Cape of good hope
How Kiara Scott is changing the face of South African wine
Farmer-winemaker Kiara Scott went from the Cape Flats to crafting some of the most sought-after wines in South Africa – Henry Jeffreys explores how
Putting aside colour, it is important that people know that they can become a winemaker.Kiara Scott
It hasn’t been an easy few years for winemakers in South Africa. The government’s heavy-handed approach to Covid lockdowns including the banning of the sale of alcohol both domestically and at one point even exports threw the wine industry into turmoil. Now the country’s long suffering population is having to endure rolling blackouts caused by corruption in the energy sector.
Kiara Scott, head winemaker at Paarl’s Brookdale Estate, described the situation with a bit of vintage understatement as “quite bad and set to get worse over time with 12 hours or more without power during the day.” The timing is terrible with the harvest imminent and the new winery still not finished, as I could tell from the sporadic drilling in the background when we spoke in January 2023. She described it as “really touch and go at the moment” but ended our conversation on an optimistic note with the South African proverb, “boer maak n plan”. It literally means a farmer, boer in Afrikaans, will make a plan, and it’s about resourcefulness in the face of difficulty.
Scott, however, is about as far from a boer farmer as it’s possible to get in South Africa. Her first language is English, not Afrikaans. She’s not from farming country either. She was brought up in Mitchells Plain in the Cape Flats, a sprawling area to the south east of central Cape Town, where some of the suburbs are notorious for poverty, gang violence and substance abuse. Of both African and European heritage, she’s coloured as it’s known in South Africa, what the British would call mixed race. People, especially women, from her background don’t go into vineyards unless it’s to pick grapes.
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The Cape Flats has such a problem with alcoholism that wine was frowned upon by Scott’s family. She described it as “very taboo” though in recent years they have softened their anti-alcohol stance. When she was younger her plan was to become a lawyer or a musician but this all changed when there was a talk in English class about the wine industry which made her curious. “I thought wine just came from a shop, and then I found out about the Cape vineyards”, which despite only being 30 miles away, she had never heard of. Where she grew up there was very little vegetation and wine country “looked so romantic, I thought I’d be frolicking around in a vineyard.” But there was also her rebellious streak, “they said ‘no’ so I thought, ‘I’m going to do it’.”
Scott joined the winemakers programme at Elsenburg Agricultural College, where historically, student winemakers were mostly white males. The transformation process started slowly at first, and Scott says: “In my year we were two females and two other non-whites out of 20.” She continued: “There were some uncomfortable moments, some people on the course were a bit conservative and I was a female person of colour entering a male dominated industry, but in the end, everyone had to work hard and prove his or her worth.” The course was very hands-on, she got to make her own wine in a small cellar including a chardonnay, syrah and some port-style fortified wine.
Her big break came when she got a place on the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme. Every year the Cape Winemakers Guild, an organisation of South Africa’s top 50 or so producers, offers three scholarships to promising winemakers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Each person chosen gets to spend three years studying with the guild and one year working with a winemaker. In Scott’s case that was David Nieuwoudt in Cederberg who she described as “very inspiring to work for.” She also spent time abroad working in the Loire and Rhone valley in France, and in California.
Another huge influence was Duncan Savage at Savage Wines who she worked with following the Protégé Programme. Savage is one of those producers who wine lovers go a bit misty-eyed at the mention of. Previously he worked for one of the bigger producers, Cape Point, but quit to make wine on an industrial estate in Cape Town, buying in fruit to make his pure, intensely-flavoured wines. He’s famous for using Southern French varieties like grenache, cinsault, viognier, and syrah that until recently were very unfashionable. She described them as “particularly suited to South Africa, we have a Mediterranean climate here”.
It was through Savage that she met Tim Rudd, the Englishman who had bought Brookdale Estate in Paarl in 2015. At the time it was very rundown with the vineyards full of weeds. But he clearly had big ambitions for it and wanted to make the sort of wines that Scott and Savage loved. Rudd replanted with Rhone varieties like marsanne, roussanne, and grenache, as well as Portuguese grapes that are also well-suited to the climate in the Cape.
