South African Wine:
Melding of Old and New Worlds
This is a compilation of three articles. The first was written for Specialty
Food Magazine. I wrote the other two after a trip to South Africa.
History and politics have a way of mingling with wine to make a beverage that isn’t always palatable. The fascist regime of Francisco Franco kept Spanish wine a virtual secret even after his death. In Argentina, a disastrous economy followed on the heels of a military junta to create a climate that was inhospitable to producing great wine. And in South Africa, the wine industry was hidebound until the end of apartheid in 1990.
“What’s wonderful is that the growth in quality has mirrored the political development,” says Andre Shearer owner of Cape Classics, which imports South African wines. “The wine industry is unrecognizable to people who left 20 years ago. There has been an entrepreneurial spirit in the last 15 years.”
The quality of which Shearer speaks was demonstrated in Wine Spectator’s annual roundup of South African wines. Writing in the May 15, 2003 issue, James Molesworth noted that of the 306 wines he tasted “more than 40 scored 90 points or better on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, a marked increase over previous years. Nearly 90 percent of the wines scored at least 80 points, a strong showing.” South Africa can now boast world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc as well as some interesting, if not unique, Chenin Blanc, and an indigenous varietal called Pinotage, a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
Though the overthrow of apartheid breathed new life into South Africa’s wine industry (which dates back to 1659), the modern era actually began in 1973 when the Wine of Origin (WO) system was set up, patterned after the French Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC). The WO sets standards for such things as allowable grape varieties and labeling. For example, varietal wines sold in South Africa must contain 75 percent of that grape, 85 percent if the wines are to be exported. It also created wine districts—there are 13 legal districts but 12 for practical considerations —within larger wine regions and a number of sub districts called wards. The vast majority of the wine in South Africa is made in the Southwestern part of the country within 300 miles of the city of Cape Town.
Stellenbosch and Paarl are considered the top two wine districts, especially for red wines, though some outstanding Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs can be found in Stellenbosch. Roberston shows increasing promise for Chardonnay, says Rachel Lovett of 57 Main Street Wine Co., a South African wine importer. “The granite soils are more like Burgundy,” she says. Hermanus, Elgin, and Walker Bay in the Overberg district all do well with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Constantia is the country’s oldest wine area and continues to produce fine wines.
What do South African wines taste like? It’s difficult to generalize,
especially since there are distinct differences among districts, not to mention
the microclimates within them. But it is often said that South African wines
combine the best of traditional Old World winemaking from Europe, primarily
France, with the favorable weather conditions and sense of innovation from
New World wine regions such as California and Australia. “We’re
halfway between old and new,” says Robin Back of The Wines of Charles
Back (an umbrella term that encompasses Fairview and Spice Route wineries
owned by the Back family). “Nice New World fruit and Old World structure.”
Sauvignon Blanc is the varietal that created the first big splash for South Africa wines, and many still think it is the white wine on which South Africa should hang its hat. It generally strikes a balance between Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley in France and those of New Zealand. “South African Sauvignon Blanc is more tropical fruit (than New Zealand), which can sometimes be too heavy. In the mouth it’s more minerally, like a Sancerre,” says Shearer, who imports Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blancs, considered the cream of the crop. Others to look out for include Delaire, Jardin, Buitenverwachting, Ken Forrester, L’Avenir, Bellevue, Seidelberg, Fairview, Boschendal, and Thelema.
Only the Loire Valley does as well as South Africa with Chenin Blanc, traditionally called Steen, though some winemakers would just as soon go back to the classical name. However, where Chenin Blanc can be off-dry, even sweet in France, it is almost always dry in South Africa, exhibiting tropical fruit flavors such as guava and passion fruit. Brands to look for include Rudera, Mulderbosch, and deTrafford.
While South African Chardonnays offer ripe fruit, they are balanced by crisp citrus-like acidity and good minerality. Malolactic fermentation is seldom used, and when it is, it creates a creaminess rather than a buttery character in the wine. Top producers include Mulderbosch, Buitenverwachting, Neil Ellis, Brampton, Drakensig, Fairview, Seidelberg, L’Avenir, and DeWetshof.
