Are South African Wines Any Good?
That is the question. South Africa is a relatively young wine country in comparison to places like France and Italy, but have they perfected the art of making wine?
Ahead of our March Cru Club tasting on 27 March which will be focusing on this wonderful country, we thought it would be useful to give an insight on what you can expect to taste on the evening.
Why should you listen to us? Well we know a thing or two about South African wine having come South African Specialist Runner Up at the 2018 Decanter Retailer Awards, which judged retailers across the whole of Europe. So sit back and let us divulge a bit of what we've learnt.
The birth place of Steen and Pinotage but also known world wide for its pioneering, unfiltered, organic, less expensive wines, but how has South Africa changed over the past few hundred years to produce some of the world's top wines? We are going to delve into its history and cover all the bases, I mean grapes... I definitely mean grapes.
How did it start?
Waaay back in 1652, the first ships carrying viticulturists and their vines landed in S.A.. However, there had been no initial plans to colonise the Cape, but the European population just kept growing and, naturally, so did the vineyard areas. By the end of the 17th century, over a million vines had been planted. Stellenbosch had been marked on the map.
Apparently, the first wines were all pretty much made into brandy and even that was awful. Farmers were forced to pick grapes early due to lingering birds, meaning that the wines were super high in acidity but did not have the ripeness to bring freshness and fruit to the juice. Also back in the day, winemaking was rather rustic and lacked proper wine hygiene. According to a recent book by author Tim James, there was an exception; the Governor at the time was gifted the Constantia Estate, where he made exception sweet wine that was to gain international claim.
Moving into the 19th century, when control passed from Dutch to British (huzzah!), because of the increased settlement and ship traffic 31 million vines were planted allowing for wine to account for over half the value of the Cape's exports. However, due to the poor wines being produced, production plummeted as there was still no demand. In addition to this, the thing that all winemakers feared arrived... Phylloxera (a deadly insect), destroying over a quarter of all vines. This meant that vines had to be replanted with American rootstocks and, due to delays, meant that not all vineyards were replanted (which actually helped their industry).
So now that we have whizzed through the bad part of South Africa, we can get onto the good bits.
When The Going Got Good
A super co-operative called the KWV was formed at the beginning of the 20th century to avoid over production and price drops. As the century moved on, the KWV was given power by the government to fix the price of wines. Although this co-op didn't make a distinction between good and bad quality wines and created a monopoly over the S.A. wine industry, one good thing came out of it... The Wine of Origin scheme (you will see this on the label of high quality wines). This Scheme brought in the appellation system like you see in so many of the 'Old World' countries like Italy and Spain (and France but less complicated).
As the number of single estates grew, so did the quantity of quality wine. However, it was still being stunted by the apartheid-induced sanctions (which prevented the exchange of viticultural and winemaking expertise with other wine countries). As some of these sanctions were lifted, the export of high quality wines began!
In the past decade, South African wines have emerged as some of the best valued red and white wines money can buy of the highest quality. More and more quality, boutique producers are popping up, creating limited run, high quality wines focusing on telling a story of the land and the people.
Which South African Wines Should I Buy?
Like any wine producing nation, producers / farmers usually pick the grapes that will grow well and produce high quality fruit. Fortunately for S.A., it has a great and diverse climate and topography which allows many of the Noble varieties (the international superstar grapes), as well as the lesser known ones, to grow successfully.
In more recent times, producers have been moving away from the traditional vinification methods and styles, experimenting with unfiltered and organic wines to see how they hold up against the wines of old, forging a way forward with more eco-friendly techniques and ideologies.
Don't fear, South Africa isn't turning hippy on us (just yet), there are still some world class producers using traditional methods to produce traditional style wines like Cape white and red blends.
Cape White blends are high quality wines (some of the best in the world) from S.A., more particularly from Swartland, which are often made from Chenin Blanc and blended with Rhone varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. If you can find one, definitely snap it up and pop the cork!
Cape Red blends usually involve traditional Bordeaux blend grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec but also other of the country's prominent grapes like Syrah and Pinotage. These are full bodied block busters that will leave a lasting impression and stand the test of time like some of the top class Bordeaux Chateaux.
How does the climate affect the wine?
Looking at each climate of South Africa will usually give you a variation in the style of wine produced; from the cooler, wetter Coastal region to the hotter and (yup, you guessed it) drier Breede River Valley, or somewhere in between like the Cape South Coast.
