South Africa Shines
Whenever one of my students asks me whether South Africa is Old World or New World, my answer is an empathetic “Yes!”
Let me explain. Technically, Old World refers to the traditional European wine growing countries, which are ardent believers in terroir. South Africa is unique in the sense that it hosts a myriad of microclimates, topography and soils — or if you will, terroirs. Second, stylistically, the best wines show the ripe fruit of the New World but also an Old World structure and elegance. Third, the country has over 350 years of winemaking history. So, I guess what I am saying is that SA is unique, and has inherited the best of both worlds.The genesis of South African wine is with the Dutch East Indian Company, who, in 1652, established a re-supply station in Cape Town for boats heading eastward to India. In 1655, the colony’s first commander, Jan Van Riebeeck (a surgeon), planted the first vineyard, with the intent to produce grapes and wine to ward off scurvy, which was rampant on all ships. Interestingly, it is all believed that the very first cuttings came from Eastern France, including Chenin Blanc (known locally as Steen), which to this very day is SA’s signature grape (see page [TKTK]).
The first harvest was in 1659, but was not considered successful, due to the lack of Dutch experience in the realm of wine production. Better times came with the colony’s first Governor, Simon van der Stel, who, disheartened with the “revolting sourness” of the wines, decided to plant the now-fabled Constantia wine estate, in 1685, south of Cape Town. Concurrently, French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution, started to arrive, with their winemaking traditions and expertise. They founded the Franschhoek wine region in Paarl. Stellenbosch was also planted by the end of the decade.
Sadly, after the passing of Van der Stel, Constantia fell into disarray until 1778, when the estate was purchased by talented winemaker Hendrik Cloote. His Muscat dessert wine became the stuff of legend, spoken of in reverence, alongside d’Yquem and the finest Tokajis. The positive perception of SA wine, created by Constantia, helped propel sales in Great Britain, especially after Britannia took control of the Cape. By 1859, 1 million gallons of wine were being exported to Britain.
One year later, the good times had come to an end. A new Anglo-Franco trade agreement gave preferential treatment to French wine. Compounded with the arrival of phylloxera in 1866, exports dried up. Many gave up grape pursuits, replanting with other cash crops. After 20 years, growers finally rebuilt the industry, concentrating primarily on high yielding varietals such as Cinsault. By the turn of the century, 80 million vines had been planted, and a wine lake had been created. The unfathomable excess of wine was literally poured into the rivers.
The solution was the creation of the Co-operative Wine Grower’s Assocaition (KWV), with the backing of the government. Essentially, it saved the industry from disaster, by implementing production quotas and prices, distilling half the countries’ annual production and blending the remaining surplus wines for export.
For the remainder of the 20th century, South Africa remained in isolation because of boycotts that arose from apartheid. After abolishment in the ‘90s, producers found themselves in the position of playing catch-up with the rest of the winemaking world. New viticulture and vinification techniques began to arrive, like better grape clones, low yields, stainless steel, and new oak … and so did the flying winemakers, who brought international polish to the wines. Expansion also started into the cooler, more undiscovered areas such as Walker Bay and Elgin, giving rise to cool climate whites and Pinots. Also, with the transformation of the KWV into a private corporation, producers who relied on the antiquated price fixing/quota system to make an easy living had to change their philosophy to a qualitative one, or fade away under competition.
Today, quality continues to increase. At the Cape Wine Fair in England late last year, I had the chance to taste upwards of 200 wines, and was blown away. For whites, Chenin Blanc (Steen) in both its crisp/fruit driven and oak treated versions was the star. Runner up was Chardonnay, followed by Sauvignon Blanc; the best dry versions are akin to the New Zealand style and the stickies draw a parallel to Sauternes.
Syrah is the most homogenous of all the reds, showing great colour and aromatics in both cooler and warmer climates. All things being equal, the overall best reds were the premium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends.