“I love working with Rhone varieties,” she said, “I worked in Condrieu, the home of viognier.” She likes working with Rudd too, describing him as: “a wonderful guy, very involved, passionate about the estate and the wines.” Alongside the new plantings, the estate is blessed with some 35 year old chenin blanc, the white variety native to the Loire, that thrives in the Cape. In blends with viognier and other varieties, chenin makes a uniquely South African style of wine. For the first vintages, Savage made the wines but in 2019 Scott took over.
It was clearly a great meeting of minds between Savage and Scott, even their names sound good together, like a 1980s buddy cop show. “I had a good experience working with him. All that passion going into the vineyards and the pure refined wines he makes.” She has carried on Savage’s hands-off wine making style: she described herself as a “minimalist in the winery, a shepherd steering the wine and not intervening too much.” She uses the wild yeasts that live on the grapes for fermentation rather than buying in cultured yeast.
To preserve fruit flavours, she uses things like concrete eggs to ferment and age the wines, and she’s planning to get some clay amphora. These add texture and oxygen to the wines without adding oak flavour. Though she does use some barrels, new oak is kept to a minimum. The style is a world away from the oaky Bordeaux blends and chardonnays that used to characterise the premium South African wine industry.
The South African industry is changing in other ways “people are more focused on farming sustainably”, she said. For example, at Brookdale they’re looking at more natural solutions to pest control so instead of “spraying for mealy bugs we use wasps to control them”. Reducing water usage is important too, she described the temperature as “the most insane heat” just before the harvest.
People are more focused on farming sustainably.Kiara Scott
Many producers, according to Scott, are farming using organic techniques even if they don’t have accreditation. I get the impression that Scott really wants the wines to speak for themselves. They have won plaudits from influential British critics like Master of Wine Tim Atkin MW (pictured below with Kiara). Another MW based in London, Greg Sherwood, said “this is an estate and young winemaker to watch very closely indeed. The sky is the limit.”
The export market helped save the industry during the dark days of Covid. Scott praised enthusiastic customers in markets like Britain, Sweden and the US. There was a long pause, however, when I asked her about how the country’s current political turmoil was affecting the wine industry. Eventually she replied: “I don’t know if we should get into politics! But we could definitely be getting more support from the government”.
Despite the country’s deep structural problems, the wines are on a roll at the moment overturning South Africa’s rather pedestrian image. “It wasn’t known as a quality producer”, she said, “but in the last 15 years we’ve had some amazing winemakers blazing a trail.” Much of this excitement comes from a new generation who had worked abroad in France or California and brought back new ideas to what had been a very traditional industry, Boerassic you might call it, while also appreciating the viticultural treasures like old vine chenin and cinsault that lurk in the Cape vineyards. Specialist importer Damon Quinlan said: “South Africa has a wealth of incredible old vine material on very special soils that’s only really been recognised and fully appreciated in the last 15 or 20 years. In that relatively short time, led by a handful of brilliant pioneering winemakers, a procession of dynamic, energetic young guns have burst onto the scene.”
People like Kiara Scott. For her it’s about having “the right people, passionate people” making the wine which means tapping into the country’s diverse population. “Putting aside colour, it is important that people know that they can become a winemaker. When I came in, I didn’t see people like myself. I don’t think colour really matters but people see me and say I can do it then.”
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What’s so good about this?
South Africa’s wine industry is changing rapidly with new winemakers from diverse backgrounds like Kiara Scott crafting wines that are wowing the world.
Meet the writer
Henry Jeffreys is an award-winning drink writer based in Kent. The Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year is author of Empire of Booze: British History Through the Bottom of a Glass. His next book, Vines in a Cold Climate: the people behind the English wine revolution, will be published by Atlantic summer 2023.