Bold New Horizons
As a wine country, South Africa today defies easy explanation. The convenient Old or New World tags really don’t fit here. The wine culture of the Cape goes back at least 300 years. Although the original Dutch settlers were not wine growers, they were soon joined by Huguenots, French Protestants with a similar religious outlook, who brought their viticulture with them. Wine growing thrived in the benign conditions of the Western Cape and several of the great wine estates can trace their history back over hundreds of years. The stunningly beautiful Meerlust estate in Stellenbosch, for example, goes back to the 1600s. Hannes Myburgh, the current owner, represents the eighth generation of his family to farm the property. Although still very much a working winery, today it is also a treasured national heritage site. So much for the New World.
Although Meerlust has lost some of its lustre in recent years, the famous Estate blend Rubicon had long been considered South Africa’s classic red. Watch for good things to happen here in the future though. Meerlust’s 2003 Chardonnay, the first vintage made by dynamic young winemaker Chris Williams shows great power and finesse. A similar renewal is underway at many other famous wineries in the long-established regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Constantia. The sometimes rustic, sooty reds of the past are being supplanted by well-made polished wines that can hold their own with the world’s best.
Another exciting aspect of this vibrant wine scene is the emergence of entirely new regions with the potential to create styles beyond what was thought possible in the past. At one extreme is cool-climate Elim, with its stunningly crisp and vibrant Sauvignons and, at the other, warm, semi-arid Swartland, now making its name for amazingly deep and complex Rhône style blends. It is fair to say that South Africa is proving itself capable of making as diverse an array of wines as any country on earth.
And now the winds of change are blowing strongly across the new South Africa. The next generation of young winemakers is taking up the reins and leading the charge to develop new wine regions. Vines planted in uncharted cool climate regions are producing stunning wines. The emerging star in these locations is Sauvignon Blanc. South African Sauvignons are the most exciting new kid on the block since New Zealand made its first big splash with this grape. Even Sauvignons planted in established regions are showing astonishingly vibrant intensity and steely mineral crispness. Durbanville, practically a suburb of Cape Town these days, boasts some consistently fine examples. Among the best are those from Durbanville Hills, De Grendel, Nitalda and Meerendal. In Constantia, one of the country’s oldest regions, newcomer Steenberg (established in 1990) has what many believe is South Africa’s finest of all: the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2005.
Elim, the Windswept Place of God
The most striking Sauvignons are to be found in Elim, near Cape Agulhas, literally at the southern-most tip of Africa. This remote region is a two-and-a-half hour drive southeast of Cape Town, the last half-hour over a bone-shattering dirt road. Established in 1824 by Moravian missionaries, the name they gave the area means “place of God.” This hardly conjures up the rather desolate wind-swept landscape. The wind blows incessantly, either southeasterly, off the Indian Ocean, or westerly, from the south Atlantic. The temperature never exceeds 28˚C. Here, an intrepid handful of growers and winemakers are growing not only spectacular Sauvignons, but some impressive Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Recent plantings offer the tantalizing promise of fine Pinot Noir in the future. The boundlessly energetic Bruce Jack of Flagstone Winery, one of the visionary young leaders of the South African wine industry, is among their number and serves as ambassador for the region.
This part of Africa was once attached to Antarctica and the soils impart subtle minerally complexity to the wines. Earlier this year, a group of international wine writers made the pilgrimage to this remote region. Our wonderfully hospitable hosts served their splendid wines accompanied by a magnificent array of freshly caught seafoods and charcoal grilled meats, all from Elim. The oysters, which the local folk have to dive for, matched perfectly with the steely crisp Sauvignons. Standouts were Black Oyster Catcher; First Sighting and Zoetendal, all from 2005. The Berrio Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Bruce Jack’s Flagstone Winery was equally well matched with the grilled meats, as was the Zoetendal Shiraz, also 2004. At this stage, Elim’s production is still tiny and, other than the Berrio offerings, none are currently available in Canada. That should soon change.
