I suppose there was every chance that the wines that emerged from post-apartheid South Africa would appear odd, quirky, even weird to most wine lovers. After all, the wine-makers had worked in virtual isolation for decades, their wines – like all South African produce – officially embargoed by governments or privately shunned by consumers. Without the pressure of critical scrutiny to sharpen their focus, the country’s wine industry might well have drifted into a backwater. What a relief, when South African wines began to re-appear on international shelves in the mid 90’s, to find that crisp fruity whites, seriously structured reds and of course the unique Pinotage provided inexpensive, good quality drinking.
Though the South African wine industry is certainly not without a legacy of problems, its seems there is huge potential for the area now that it has rejoined the international wine community. And the 20 years since the long walk to freedom has seen enormous changes. New areas like the hip and happening Swartland, the Elgin Valley and Bot River, new star young winemakers like Chris Alheit, Peter Allan Finlayson and Chris and Andrea Mullineux, and a new focus on celebrating small parcels of great old vine material in dedicated bottlings, rather than allowing them to disappear into blends produced by the country’s biggest players. It is fair to say that South Africa is as dynamic and confident as any of the world’s wine regions.
Geography and climate
Only the very southern tip of the country has a climate suitable for growing wine grapes. As a whole, this is a hot climate region, but moderating influences are to be found in the shape of the Indian ocean to the south cooled by currents flowing up fom the Antarctic, breezes from the Atlantic ocean to the west, and some altitude to be found in upland areas.
South Africa produces much more white wine than red and is widely planted with a broad range of the ubiquitous “international” varieties. However, a few grapes have particular significance:
Chenin Blanc the great grape of the middle Loire, it is often grown and bottled as Steen. Though generally producing dry, fruity, quaffing wines, it is versatile and can be fashioned in a variety of styles including oak-aged, serious examples and long-lived botrytised dessert wines. This single variety accounts for around 50% of all South African white wine production.Colombard‘s great claim to fame is as the base wine of Cognac, but here it makes a pleasantly fruity, usually dry white wine.
Sauvignon Blanc not particularly significant in terms of volume, but one of South Africa’s most successful varieties in my experience.
Muscadelle/Muscat d’Alexandrie are both used for a whole range of dessert and fortified wines, usually with a wonderful combination of flowery aromatics and luscious, chocolaty sweetness.
Pinotage a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, South Africa’s very own grape variety which can produce both vibrant, super-fruity Beaujolais Nouveau style quaffing reds, and much more serious, oak-aged, robust, ageworthy efforts.
Pinot Noir is again not statistically significant in terms of production, but anyone who tastes a fine example from the likes of Bouchard-Finlayson or Hamilton Russell will agree that it shows massive potential.
Cabernet Sauvignon has traditionally been South Africa’s premium red variety with fine estate-bottled examples being compared favourably with the best in the world. I have found mixed evidence: some bottles ripe, balanced and well-structured; some a little herbal and weedy.
The wines of South Africa
South Africa has few vinous superstars that stride the global stage. International auction houses and collectors will scrabble for the glamorous top wines of Europe, Australia and California, but nothing from the dark continent commands that kind of fervour as yet, save perhaps for a few of Swartland’s most iconic bottlings. Partly, this must be down to the country’s political situation, but also to the way the wine industry is structured. Co-operatives and bulk producers still outnumber small-scale independent estates (around 85% of all production is by co-ops). Inevitably quality suffers in these circumstances. Nevertheless there are many visionary, quality-obsessed winemakers who are gradually re-shaping this landscape. There are also many well-respected and extremely fine wines that have reached international prominence, if not super-stardom.
At their best, it seems to me that South African wines exemplify a tremendous fusion of Old and New World styles. They can have the ripe, focussed, sunny fruit of Australia, yet the reserve, firmness and structure of fine Bordeaux or Burgundy. Several of the best producers are highlighted in the brief run through the main wine regions which follows:
One of the most familiar regional names, Stellenbosch is the home of most of the traditional premium red wines, especially Cabernets and “Bordeaux blends”. A large area, there are a variety of soils and climatic conditions, but the Atlantic provides some moderation. There is a concentration of quality individual wine estates in Stellenbosch, amongst the best and longest-established are Blaauwklippen, Meerlust, Warwick, Thelema, Kanonkop and Rustenberg.
