisdictions.

On February 2, 1659, Dutchman and physician Jan van Riebeeck noted in his diary that he had made fair and fine wine from vineyards he had planted in scrubland in what would later be called Constantia, on hills outside the Dutch East India Company’s settlement of Cape Town. Back in Europe, meanwhile, vast swathes of what would become Bordeaux’s Medoc heartland were still marshlands, or underwater. It would take decades  of further work by van Riebeeck’s fellow Dutchmen to complete the polders that would eventually help drain the left bank of the Gironde estuary and turn these gravelly riverbeds in to the source of great wine.

Despite the fact that its wines and wine estates predate this, and many other ‘Old World’ regions, South Africa is forever branded a ‘New World’ wine producer. In addition, the country’s political strife has held it back from competing for our hearts and wallets on the same level as fellow New World wines from Australia, Chile and New Zealand.

Yet for the savvy wine observer, there are plenty of signs that the time is ripe for change.

The Shadow of History 

The problem for South African wine is that it operates two industries: a bulk brand business in the middle of an identity crisis, and a tiny mass of small family-owned properties which have neither the financial clout nor the inclination to mount a worldwide campaign. And both operate under the long shadow of apartheid.

You need only to look at New Zealand to know that a country’s image has a lot to do with how its wines are received.  In the case of South Africa, two generations of potential worldwide customers grew up with boycotts of South African products. But in 2012, the first post-apartheid generation will turn 18 around the world. This is the first generation of potential wine consumers who need not view South Africa through a political prism.

A Double-Sided Coin

Ireland’s larger wine importers have a twin track approach to South African wine. So a large player such as Febvre & Company, which brings in a bigselling brand from South Africa such as Two Oceans, will also import a smaller, hand-crafted product.

One woman, however, has made it her mission to concentrate solely on handcrafted, Burgundy-style South African wine.  A Galway doctor, Eilis Cryan became interested in South African wines after travelling to the country in 1998. She founded KinnegarWines on her return, and began a 13-year engagement with some of the best winemakers and wine estates in South Africa. Over the years she has amassed Irish agencies for wine estates that are fought over tooth and nail in other jurisdictions. She somehow manages to convince these estates to sell into the Irish market, when their wines are offered on allocation only in the US and Britain. The winemakers both admire and respect Cryan and seem to value loyalty above much else. “We, like so many similar wine estates in South Africa, look to the long term,” says Thomas Webb, general manager of Thelema Wine Estate.”We know it is not just a quarterly business, everything changes. It is about looking to build long term, not make short-term mistakes and changes. Planting vines is a huge, generational commitment. Replanting is a big event,looked at purely in monetary terms, so many things in the wine business would not make sense. What we look for is someone who understands us, in Ireland certainly Eilis and Kinnegar know what we are about,” says Webb, who operates one of a brace of revered South African wineries owned by his father and cellar master Gyles Webb.  Cryan and Kinnegar Wines have represented Thelema in Ireland since1998 and that faith and loyalty is something Webb says is hugely important to him and his family.

 Along with Thelema Wine Estate, Kinnegar’s South African-only portfolio includes Paul Cluver Wines, whose Noble Sweet Riesling is considered one of the best sweet wines in the world; and De Trafford Wines, a hero of St Emilion garagiste-style wines situated in a high valley above the University city of Stellenbosch, the academic and spiritual home of the South African fine wine renaissance.

It’s Not Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At

One of the most hideous phrases in contemporary Ireland is the Nuremberg Trials-like defence trotted out by the most culpable politicians, bankers and developers: “We are where we are” – in other words, they were only following orders, now let’s all move along and forget about their crimes. Getting past the giant shadow of the past has been a problem for all of South Africa, and its wine business has suffered from this darkness as much as the rest.

Before the fall of apartheid, and in its immediate aftermath, the wines that found their way onto wine shelves were most likely to be products of the KWV. The KWV or Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, was founded in 1918, and by its demise with the dismantling of apartheid it had become a quasi-governmental body which set the market price for wine and, in essence, regulated the entire industry.  It oversaw poor quality co-operative wines and dealt with unsold surpluses in wine, not by seeking increases in quality or price reductions, but by operating a vast system where wine was distilled into spirits or dumped. These, however, are mere administrative errors, and many other wine regions operated similar policies at one time or another.