Though South Africa’s initial success was based on its white wines, red wines have made tremendous strides in recent years. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted red, used for single varietal wines as well as in Bordeaux blends. “They’re not blockbusters like California,” Lovett says. “They’re drier with good body and character.” Names to look for include Neil Ellis, Engelbrecht-Els (the Els being golf pro Ernie Els), Rustenberg, Stark-Condé, Drakensig, Rupert & Rothschild, Thelema, Rust en Verde, and Meerlust.
If Sauvignon Blanc is the signature white of South Africa, many believe that Shiraz is, or will be, the signature red. “It’s more Rhone in style, with tobacco and spices,” Lovett says. “The plummy fruit is residual, not upfront and jammy.” In warm areas such as Paarl, Shiraz is leading a virtual charge of Rhone varietals, including Grenache and Viognier. Back has torn out his Bordeaux varietals in Paarl and planted only Rhone grapes for his Fairview label because the warmer climate is more suitable. Other Shiraz (or Syrah) producers of note are Neil Ellis, Mas Nicolas, Drakensig, Rust en Verde, Spice Route, and Thelema.
That leaves Pinotage. Some, such as Helen Gregory of 57 Main Street, think
that this uniquely South African grape can be too much for the uninitiated. “It
can be tarry and smoky and too complicated for people tasting it for the
first time,” she says. Others, like Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy,
authors of Wine for Dummies, think “it can be a truly delicious, light-to-medium-bodied
red wine that makes for easy drinking.” Good producers include Fairview,
Seidelberg, and Spice Route.
This is a good time to buy South African wines, thanks to the weak South African rand. Among the 40 wines that scored 90 or more points in Wine Spectator’s tasting roundup, 35 were $30 or less. More than 50 wines scoring at least 85 points were $15 or less. As Lovett put it, “Our competition is generally higher priced than we are.”
South African Wine
After 10 Years of Freedom
I hae written on South African wines for Specialty Food Magazine. Since then, I have had the opportunity to visit South Africa for Cape Wine 2004, a biennial wine trade event held at the new Cape Town Convention Centre in March of this year on the eve of that country’s 10 year anniversary of democracy.
Over the course of a week, I tasted almost 300 wines. I was impressed by how many were well made and how many were good values. I was equally impressed by the beauty of South Africa’s wine regions.
Cape Town is a charming city with a very European feel. It is perfectly situated for an event like Cape Wine 2004 because you can get from it to many of South Africa’s wine regions in less than two hours by car, which is what I and several other American wine writers did. In this sense, Cape Town is a lot like San Francisco. Continuing with the California analogy, Stellenbosch would be the Napa Valley of South Africa and the town of Stellenbosch, the St. Helena.
But there are plenty of other places to explore. One of my favorites was
Franschhoek, the tiny and utterly charming valley and town of the same name.
Despite its size, Franschhoek boasts eight of South Africa’s top 100
restaurants. (For more information on the valley, go to www.franschhoek.org.za.)
At a tasting on a cool, foggy morning at Boekenhoutskloof winery in Franschhoek, I found the following wines worthy of mention. (Note: while I tried to taste only wines that are or will soon be available in the United States, some wines below may not fall into that category.)
- La Petite Ferme, 2003 Blanc Fumé. Ripe pear, melon, and apple flavors nicely integrated with oak.
- Plaisir de Merle 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. Elegant, ripe and smooth with a creaminess from lees contact and a nice acidic tang.
- Pierre Jourdan Cuvèe Bell Rose. Much more delicate than most sparkling wines made of 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes. Lively strawberry fruit.
- Boschendal 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe raspberry fruit with earthy notes and plenty of tannins. Still needs some time.
- Graham Beck 2002 Old Road Pinotage. Ripe cherry fruit with lots of meatiness and firm structure.
- Stony Brook 2002 Shiraz Reserve. Earthy, smoky and meaty with ripe fruit and lots of depth.
