It has not been a vintage year for wine producers anywhere. According to an official report from the European Commission, the near-global shutdown of bars and restaurants in the spring meant Europe’s wine industry was among the hardest hit of all the continent’s agricultural sectors when Covid-19 struck. Producers in the US and Australia have had to cope with similar sales-sapping problems during the pandemic, while still struggling with the fallout from vineyard-ravaging wildfires. It’s the winemakers of South Africa and Lebanon who will be most anxious to see the back of 2020 – and who have had to grapple with the most challenging conditions.
In the Cape, the wine industry has been left reeling by the severity of the lockdown measures taken by the South African government as it struggled to deal with Africa’s worst outbreak of coronavirus. Domestic sales of alcohol were banned from March until June, and again from mid-July to mid-August, in a bid to alleviate the stress on the country’s struggling health sector.
For a five-week period in March and April, the wine industry also had to cope with an export ban which, given that half of South Africa’s near one-billion-litre annual production is sold overseas, had the potential to put a number of producers out of business. Wines of South Africa has estimated that as many as a sixth of the country’s 533 producers could be forced to shut up shop before the year is out.
There are similar concerns in the much smaller, but no less economically significant, wine industry in Lebanon. Here problems have been building for some time, but have really come to a head in the past year and, thanks to the Beirut explosion, to world attention in the past month. A corrupt government presided over a near-total financial collapse that saw the country’s currency, the lira, lose 80% of its value, causing enormous hardship across Lebanese society. The local wine industry – a rare export success in a country that imports 90% of its needs – has been no exception.
The cost of equipment and facilities has soared, from barrels, corks, bottles and labels to transport fuel, electricity and water. On top of this, access to proceeds from overseas sales has been limited by the government’s strict capital control measures. For wine producers in both countries there’s a horrible poignancy about the travails of 2020. Both had overcome the trauma and ugly politics of the 20th century (the long years of, respectively, apartheid and civil war) to build two of the most exciting and successful wine industries in the world, only to see their efforts thwarted once again by circumstances beyond their control.
In normal times, the quality of the best Lebanese and South African wines would have justified the pat columnist’s claim that there has “never been a better time’’ to buy their wines. After all that’s happened in 2020, that line takes on a whole new, altogether more serious and urgent, meaning.
Six of the best from producers in Lebanon and South Africa
Waitrose & Partners Blueprint Fairtrade Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2019 (£6.99, Waitrose)
Chenin blanc is behind so many of South Africa’s best and best-value white wines, providing a green apple and ripe exotic fruit tanginess in this pristine unoaked (and fairly traded) example from the excellent Stellenrust.
Ataraxia Chardonnay, Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa 2018 (from £22.30, hedonism.co.uk; fromvineyardsdirect.com; vinvm.co.uk)
The gorgeous green and pleasant Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven on earth) valley is producing some heavenly chardonnay and pinot noir. Kevin Grant’s nervy, mineral but richly fruited white is a well-priced match for many a top white burgundy.
Mullineux Kloof St Red Blend, Swartland, South Africa 2018 (from £15.50, bbr.com; woodwinters.com)
One of the trailblazing names in the new wave of South African wine-making centred around the Swartland region. Mullineux produces deeply flavoured, yet elegant wines with a real sense of place, this Rhône-ish blend a fragrant, spicy treat.
Château Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon 2001 (£27.99, Waitrose)
Lebanon’s answer to Lafite deserves its lofty reputation, its Bordeaux-meets-Rhône in the eastern Mediterranean style having done so much to inspire the country’s modern vinous renaissance. This 20-year-old red is all sumptuous texture, spice and leather.
Oumsiyat Grande Reserve, Mount Lebanon, Lebanon 2018 (£15.99, strictlywine.co.uk)
From vines planted at 1,200m above sea level in Mount Lebanon, this is a brilliant example of modern Lebanese winemaking, a warming, meaty red of textured depth and intensity for mopping up those first hearty autumnal stews.
Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vieilles Vignes
, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon 2018 (from £14.49, rannochscott.co.uk; woodwinters.com; henningswine.co.uk)
Cinsault has been enjoying a revival around the world, and the old vines bring real balance to this rich but polished and surprisingly fresh example. Crisp red cherry and raspberry join deeper, darker black fruit and a sprinkle of baking spices.