The unholy issue in South Africa, which almost dares not to speak its name, is that of exploitation of the majority population by the minority who owned the wine farms. In particular, the issues of using what amounted to tied farmhands to work the crop, and the use of a quasi-feudal payment called the Dop System. Dop was paying workersin wine and occasionally food. Vast swathes of South Africa’s wine farms until the 1970s were farmed by farmhands living in unsanitary, barely humane conditions in shanty-style accommodation and paid with the provision of basic sustenance.

As late as November 2011, the NGO Human Rights Watch produced a condemnatory report on South African farming called Ripe With Abuse. In it they documented the squalid conditions some bulk wine farms still operate in South Africa and gave two examples of wineries that, decades after the Dop laws were outlawed, were still paying overtime and actual wages in wine and food. 

( “I would like you to know that the Human Rights Watch has admitted that the neither of the 2 farms that are said to be still paying in wine (dop), were wine farmers, a fact that they did not disclose in their report. This does not excuse the practice happening on any farm, but it is something the entire wine industry is very vigilant about.” – Su Birch, CEO, Wines of South Africa 26 Jan 2012)

This is the real problem for South African wine.

One side of the industry is operating at the highest international standards of care for people and agriculture – the small, family-run wine estates being examples of how well the industry can be run – while it seems part of the bulk business, spiritual inheritors of the worst aspects of the wine farm mentality, has not done nearly enough to clean up their act. The response among the non-bespoke wine estates that want to distance themselves from the shabby treatment of the past has been to take the Fair Trade route towards credibility in the court of world opinion. Thandi Wines would be a good example of a winemaking concern adopting a Fair Trade stance, becoming the first winery to become certified. Again it is not insignificant that already committed high-quality wineries suchas Paul Cluver were at the forefront in aiding and supporting the Thandi project.

As in most wine regions, it turns out that people who love their work as a craft and care about producing the best wines they can, in and from land they love, tend to be the victorious source of the best wines.  Size or ownership status is not crucial. Thandi is a multi-party collective, Thelema is a family-owned bespoke operation. They share, however, a belief that South African wine can be some of the finest expressions of man and nature in harmony on the planet, something surely along with their motto,  ‘With Love We Grow Together’, is the most aspirational motto for the next phase in the oldest of the New World’s wines.

Tasting the pathway to South African wine’s triumph

• Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Chardonnay 2008 18.90 (92)

• Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Mountain Red Shiraz-Cabernet 2008 14.90 (90)

• Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc 2010 14.90 (91)

• Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Shiraz 2007 24.90 (91)

• Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 32.90 (93)

• Meerlust Estate, Rubicon, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2005 35 (92)

• Meerlust, Pinot Noir, Stellenbosch, 2004 34.95 (91)

• Meerlust, Chardonnay, Stellenbosch 2007 31.95 (92)

• Glen Carlou Quartz Stone Chardonnay, South Africa 2007 21.99 (91)

• Glen Carlou, Chardonnay, Paarl, South Africa 2006 15.49 (90)

• Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2003 32 (91)

• Kanonkop Pinotage Stellenbosch, South Africa 2008 26.95 (90)

• Diemersfontein Estate Pinotage 2009 20 (90)

• Warwick Estate, Trilogy, Stellenbosch 2003 37.50 (92)

• Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2008 47.95 (93)

• Mooiplaas, The Bean Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2009 14.99 (89)

• Springfield Estate Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa 2008 18 (90)

• Waterford Estate Chardonnay 2008 19.95 (91)

• Delheim Chardonnay Sur Lie, Simonsberg Stellenbosch 2008 16.99 (90)

• Paul Cluver Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2007 19.90 (90)

Wines available from The Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Gibney’s Off-Licence, Malahide; Terroirs, 103 Morehampton Road, Dublin 4; On the Grapevine, Dalkey;

The Vintry, Rathgar; Searsons Wine Merchants, Monkstown Crescent, Blackrock; The Wine Boutique, Ringsend, Dublin 4; O’Briens Wines, nationwide nationwide

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