Let us begin with a short history of South African wine…
Old World? New World?
This pleasant ‘straddling’ problem as to what side of the wine world South Africa sits upon is pretty provocative. It is widely understood that SA is a ‘new world’ wine growing region. However its roots are literally steeped centuries into the past, dating back to 1652 when Cape Town founder and Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, first planted vines in order to produce wines in an effort to treat sailors with scurvy.
His successor, Simon van der Stel, however, was the first serious viticulturist who saw a market for SA wine. Then, after him, came Hendrik Cloete in 1778, who purchased the estate and developed Constantia, putting SA Muscat dessert wines on the worldwide market. SA entered its heyday until phylloxera hit in 1866.
The age of winemaking went to sleep for a while. Wine was mainly becoming mass produced and poor in quality. Other lucrative crops were planted instead. Though a co-op (the Kooperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging—KWV) restored wine production to a respectable state, Apartheid soon took away its world market potential. Therefore, it really wasn’t until the 1990’s when SA got its grapey groove back.
Just in the past few years does it seem SA finally has a strong foothold in the fine winemaking industry. The dawn of their most recent renaissance brought with it new international varieties—Cabernet, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc particularly. Chenin Blanc is, no doubt, one of the most beautiful done in SA. For example, try the 2008 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc ($14.99). You will get a sense of the honeysuckle goodness this grape has to offer along with a creamy, leesy finish. Or, for a more tropical interpration, check out the much-loved Vinum Afica Chenin Blanc ($12.99).
For a crisper white alternative, take home the 2009 Villiera ‘Down to Earth’ Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($10.99) from Cape Town. It is a lovely interpretation of a classic Bordeaux blend. Perfect with seafood, goat cheese and light pasta dishes.
At my store, we also harness a couple Pinotages—a little cross-breed of Cinsualt and Pinot Noir native to SA, known for its distinctive ‘funk.’ SA ‘funk’, as we call it in the trade, is a little something like earth, dirt, and rubber all mixed together with fruit and herbs. Yeah, it sounds a little off-putting, but really it’s rather interesting and certainly singular to SA. We like to think of it as SA’s ‘terroir.’ I use that word with great intention, as it reckons an ‘Old World’ kind of concept I continually look for in all wines—old world and new. It’s just harder to locate in the latter. Check out the 2007 Wildekrans Pinotage ($14.99) out of Walker Bay or the 2008 Fairvalley Pinotage ($11.99), the sales of which go to support both the Fairvalley Ecovillage housing development and local community center.
Cabernet is another grape that is fast growing in popularity. Eric Asimov of the New York Times even wrote, “Forgive me if I’m excited. I can’t help it. I want to tell you straight out that [SA], of all places, is one of the greatest sources for moderately priced cabernet sauvignon on the planet today.” He goes on struggling to compare it to either Bordeaux or Napa—for it assumes the character of both worlds, unsurprisingly. It is fresh, herbal, and full of energy in Cape Town, seldom weighted down with oppressive over-oaking techniques. In a word: pure. Though we are still searching for a well-priced straight Cabernet, we can offer you some lovely blends. Sip on the 2008 Ken Forrester Petit Cab/Merlot ($9.99) or the red wine of the month—the 2008 Ruins—which has just about half Syrah and half Cabernet ($12.99). Both are fantastic values.
Finally, to end on a sweet note, the style that got SA started back in the 17th century: Muscadel. In particular, try the 2007 Rietvallei Muscadel ($15) the next time you are searching for an after dinner wine to sip on. It is a bit lighter in body than port, making it a nice year-round alternative. Plus, you can even throw it over some crushed ice in the summertime with a few slices of strawberries for a special treat.
So there you go. South Africa in a teeny tiny grape bud. Drink through this region and find out why it is quickly growing to be known as more than just a region of potential. It is proving to be potential realized.