Areas like Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swartland, Constantia and Durbanville all fall into the cooler Coastal region. Even though the day time temperatures are hot, days are cooled by being closer to the sea and cold ocean currents like the Benguela Current flowing up from the Antarctic (which is again amplified by the famous easterly winds known as the Cape Doctor), reducing the temperature by a couple of vital degrees. Aspect and altitude also play an important factor here.
Stellenbosch - starting from the coast and stretching up into the mountainous areas that surround the town itself; it has long been a hub for fine wine production in South Africa. Due to the sufficient rainfall and warm summers, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah have gained a reputation here, with slightly lighter bodied wines and higher acidity! Cab Sav and Merlot are usually used in Bordeaux style blends, although you will see high quality single variety wines out there! Syrah is a bit more special like this example from Keermont Wines; South Africa has a tendency to produce wines that really show the grape varietal's true nature and potential. A classic Syrah from here would be medium bodied, intense aromas and flavours of black fruit, black pepper and earthy/mineral (almost Rhone-esque)! You will also find high quality Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay produced here.
Paarl - very similar in climate and topography to that of Stellenbosch, albeit slightly warmer days as it is farther inland and cooler nights because of the altitude. With this warmth, brings slightly fuller bodied wines as the increased grape ripeness allows for high sugar content and therefore high alcohol levels; but don't let this put you off as the wines from here are truly elegant. Pinotage... It had to be mentioned at some point. Whether you love or hate it, we need to talk about this interesting grape. Born as Frankensteen's monster (see what I did there) from a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, South African farmers thought that they could marry the ageing potential, structure and sweet, brooding flavours of Pinot with the robustness and eagerly growing red grape, Cinsault. The result was far from it. Pinotage is hardly grown anywhere else in the world and is often deemed a point of difference. It can be made in a range of styles; sometimes blended with the international varieties to make a 'Cape blend'. On its own, the main two styles of Pinotage are either light and fruity with red berry flavours OR from old bush vines (which increase the flavour concentration from the grapes) where the wine may be very full bodied with rich, spiced, berry fruit. Pinotage reacts well with oak. However, if cheaper oak staves/chips are heavily used it can become very overpowering (which could be where it got its bad name from).
Franschhoek - north of Stellenbosch but south of Paarl, Franschhoek plays a vital role in the South African wine industry, producing some of the most prestigious bottles. Wines from here are usually focus on your international varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Constantia - where some of the oldest vineyards are located, which lie on the eastern flanks of Table Top Mountain. Constantia is constantly cooled by the Cape Doctor and is located on the Cape point. Due to its cooler climate, Sauvignon Blanc is widely produced and the juice coming from Constantia is regarded as some of the best in S.A.. The Sauvignon Blanc grape is a highly aromatic grape with high acidity, but due to the warmer climate, the fruit flavours are more vibrant and fresh when compared to those more elegant and restrained iterations from the Loire Valley in France. South African Savvy B also has a similar herbaceous quality like that of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but without the price tag! As mentioned earlier, one estate in Constantia also produces a sweet wine called Vin de Constance from late harvested Muscat grapes. Shiraz and Cab Sav are also grown in the warmer sites.
Swartland - to the north of Cape Town, this large area used to be considered a source of inexpensive grapes and wine but has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years and is now a centre of innovation and premium wine production (did you read our blog on the new Chocolate Block 2017 Vintage?). Chenin Blanc (or Steen as you may know it by from Addie Badenhorst) grown on old vines is a signature of this region, together with Syrah, are dry farmed (i.e. farmed without irrigation in order to work the vine harder to produce lower quantity but high quality fruit). Going back to Chenin Blanc, this is the most commonly planted grape variety in South Africa producing both dry and sweet, still and sparkling wines. At a basic level, Chenin produces an easy to drink, food friendly wine with simple stone fruit that in Layman's terms sits between Chardonnay and Sauvignon in terms of base character style. However, the old bush vines mentioned before can create something in the highest echelon of wines; wines with concentrated and complex flavours and a fuller, richer texture. Barrel ageing fermentation and ageing also play an important factor, contributing further body and flavour to the wines. Younger, more inventive wineries like Mother Rock like are pushing the boundaries on natural and raw wines, creating some really interesting versions of Chenin Blanc and other blends!
Durbanville - sitting in between Swartland and Stellenbosch, cooled by sea breezes it has built a reputation for Sauvignon Blanc.
Now that we have discussed the larger, cooler areas, we will touch on the prestigious Elgin, Walker Bay, and Walker Bay districts located in the Cape South Coast.
