Wine Talk: South Africa and its Wines
By Anthony Minikon Wesley
While many might think South Africa is new to the wine industry, the history of
South African wine-making stretches back to the 17th century. Due to the embargo placed on South Africa for apartheid, South African wines were either limited or restricted in terms of export therefore they are barely known.
The Dutch Indian Companies established the Cape as refreshment station in 1652 to provide fresh food for the company’s merchant fleet during their voyages to India and surrounding areas. This led to a flourishing wine industry and the birth of a nation.
The first Governor of the Cape planted a vineyard in 1655 and four years later in 1659, the first wine was made from the Cape’s grapes. This led to the planting of vines on a larger scale. Due to the farmers’ ignorance of viticulture, many setbacks occurred. The Dutch came close to having no wine tradition. It was only after the French Huguenots settled at the Cape in the late 1600’s; bringing with them their wine-making techniques and skills, that the wine industry began to flourish in South Africa.
The wine land stretches from the rugged mountains of the central region to the plains of the Little Karoo, where viticulture takes place in the Riverine Valleys. The vineyards are mostly situated on the Western Cape, near the coast. In realigning its products to compete globally, South Africa has in recent years, replanted forty percent (40%) of the vineyard. Where white grapes once dominated, new red plantings have shifted with reds being in higher demand, and new varieties and clones are being planted.
The five main wine-growing regions in South Africa are Breed River Valley, Coastal, Little Karoo, Olifants River, and Boberg, which encompass twenty-one diverse districts and some sixty-one smaller wards.
STELLENBOSCH – known for its wine-making tradition dating back to the end of the 17th century; the mountainous terrain, rainfall, well-drained soils and the diversity of terrors make this region one of the most sought after viticulture areas. A wide variety of noble grapes is produced here and is known for its quality of blended reds. I refer to this area as South Africa’s Bordeaux.
PAARL (meaning Pearl) – about 50 km from Capetown, with its French influence, produces excellent wines as well. The summers are long and warm, and the rainfall is enough to make irrigation advantageous in exceptional circumstances. A large variety of grapes are grown in this area, which include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Pinotage.
WALKER BAY- the district, which surrounds the seaside town of Hermanus is
well known for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The Pinotage from Walker Bay is
also gaining notice for being outstanding and maintaining a consistent quality. The vineyards benefit from consistent cooling winds from the nearby ocean, making
Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Shiraz thrive as well.
The traditional vinitera grapes are Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Riesling.
There are two varieties that originated in South Africa: Cape Riesling and
Pinotage. The three among the many whites that are being produced are Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
CHARDONNAY – Although currently the most popular in the world, the South African chardonnay began to gain popularity and importance in the last 16 years. Initially, the chardonnays had a common fault of being over-oaked, however they are now the better, with the winemakers being careful not to let the oak overpower the characteristic of the wine. Steel barrel fermenting is becoming more popular than ever.
CHENIN BLANC – is South Africa’s most popular white variety with about 30% of total production. With Chenin Blanc, one gets a wide range, from sweet to dry, including sparkling. It is fresh and fruity, and the sweet botrytis dessert wines made from this grape have become popular.
SAUVIGNON BLANC – This variety has recently received great attention as a world-class wine. The many microclimates are ideally suited to the growth of this variety. The wine tends to be dandy grassy.
The three among the many reds are Pinotage, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.
PINOTAGE – A unique South African grape made from a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (Hermitage), somewhat of cross-pollination. It is full bodies, with good fruit flavors, and a distinctive spicy taste, yet a sweet acetone flavor. It matures very well. Zin and Syrah drinkers love this particular wine.
PINOT NOIR – The Pinots show great promise, made in burgundy style — they are clean and lively, with flavors of ripe cherries.
SHIRAZ (Syrah) – Soft and rich, it is often characterized by smoky and chocolate aromas.
Anthony Minikon Wesley is Wine Steward at Mcninch House Restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina and a Wine Instructor in that part of the world.