Boekenhoutskloof, the host winery for this event, didn’t show as well
on this morning as it did a few nights later. At a small gathering I tasted
several of winemaker Marc Kent’s wines and was thoroughly impressed.
Overall, his wines were among my favorites on the trip. The Wolftrap is a
spicy, aromatic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cinsault that delivers
amazing flavor for about $8 a bottle. Another tremendous value is Kent’s
2003 Porcupine Ridge Syrah ($10), which has more flavor than wines twice
the price. The meaty and delicious 2001 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah could easily
be mistaken for a topflight Rhone wine. Just to prove he can make white wines
too, Kent’s 2002 Semillon (a vastly underrated varietal) showed good
varietal character, spice and fruit. Keep an eye out for Marc Kent and Boekenhoutskloof
South African Wine
After 10 Years of Freedom
In the last newsletter I gave you a hint of the many quality South African wines I tasted during my trip there in March. Below are more wines I enjoyed. As was the case with my previous tasting notes, I tried to sample only wines that are or will soon be available in the United States. But some unavailable wines may have slipped through. My apologies if you can't find a wine I've mentioned. However, in such instances (and not just for South African wines) let your retailer know. Your retailer may eventually find the wine for you.
Elgin and Walker Bay are cool, contiguous regions southeast of Capetown, where crisp Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs predominate. On a sun-filled afternoon I tasted 60 or so wines at the Hamilton Russell winery. Here were my favorites:
- Bouchard Finlayson 2002 Blanc de Mer. A charming mix of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and more. Wonderfully aromatic. Try this with Asian food.
- Bouchard Finlayson 2003 Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh and bright with good varietal character.
- Bouchard Finlayson 2003 Sans Barrique. Despite the lack of oak, no malolactic fermentation and no lees contact, this wine had amazing richness and creaminess.
- Bouchard Finlayson also makes an interesting blend of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo called Hannibal (good with liver and fava beans?) and a gamy, spicy Pinot Noir. Both are produced in small quantities so they may not make their way here. To find out, contact the winery’s importer, Bryce McNamee, a bright, energetic fellow who has a quality portfolio. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Hamilton Russell 2003 Chardonnay. A riper and richer style than most of the other Chardonnays from the region.
- Hamilton Russell 2002 Pinot Noir. Nice Pinot nose, ripe cherry fruit.
- Luddite 2002 Shiraz. For trademark reasons, this wine goes under the name Neils Verburg in the United States. No matter what the name, this lush and delicious wine is worth seeking.
- Iona 2003 Elgin Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh and clean with ripe fruit and a touch of chamomile.
- Beaumont 2003 Chenin Blanc. Creamy and exotic.
- Beaumont 2002 Pinotage. Dark, ripe, and tarry.
- Beaumont 2002 Shiraz. Another dark and ripe beauty, but unlike many ripe Shirazes, not the least bit ponderous.
- Beaumont 2003 Mourvedre. As befits a grape from the Southern Rhone, a lovely scent of lavender to balance this meaty wine.
Speaking of the Rhone, no one does Rhone-style wines better in South Africa than Charles Back. We had such a good time drinking wine on his front porch overlooking his Fairview winery one morning that we were an hour late for lunch. Of course, it also helped that Back makes some terrific cheeses. (In fact, he makes more money on cheese than he does on wine, he confided.)
Back's Goats do Roam (a play on Cotes du Rhone and the fact that he raises more goats than anyone else in the country) is the biggest selling South African wine in the United States and a great value at around $10. The Goats do Roam in Villages (again, a play on Cotes du Rhone Villages) has more oomph, courtesy of more Shiraz and Pinotage and less Grenache. Goat Roti ($18) is structured like a Cote Roti (96 percent Shiraz, 4 percent Viognier) and really hits home with Rhone flavors of meat and game. Back's 2003 Viognier ($18) is delicious, full of ripe fruit but with a good acidic backbone. Spice Route is another Back winery that produces topflight wines.