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Can we make Springbok magic with South African wine?

"Along with sport, wine is a consistent champion performer for South Africa," says Dan Nicholl.

by: Dan Nicholl | 07 Nov 2019

Last Saturday was a giddy, disbelieving blur of a day. Four years earlier, I’d watched the All Blacks dismantle the Wallabies at Twickenham, wondering if the Springboks might make the next final. Seven weeks earlier, I’d watched the All Blacks overcome us in Japan, a defeat that suggested we weren’t favourites, but certainly didn’t rule us out. And on Saturday, over eighty gripping, heart-stopping, enchanting minutes, the Yokohama fairytale, and a result that, several days later, still has an entire nation walking on air.

There is nothing that unites South Africans like sport and no sport that unites us like rugby. The game’s fractured history has, poetically, become its present strength: once the preserve of the few, it’s now embraced by (almost) all, and a team led by a man from a township in the Eastern Cape, supported by such a cultural cross-section of the country, has made the Springboks a team for every South African. And that’s what has a country floating.

How do we tap into this wonderful energy, this rugby-induced high that’s lifted us all? At a simple level, it’s ensuring that rugby excellence extends to other parts of South Africa: excellence in leadership, in education, in infrastructure, in accountability - and for the purposes of this column, in wine. I’ve written on numerous occasions about the South African wine I’ve delighted in discovering in far-flung places: Robertson cabernet sauvignon in a bottle store in rural Laos, Kleine Zalze in a back street wine bar in Malta, Ernie Els at a restaurant in Malibu. Along with sport, wine is a consistent champion performer for South Africa around the world, doing us proud in myriad countries, and each time adding to the collective success of the local industry.

From top wine lists in London and Hong Kong to supermarket shelves in Sweden and Germany, South African wine has made a big impact, and one we should celebrate more than we do. But on the back of the rugby triumph, with South Africa’s profile so high around the world, there’s the opportunity to do even more. I’ve got no doubt there’ll be some direct wine consequences of the World Cup win - a particularly effervescent Fabulous Faf bubbly is surely a no-brainer, and I’d be surprised if Pieter-Steph du Toit’s family estate, Kloovenberg didn’t release something special to celebrate the World Player of the Year. The real success, though, would be to extend the South African wine story around the world, to have more people discovering, drinking, admiring our wine. And we can do it if the local wine industry works like Rassie Erasmus’s Springboks did: together, for the greater good, realising that the individual success helps everyone. 

As a rugby nation, we don’t have the money of the big European nations, nor the focus on a single sport like New Zealand. We’re World Champions for a third time, though, and that says something about the country we are and the potential we have. Similarly, South African wine might not have the budgets of Europe, or America, or Australia, but for quality of the wine, coupled with value, we are - just like the Boks - the best in the world. Now to ensure the rest of the world knows exactly that.

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WHAT I’M DRINKING THIS WEEK: The last time we won the World Cup was 2007, so I paired this year’s final with a couple of bottles from the appropriate Vintage. The ’07 Haut Espoit cabernet sauvignon held beautifully, a richer, deeper wine for the twelve years it had waited, and was made all the more appropriate by seeing Haut Espoir owner Rob Armstrong on social media, enjoying the final in Japan. From the same year, and quite superb, the Gravel Hill shiraz, Hartenberg’s signature triumph that made an appearance on the Emirates first-class wine list this year with a more recent vintage. I’d kept my last bottle of it for a while; Saturday couldn’t have been a better occasion to open it.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine

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