Elgin - located east of Stellenbosch, the altitude in Elgin plays an important role in cooling the region. Elgin has built a reputation for intense fresh Sauvignon Blancs and showing promise for Pinot Noir (we will delve into Pinot a bit more when we get to Burgundy month), Syrah and Chardonnay.
Walker Bay - here at Love Win we have a bit of a soft spot for Walker Bay. Right on the South African coast, where the vineyards are cooled by the ocean and Benguela Current, this district has an ace up its sleeve; Hemel-en-Aarde. Hemel-en-Aarde has to be one of the most up-and-coming spots in S.A., especially for young wine makers like Johan 'Stompie' Meyer (who makes awesome biodynamic wines from sustainably farmed lands). This district is home to South Africa's best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs due to the cooler climate. However, it is not just these Burgundian grapes that do well here. No, no... Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah also shine with equal success.
What can you expect from each South African grape variety?
Cabernet Sauvignon - There is a savoury complexity to South African Cab, which makes it a delightful alternative to the more fruit-forward Cab values from California. Picture this - black pepper, green bell pepper rounded out with currant, blackberry and plum. South African Cabernet Sauvignon fits somewhere in between new world and old world; it's savoury, but without all the grit of a French Bordeaux Superieur.
Syrah - Syrah from South Africa is becoming popular due to its dark spiced fruit flavors with a chocolate like richness (like in the Chocolate Block we were talking about earlier). It's important to note that since Syrah grows throughout South Africa, it has a wide range of styles. You will find more savoury wines from cooler regions such as Paarl and Stellenbosch and more richly intense wines from dry areas such as Robertson and Swartland.
Pinotage - Pinotage offers juicy, raspberry to blueberry fruit flavours with spiced chocolate and tobacco. The wines are more dense, higher alcohol and typically more savoury than Pinot Noir. Pinotage often gets blended with Syrah.
Other Reds - many other red wines (mainly of French origin) are growing in S.A., including Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and Cinsault (spelled 'Cinsaut' in SA). While most of the aforementioned varieties end up being blended, South Africa's cooler climate regions (including Elgin and Walker Bay) are making single variety Pinot Noir.
Chenin Blanc - Also known by the name Steen. Most of it gets thrown into brandy production but there's a growing excitement internationally for South African Chenin Blanc. A peachy and floral grape variety quite similar to Viognier although most affordable examples are only slightly floral and dry on the palate.
Sauvignon Blanc - The flavors of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa have a lot of similarities to New Zealand; they are zesty, grapefruit-y and grassy and usually less deer than the Kiwi equivalent.
Other Whites - Other white varietals include Semillon, Riesling, Viognier which are often used for blending, but increasingly found in single-varietal boutique bottlings.
Now that we have discussed the locations and the grapes within South Africa, what about styles of wines that are being made? We have touched on Cape blends and the new organic style coming out of the region but how do you know what you are getting in a bottle?
First we have Estate Grown wines; these are wines that come from a single estate. Usually an estate will be located in one area of a region. Take Chamonix or Jordan for example, it allows the winegrower to maintain control over their vineyard and work the land in the way that they feel is best. This traditional structure is very similar to that of Bordeaux Chateaux.
The new wave producers, like JH Meyer and Chris Alheit (who produces the sensational Cartology range) mentioned above use a different approach. They source their fruit from anywhere on the Cape, allowing them to pick and choose the best sites to grow the best grapes. This means that they aren't constrained to one district and are able to source out and reinvigorate specific 'forgotten' varietals and rare vineyard sites with very old bush vines (sometimes over 100 years old!).
But how does this affect the wine?
Well, by sticking to the more traditional method, producers create wines that reflect both their house style and the terroir. Their wines offer a lot of consistency in terms of quality and style (how it tastes), through the blending of varietals and taste testing against previous vintages.
Whereas site specific wine makers have the flexibility to change the blends as they please, depending on the vintage conditions and vineyard site quality. Whilst this means that they are often going to get different tasting wines each year, this is actually a positive because the wines become more interesting and unique.
Established estates that have a fair bit of capital are actually starting to follow this model for grape sourcing too, creating additional interest for consumers and collectors alike!
So there's low down on South Africa, what do you think? Don't forget that if you want to be involved in tasting a bit of South Africa right here in Jersey, make sure you buy a ticket for our March Cru Tasting on 27 March 2019, which will give you a chance to chat wine with us and we guarantee that you will walk away with a stunning bottle of juice!
- Alex Rondel