Unless you are part of the close knit South African wine community you may not know Professor Eben Archer. But if you have enjoyed watching and experiencing how South African wines have emerged and developed over the last 20 years then you will have experienced the impact that he has had on new generation of South African winemakers during his nearly 20 years teaching wine and viticulture at the Stellenbosch University. Following his death this week we pay tribute to Professor Archer with his thoughts on South African wine that he shared with Richard Siddle during a dinner last September. Our very best go to his family, friend and the South African wine community.
Professor Eben Archer’s influence on the South African wine industry will be felt long after his passing this week as he was not only helped train so many of its winemakers but was a mentor and inspiration to them long after they graduated from Stellenbosch University.
Richard Siddle: I only met Professor Eben Archer once. It was over dinner with a small group of winemakers in a lodge perched on the mountainside of the McGregor Valley. It was a horrid, stormy night, but as the wind swept all around us we were captivated by the stories, experiences and most of all passion of Professor Eben Archer. It has to be said viticulturists are not normally the ones to keep a dinner table transfixed, but Professor Eben Archer was not just a viticulturist, but a leader, a visionary, a teacher, and on this night a great raconteur who, for me, brought clarity to so much of what I have personally experienced about South Africa and its wines. It was only one night, but it was one of the most memorable I have ever had. All those who were able to share his wisdom and enthusiasm about wine for so many years are the lucky ones, and it is through them that his spirit and his love for viticulture will live on. Cheers.
(Here is an extract from an article I wrote about after that night which encapsulates just some of his thinking about South African wine).
If you could only sum up what makes South African wine industry famous in less than 10 words the chances are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage, the two classic varietals grown in the region, would make up three of them.
You could certainly make a case for a number of other varietals, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Cinsault, and the world class wines that are now being made across the Western Cape from those world famous grape varieties.
One word that might struggle to get into most people’s Top 10s would be ‘blends’. Winemakers might talk about their Bordeaux and Rhone-style wines, which essentially are blends, but it is not blends per se that they are necessarily championing.
Blends are best
Which, according to one of the country’s most respected and acclaimed viticulturists, Professor Eben Archer, who has worked with most award-winning producers in the country, is a major oversight, and great pity.
I was fortunate enough to share a dinner with him during my recent visit to South Africa and you would struggle to meet anyone who is more passionate, engaged, enthused and motivated about what is happening in his country.
For him blends are what South Africa should be all about. “Blends are the future for South Africa,” he claimed. “The only way you can get both complexity and quality is with blends.”
In his view “a blend will always be better than a single variety”. “If South Africa truly wants to kick the arse of the world with its wines, it will be with blends not single cultivars,” he added.
But you have to make sure every component part of the blend is at its best. “Each cultivar has to be immaculate or it won’t work. It’s like a piece of poor floating in water.”
Get your blend right and you can sit back and watch it evolve and age, rather than be desperate to get your wines out and drunk young.
It also makes far more commercial sense for growers and producers to work with blends than single varieties. “You can change your blend to move with the vintage you are having,” explained Archer.
So if certain varieties suffer in one vintage you can adapt your blend accordingly, he adds. “If you are relying on just that one single variety and the harvest goes wrong, then you’re knackered. You might make a great wine one year, but what about the next one? With blends customers and consumers can get used to your wine and expect to drink it every year.”
Typically for a South African he relates the blended story to rugby. “Only by playing as a team can we beat the rest of the world. If we play on our own we will drop the ball and get beaten. The best blends are the best varieties put together to create a winning team,” he said.
“We should also not be calling them a Bordeaux blend or any other French name. We are South Africa and we have something special here.”