If you’ve bought a bottle of inexpensive supermarket South African wine in the past, chances are it came from the massive KWV wine-growers association. KWV dominates the region producing a huge volume of red, white and fortified wine. A large inland valley area, there are quality individual producers too such as Fairview, Glen Carlou and Nederburg.
On the cool, coastal outskirts of Cape Town, this is South Africa’s most historically famous wine region thanks mainly to its almost legendary dessert wines which are said to have given solace to the emperor Napoleon in exile. In 1986 the fine Klein Constantia estate revived this style with the fine “Vin de Constance”, a Muscat-based sweet wine that is spoken of in the same breath as Château d’Yquem. The dry Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernets of the region are also well worth trying. Other fine producers include Groot Constantia, Buitenverwachting and Steenberg.
This cool, upland coastal area might be more familiar from the historical names of Walker Bay or Hermanus on the label, but it has been re-engineered as ‘Heaven and Earth’, with three sub-regions too: Valley, Upper and Ridge. Some of the most exciting South African wines I have tasted have come from here, principally the Pinots Noir and the Chardonnays of producers like Newton Johnson, Bouchard-Finlayson and Hamilton-Russell. These producers are employing new French oak barrels and very traditional winemaking to make premium wines that are convincingly Burgundian in style. Joining them have been plenty of new quality names like Shannon, Summaridge and La Vierge, and operations like Creation and Seven Springs extending further into new territory.
Another hot, inland area but with lime-rich soils suited to white wine varieties, particulary Chardonnay. Look out for the wines of de Wetshof, Van Loveren and Springfield.
A small area southeast of the Paarl, the hot climate is again moderated by a little altitude. I’ve been impressed by wines from La Motte, Von Ortloff, Bellingham and Boschendal, but arguably newer estates like Boekenhoutskloof and Chamonix are now leading the way.
The newest kid on the block to hit superstar status, Swartland lies further north than the established regions and a band of hipster winemakers, preceded by Charles Back, but led by Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst, quickly established a huge reputation by finding parcels of old, dry-farmed fruit of the highest quality and vinifying them with a ‘hands off’ approach to produce compelling wines. It’s fair to say these pioneers have inspired not only a rush to Swartland by many more winemakers, but some of their philosophy extending and reinvigorating the whole country, even in the bastions of Stellenbosch and Paarl.
South Africa’s coolest wine growing region, the apple orchards of Elgin still dominate and many wine farms are on former apple land, but today this self-contained area, ringed by mountains to the south west of Cape Town, is one of South Africa’s best, especially for aromatic varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Paul Cluver and Oak Valley where pioneers, being followed quickly by Iona Estate, Almenkirk, and a whole group of new producers making increasingly fine cooler-climate wines.
Butter river is one of the latest regions that is trying to establish its own identity and set itself out as a distinctive terroir. Sandwiched between Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, it is also a cooler climate, where Syrah is one of the star grapes. The Luddite is perhaps the best-known brand of the region, though there are bigger players like Gabrielskloof. Peter Allan Finlayson, one of the hippest winemakers in the Cape thanks to his Crystallum label, has recently taken over winemaking at Gabrielskloof too, adding more lustre to the Bot River name.
Winemaking here at the start of the rugged countryside of the Cape Point Peninsula is driven on quality terms by Cape Point Vineyards, though recently its long-term winemaker Duncan Savage has launched his eponymous range alongside to great critical acclaim.
Most other vine growing regions such as Worcester, Cederberg, Olifants River, Orange River and Little Karoo are hot and arid, traditionally given over to bulk production of wines from irrigated vines, often used as the raw materials for distillation, but once again it is well worth keeping an eye out for a new generation of quality wines appearing from these, and just about any area of the Cape.