Swartland: The New Rhône Ranger
The excitement is by no means confined to new cool climate stars. Great strides are being made with Rhône varieties in the typically Mediterranean conditions of the Cape. There is a growing awareness that these may be the more promising varieties for the future, supplanting the Bordeaux model of the past. Look for South African Shiraz/Syrah to challenge the predominance of Australia with this grape. The wines show the distinct expression of South African conditions but generally bear a stronger resemblance to the Rhône style than to the lushly fruity style more common in Australia. Some of the most impressive are coming from Swartland, once known only for producing nondescript bulk wines. Another small band of passionate winemakers is gaining recognition for dynamic Rhône-inspired blends in this semi-arid region. Not only Syrah, but Mourvedre, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault all show terrific promise here.
A leading Swartland guru is the unassuming purist Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Vineyards), who is equally at home in Spain’s vanguard Priorat region. A firm believer in the Swartland terroir, Sadie believes “the only way to truly produce great wines is to remove yourself and your ideals from the process of vinification and give the vineyards the true potential to become their own.”
Other standouts producers include The Observatory (fabulous, and fabulously expensive), Columella (managed by Eben Sadie), Fairview Jakkalsfontein (from nearby Paerdeberg), Sequillo and Skali (great Syrah).
Planting on the Edge
There is another side to Swartland’s thrilling potential. In the Swartland mountains and in nearby Cederberg, vines planted as high as 1,000 metres above sea level are delivering wines of great delicacy and finesse. David Nieuwoudt, of Cederberg Private Cellar, is among the leaders, together with yet another collaboration involving the ubiquitous Bruce Jack. Bruce has teamed up with Graham Knox to make exciting wines from Swartsberg mountain vineyard. Their aptly named “Frostline” range includes the remarkable 2005 Frostline Riesling, which shows some Aussie style ripeness combined with racy Riesling mineral, lime and petrol notes. Cederberg’s 2005 Sauvignon, from the Oliphant’s River region matches remarkably crisp natural acidity with amazingly fine fruit and mouth-filling body.
Other out-of-the-way regions are also making their mark. The most prominent is Robertson Valley, but Tulbagh, Oliphant’s River and the Little Karoo are all making wines to look out for. It whets my palate just to think of it.
South African Wines from Lesser-Known Regions
90 Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Groenenkloof ($16.95)
(West Coast, near Darling) Piquant gooseberry, mineral and herbal bouquet and a mouthful of luscious clean fresh green fruit, taut acidity. Aromatic tropical notes on the finish.
91 Flagstone Vineyards The Berrio Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Elim ($18)
Grown by Francis Pratt, the 2006 shows aromatic yet subtle green fruit, flinty mineral, fresh herbal and elusive floral scents ushering in fresh fruit with some seductive tropical overtones on the palate. Lively but well-behaved acidity craves oysters on the half shell.
89 Bouchard Finlayson Missionvale Chardonnay, Walker Bay ($24.95)
Burgundian elegance with opulent classic fruit, unobtrusive acidity, subtle buttery notes and discreet oak.
89 Joubert-Tradauw 62 Unplugged 2002, Klein Karoo ($16.95)
Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend displays earthy plum and minty herbal, eucalyptus on the nose and rich dark fruit compote on the palate. Big dark fruit, fig, dry spice and oaky complexity. A muscular, powerful wine.
90 Joubert-Tradauw Syrah 2003, Klein Karoo ($16.95)
Rhône and Pay d’Oc on the nose. All beef consommé, leather, dry spice and earthiness. Attractive raspberry and dark berry fruit, firm tannins. Dark fruitiness and supportive oak meld harmoniously. Rhône-like, but with engaging fruity ripeness. I wish I had a case of it!
89 Capaia Wines Blue Grove Hill Red Blend 2004, Philadelphia ($15.95)
Made close to Durbanville, this Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc blend shows breed, with earthy plum, redcurrant and a dusting of clove on the nose. Deep fruit, firm, agreeable tannins, well-structured and understated oak.
89 Beaumont Pinotage 2003, Walker Bay ($22.95)
This cool climate version has more refinement than most Pinotage, showing cleaner fruit, less pungent earthiness and some complexity on the finish. Worth trying.