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South Africa's Arrival
By Michael Franz
Oct 28, 2008
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This column follows on the heels of one that I published here on WRO a month ago with a title that referred to South Africa as the "Fragile Flower of the Wine World."  Both are based upon a week of intensive tastings and interviews conducted in the Cape region in September, and whereas the initial article focused on the general fragility of the country, this one assesses South African wines on their current merits.  After relaying a lot of rather distressing information on the first round, I'm pleased to be able to report that the current merits of South African wine are pretty damned impressive.

Before turning to some very good news about South African wine, I should report that the "Fragile Flower" column drew about five times the usual volume of reactions from readers, and I'll publish some of those responses in the WRO blog space this week.  I learned a good deal from these reader reflections, but have seen nothing to turn me away from my impression that the future of South Africa's industry depends more decisively on the nation's social and political circumstances than that of any other wine producing country in the world.

It seems important that South Africa looks to me like the only country where the political climate is as important as the ambient climate for a wine industry's future.  Yet it is perhaps even more important to emphasize the factors working in the industry's favor.  These include: 

--A peerlessly long wine producing history among New World producers, stretching back more than 350 years;

--An industry that has re-tooled dramatically during the past 15 years, quickly adopting best practices in viticulture and winemaking from other nations while retaining the best aspects of its heritage;

--Ancient, highly varied soils that give rise to botanical diversity in the Cape region that is unmatched around the world and that likewise provide highly varied viticultural conditions;

--Remarkably diversified vineyard sites with countless different microclimates, altitudes, slopes, and sun exposure profiles, thanks to a mountainous topography situated along the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

To all of this one must add the unsurpassed beauty of the Cape wine regions, as well as proximity to Cape Town, one of the world's most strikingly attractive cities.  These factors bode very well for wine tourism in the future (provided that the country seems safe and stable to potential visitors, which is yet another way in which politics and wine are intertwined in South Africa). 

Just to be clear with regard to the beauty of South Africa's wine country, I think it is indisputable that the greater Cape region is at least as gorgeous as any of the world's most highly-touted areas, including Italy's Alto Adige, Portugal's Duoro Valley, Switzerland's Valais, or New Zealand's Central Otago.  There's not much point in debating the issue of which region is the single most beautiful, since a major element in beauty resides in the eye of the beholder.  But I would nevertheless assert that anyone who doesn't think the Cape region belongs in this elite company is an aesthetic doofus.


Current State of the Winemaking Art

I have some very flattering things to say about South African wine, but first I should say (if only for the sake of establishing some credibility) that I have generally been disappointed in the industry's performance since the wines began re-appearing in the USA in the mid 1990s.

The first round of wines was very inconsistent in quality and style, generally quite unattractive in packaging, and not infrequently heat-damaged or lacking in freshness.  A second phase, starting near the turn of the millennium, was marked by industry transformation within South Africa and a shake-out among importers.  These changes brought wines to the US market that were more attractive in all respects, and yet I rarely found them really striking in quality or value.

Greater consistency in this second phase made it possible to see the outlines of a general stylistic profile, with the wines seeming (interestingly and usefully) poised somewhere between the fruitiness of the New World and the restraint of the Old World.  I wrote admiringly about this profile (as did other observers) and found particular wines to recommend enthusiastically.  However, I never found enough stellar wines to make me think that South Africa was poised to challenge the world's best producing countries, nor even the most rapidly improving ones, such as Spain and New Zealand.

That has now changed.  The 300+ wines that I tasted at Cape Wine 2008 in September were significantly better on average than the comparable number that I tasted at the show in 2006.  I want to keep most of my reflections within the context of specific grape varieties, but will close with a few general remarks.  The sections below offer brief synopses of how varieties are looking these days, along with specific wines to look for in the US market.

I've published full-length reviews of some of these wines and will be publishing many more in weeks to come, but want to offer lists here because South African wines remain frustratingly difficult to find in many North American cities (Canada is actually in better shape than the USA, but that's another story).  Some of the brands that are truly national in distribution, such as Sebeka, are not particularly interesting, and you'll possibly need to be both energetic and discriminating to purchase bottles that will demonstrate that South Africa has really arrived as one of the world's top sources for fine wine.