My vote for surprise varietal is Pinotage. Historically, I have never been kind to the grape, describing it as the south end of north facing bull on a hot Texas day. This was no doubt due to the inferior offerings we generally see in Ontario. But what was once my enemy is now my friend, and I have to come to truly appreciate the quality now being produced. New Pinotages are more fruit driven and less bitter than their predecessors. Another pleasant surprise was the Cape Vintage Reserve Ports. Made from Portuguese varietals, they easily pass for (and best) many Iberian versions. As for the Pinot Noirs, many were good, few were great.
Indeed, South Africa is awash in diversity and quality, regardless if you prefer old or new styles. Here are my top picks currently available in Canada.
94 Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2010, Walker Bay ($20)
This is the finest Chenin to have ever crossed my lips. Made from 30-plus-year-old vines, it is a full bodied offering that was given partial new barrel treatment and bâtonnage, but no malolactic, so as to preserve the backbone of acidity. It is a lush and complex wine with honey, minerals, flowers, wet wool/botrytis, passion fruit, grapefruit, cinnamon and vanilla. With an extremely long finish, it will age well for the next 4 to 5 years, but no need to wait.
92 De Westhof The Site Chardonnay 2009, Robertson ($12)
De Westhof is a Chardonnay specialist located in the warm Robertson region. This single vineyard offering is extremely ripe, showcasing a nose of banana, golden apples, pineapple, white flowers, honey, vanilla and a touch of wet wool. Mid-weight, it is concentrated with impressive length and soft acidity, allowing for immediate consumption.
89 The Winery of Good Hope Vinum Chenin Blanc 2009, Stellenbosch ($14)
Superb value here, as this mid weight Chenin serves up a bouquet of golden apple, pear and citrus with a subtle back drop of oak, in the form of spice, vanilla and hazelnut.
88 Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2010, Stellenbosch ($18)
This perennial favourite hits the mark with apple juice, minerals, melon, white flowers, white peach and a subtle spice. It is dry with a medium body and very good length.
92 De Toren Fusion V 2009, Coastal Region ($45)
The latest vintage of Fusion V is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Franc, 11% Malbec, 10% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot. Full-bodied, the layers of plum, vanilla, black cherry, violets, spice, coffee and mocha just inundate the senses. Incredibly youthful, it requires another four years of aging before being re-visited. Drink until 2020. (ES)
92 Kanonkop Pinotage 2009, Stellenbosch ($39)
This benchmark South Afrcian Pinotage really sings in the 2009 vintage. The bouquet of toast, vanilla, violets, cassis, game and menthol carries onto the palate, with added nuances of root beer and plums. Excellent length, superb concentration and firm tannins will ensure 20 years of longevity.
91 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2009, Franschhoek ($45)
The opaque black colour is the harbinger of a full-bodied wine. Plum, fresh cracked black pepper, herbs, kirsch, violets are layered on a thick texture, which envelopes the formidable tannins. It will age for 15 years, sans problème.
90 Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Franschhoek ($45)
Boekenhoutskloof does it again in 2009. This Cab is beautiful, with a beguiling bouquet of black fruits, mint, violets, vanilla, garam masala and cocoa. The firm texture will ensure a decade, if not more, of life.
88 Spier Private Collection Shiraz 2008, Stellenbosch ($24.95)
A soft and approachable Shiraz, revealing violets, spice, plums and mocha fudge. A lengthy aftertaste and easy tannins round it out.
88 Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2009, Walker Bay ($52)
Stylistically, this is an overripe Pinot Noir, with loads of raisins, dried cherries and prunes. Mushrooms and spice undertones add complexity. There is very good length and it is ready to drink.
87 Boekenhoutskloof The Wolftrap 2009, Western Cape ($13.95)
Very good value! This blend of 65% Syrah, 32% Mourvèdre and 3% Viognier is an easy-drinking offering with savoury qualities of herbs and pepper, as well as dark berry fruit and flowers. Soft tannins and fresh acid makes for a perfect partner with coq au vin or grilled bison filet.