WHITES:

Chardonnay:

I think it is safe to say that the world is not suffering a catastrophic shortage of Chardonnay, so you might not regard it as front-page news that South Africa is now turning out some very attractive renditions.  However, it would be a bad mistake to overlook what the country is offering these days.  There's real coherence in stylistic terms, and you'll likely find that your wine is mercifully free of the heavy overlay of oak and the ponderously lactic character that can make Chardonnay tiring to drink and confining with food.  This is true even of higher-end bottlings such as Hamilton Russell (from the cool climate of Walker Bay).  Another promising development is that South Africa is turning out some real bargains in the moderate price range, and as cases in point, I'd recommend the renditions by Paul Cluver and Jordan, which offer some interesting complexities from tastefully subtle oak while still showing pure fruit and nice acidic structure.

Paul Cluver (Elgin) 2007
Iona (Elgin) 2007
Jordan (Stellenbosch) 2007
Jordan (Stellenbosch) 'Nine Yards' 2007
Meerlust (Stellenbosch) 2007
Oak Valley (Elgin) 2007
Hamilton Russell (Walker Bay) 2007
Raoul's 'Jakals River' (Walker Bay) Unwooded 2008
Vergelegen 'Reserve' (Stellenbosch) 2007


Chenin Blanc:

South Africa has lots and lots of Chenin Blanc planted, though some of it travels under the name of 'Steen.'  It can be very good whether made in a fresh, simple style with no influence from wood, or whether made in a bigger, more complex style by means of barrel fermentation or ageing.  Moreover, Chenin (like Semillon) is an important contributor to blended whites, which South Africa can do very well--and should do more of, in my opinion.

There's so much Chenin in the country that some have argued for publicizing it (as well as Pinotage on the red side) as South Africa's "calling card" variety in the hope that it might play a role akin to what Malbec has performed for Argentina.  I can understand the temptation behind this idea, and though I certainly think it makes more sense with Chenin than with Pinotage, I still have my doubts that it will ever really take off.  South Africa's Chardonnays are more complex on average, and the Sauvignon Blancs are more exciting, and I think it makes more sense to emphasize the country's ability to make a range of excellent wines than to mount a big push for a particular variety.  One telling indicator that Chenin isn't set to become a standard-bearer came at Cape Wine's signature culinary event, called 'Cape Kontrei Cuisine,' at which 16 growing regions pair their favored varietal wine with small-plate portions of a dish from a famous chef.  At the 2008 event, five regions showed Chardonnay and one showed Sauvignon Blanc, but not a single region seems to have picked Chenin as its champion.

With that said, however, the last thing I'd want to do is to discourage WRO viewers from checking out what South Africa is doing with this excellent grape.  There's no doubt that only France's Loire Valley has taken it to comparable heights, and Chenins from South Africa can be wonderful.

Beaumont (Walker Bay) 2008
Beaumont 'Hope Marguerite' (Walker Bay) 2007
Cederberg (Cederberg) 2008
DeMorgenzon (Stellenbosch) 2006
Fairview 'Oom Pagel' (Darling) 2007
Ken Forrester 'The FMC' (Stellenbosch) 2007
Raats (Stellenbosch) 2007


Sauvignon Blanc:

When you get to the end of this entry, you're going to see a hell of a long list of recommended wines, and there's no doubt that the list would be even longer if I'd had a chance to taste even more wines.  The simple fact is that this grape rocks in the regions around the Cape.  I take no particular pride in this observation, as it was abundantly clear to me from the first time I tasted a Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc many years ago, and the affinity between this grape and this place should be obvious to anyone without a stone dead palate.

South Africa produces a range of styles of Sauvignon, and it is interesting and impressive that the results can be very convincing all along the continuum.  The range runs from pungently grassy and sharply acidic to a broader, softer style based more on melon than citrus fruit to--at the fuller end--renditions that are fleshed out with a blending component of Semillon or some wood influence in fermentation or ageing.  You'll find more of the light-and-zesty style by far, and though some of these could be mistaken for wines from New Zealand's Marlborough region, most are a little lest assertive.  They're still plenty exciting, yet they are a bit more user-friendly and versatile with food, and don't need quite so much residual sugar to counterbalance their acid component.

Returning briefly to the issue of possible 'calling-card' grape varieties for South Africa, there's no doubt in my mind that Sauvignon would have filled that slot if Marlborough hadn't already been so brilliantly successful in mounting a New World challenge to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

Altydedacht (Durbanville) 2008
Cape Point Vineyards (Cape Point) 2007
Cape Point Vineyards 'Isliedh' (blend with Semillon)(Cape Point) 2006
Paul Cluver (Elgin) 2008
De Grendel (Durbanville) 2008
Diemersdal (Durbanville) Single Vineyard 2008
Durbanville Hills (Durbanville) 2008
Elgin Valley Vineyards (Elgin) 2008
First Sighting (Elim) 2008 or 2007
Hillcrest (Durbanville) 2007
Iona (Elgin) 2008
Jordan (Stellenbosch) 2008
Mulderbosch (Coastal Region) 208
Nitida (Durbanville) 2008
Oak Valley (Elgin) 2008
Oak Valley (blend with Semillon) 2007
Rietvallei Estate 'Special Select' (Robertson) 2008
South Hill Vineyards (Elgin) 2007
Steenberg 'Magna Carta' (Constantia) 2007
Strandveld (Elim) 2008
Strandveld 'Adamastor' (blend with Semillon)(Elim) 2007
Thelema 'Sutherland' (Elgin) 2007
Vergelegeln (Stellenbosch) 2007
Waterford (Stellenbosch) 2008

Other:

I need to show a little discipline to keep this column from turning into a tome, but I can't resist noting that South Africa is not just a three-trick pony with Chardonnay, Chenin and Sauvignon.  There are some very good sparklers made there, as well as some delicious dry rosés, blends, and Semillons.  Riesling can also be very good, as can Viognier.  Moreover, given how well Syrah is doing, it seems inevitable that Marsanne and Roussanne are in the offing as well.

Cape Point Vineyards (Cape Point) Semillon 2006
Paul Cluver (Elgin) Gewurztraminer 2008
The Sadie Family (Swartland) 'Palladius' 2007
Vergelegen 'Estate White' (Stellenbosch) 2007


REDS:

Blends:

South Africa makes wonderful blended reds, especially from Bordeaux varieties, though Rhône varieties may yet prove equally impressive.  Yet another sub-category is comprised of so-called "Cape Blends," a defining characteristic of which is incorporation of Pinotage (a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir that is virtually unique to South Africa).  I am skeptical of Cape Blends for the simple reason that I am skeptical of Pinotage's ability to make a positive contribution to a blend over and above what could be contributed by a larger portion of a truly noble variety such as Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

I'll have a bit more to say on this below, in the section devoted explicitly to Pinotage, but here the focus should be on South Africa's impressively classy, complex Bordeaux- and Rhône-style blends.  This category takes maximum advantage of the country's ability to make wines with fruit that is deep in flavor but not obvious in ripeness or fruitiness.  Many blends show a faintly meaty, leafy, earthy edge to the fruit that makes them enduringly interesting to drink, exceptionally versatile with food, and (though this isn't really an end in itself), curiously hard to peg between the New and Old World stylistic profiles.

Moreover, whether it is by design or not, the tendency of most South African winemakers is to go easy on new oak, which really lets the interesting nuances of these blends shine through.  (There are exceptions to this, and as luck would have it, two of them are first in line in my recommended list of blended wines.)  Cabernet Franc seems especially valuable as a blending component even though it is rare as a varietal wine in South Africa (Raats Family Wines makes an important exception to that), lending notes of autumn leaves and cedar that really plays up the likeness to Bordeaux in wines in which it is included.  Finally, South African blends can be exceptionally interesting on every strata of the pricing scale, and in my view only Chile can rival these wines for aromatic complexity out of the New World.

Englebrecht Els (Stellenbosch) 'Proprietary Blend' 2006
Ernie Els (Stellenbosch) 'Limited Release' 2004
Fairview (Swartland) 'Caldera' 2007
Jordan (Stellenbosch) 'Cobbler's Hill' 2004
Kanonkop (Stellenbosch) 'Paul Sauer' 2004
Lourensford (Stellenbosch) '1700' 2004
Meerlust (Stellenbosch) 'Rubicon' 2003 or 2004
Oak Valley (Elgin) 'The Blend' 2005
Radford Dale (Stellenbosch) 'Gravity' 2006
Rust en Vrede (Stellenbosch) 'Estate Red' 2004
The Sadie Family (Swartland) 'Columella' 2006
The Sadie Family (Swartland) 'Sequillo' 2005
Spice Route (Swartland) 'Chakalaka' 2007
Spice Route (Swartland) 'Malabar' 2004
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) 'Estate Red' 2003
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) 'V' 2004


Cabernet Sauvignon:

Although I don't think varietal Cabernet is quite as interesting as South Africa's Bordeaux-style blends, it is a close second, and very much succeeds for the same reasons.  Most of the wines below are not built along blockbuster lines, but rather show real restraint and complexity.  Ripeness is often admirably restrained in South African Cabernets, being sufficient to avoid any overtly "green" or vegetal character in the finished wine, but leaving a little hint of the herbal, leafy side of Cabernet that can lend it much of its aromatic complexity prior to the development of secondary aromas that arise with bottle ageing.

Cabernet, like Chardonnay, is famous for producing good wine almost anywhere where climatic conditions permit vintners to get the fruit ripe.  However, it must be said that some places produce much more interesting results than others with this grape, and South Africa is very high on my list of favorite sources.

Cederberg (Cederberg) 2006
Guardian Peak (Stellenbosch) "Lapa" 2006
Jordan (Stellenbosch) 2006
Kanonkop (Simonsberg, Stellenbosch) 2004
Le Riche (Stellenbosch) Reserve 2004
Rust en Vrede (Stellenbosch) 2004
Simonsig (Stellenbosch) "Labyrinth" 2004
Waterford (Stellenbosch) 2005
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) 2005


Merlot:

This is where the good news ends for a while.  For reasons that I have yet to determine, but which were painfully obvious in empirical terms when tasting at Cape Wine 2008, South African Merlot is usually best avoided in favor of other categories that are currently more successful.  Even producers that are exceptionally consistent (such as Jordan) can produce Merlots that seem jarringly poor by comparison to other wines in their lineup.

Perhaps the country has been stuck with bad plant material, but successes with Merlot are conspicuous by their absence in South Africa.  The same affliction is also seen in Australia, for reasons that--again--have eluded me over the years.

De Grendel (Durbanville) 2006
Meerlust (Stellenbosch) 2006


Pinotage:

Wine writers in the UK have taken all of the fun out of beating up on Pinotage by ganging up on it to the point that there's nothing left to beat.  Yes, it is maddeningly inconsistent, veering drunkenly from being insipidly fruity to painfully tannic, and ranging from mindlessly fruity to bizarrely rubbery in character.  However, the wines are getting a little better lately on average, and I'm told that a good deal has been learned recently about how to deal with the grape's potential shortcomings.  So we should perhaps all reserve judgment and hope for the best.

Fairview "Primo" (Swartland) 2007
Spice Route (Swartland) 2007
Stellenzicht "Golden Triangle" (Stellenbosch) 2006


Shiraz/Syrah:

I didn't taste as much Syrah as I would have liked at Cape Wine this year, but the wines were already so bloody good in 2006 that there wasn't a lot of suspense about how this variety is doing in South Africa.  Many of the vines are still so young that their upper-end potential has yet to be seen, and likewise the vineyard plantings aren't yet sufficiently widespread to make it clear where Syrah will do best or how good it can get.  However, it does not seem inconceivable to me--based on relatively early results--that this grape will reach heights in South Africa that will surpass every source in the world aside from the northern Rhône.

Just for the record:  No, I have not forgotten about Australia.  And no, I didn't forget to spit when tasting in South Africa.  In my impartial tasting experience, no place aside from New Zealand's Hawkes Bay region has gotten so good with Syrah so fast, conjuring interestingly earthy, smoky, meaty nuances to serve as fascinating counterpoints to the pure berry fruit notes.  Tasting is believing:  Taste these wines.

Kevin Arnold (Stellenbosch) Shiraz 2005
Boekenhotskloof (Coastal Region) Syrah 2006
Cederberg (Cederberg) Shiraz 2006
Cirrus (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2006
Fairview 'Cyril Back' (Paarl) 2006
Jordan (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2005
Slowine (Overberg) Shiraz 2006
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Shiraz 2006


Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com