South Africa’s location at the tip of the African continent might conjure up images of abundant sunshine,azure oceans trimmed with glistening white beaches and forests, and plains teaming with lions, giraffe, buffalo and elephant. Nature generously provides all of the above as well as ideal conditions for the growing of vines.
There are four growing regions but vines are mainly planted at a latitude of 27 – 34 degrees South, in the Coastal Region of the Western Cape, where spectacular mountain ranges frame some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Well-established wine farms threaded along the coast are seldom further than 50 kilometers from the ocean. Here, the constant interaction between towering peaks, criss-crossing valleys and the meeting of the cold Atlantic and the warmer Indian Ocean, provides welcome relief from warm summer temperatures. Additionally, cool afternoon breezes keep mean temperatures during February – harvest time – around 22 degrees Celsius.
But wine-growing in South Africa was not always thus. The only vine natural to South Africa is called Rhoicissus Tomentosa (Capensis), also called African Grape or monkey rope. These woody lianas easily climb to 20 meters in the high canopy forests, providing treetop access to monkeys, baboons and other forest creatures. However, while the fruit is edible, it cannot be used for making wine. That had to wait until the seventeenth century.
The Dutch East India Company established a supply station at the Cape in 1652 to provide sustenance to the brave fleets taking on the stormy Southern oceans on their way to the alluring riches of the East. The first Dutch Governor, Jan van Riebeeck and his gardener, Hendrik Boom, established a vineyard in Green Point – now home to the impressive FIFA Soccer World Cup stadium. The pressing of the first precious drops of wine was recorded in his diary on 2 February, 1659. Last year, a number of wonderful retrospective wine tastings, wine festivals and historic vine-planting ceremonies were held around the Cape Winelands to celebrate the landmark event of 350 years of Cape Wine.
With the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the advent of democracy sixteen years ago, a renewed creative energy caused dramatic changes to the wine industry. Forward-thinking winemakers and viticulturists embraced advances and new technology without losing the art of capturing the spirit of place in their wines. And now, the Rainbow Nation, as South Africa is fondly known, has truly discovered the treasure of its ancient soils and is captivating local as well as international markets with wines of individuality, character and integrity.
Exports have grown from fewer than 50 million litres in 1994 to 411 million litres, 53.9% of total wine production, in 2008. Recently South African wine imports into the UK surpassed those of France, placing South Africa fourth in this important market. Quality control for export is stringent. Samples of all wines for export are sent to the Wine and Spirit Board for tasting and chemical analysis. An official seal is given to each bottle which verifies that the claims made on the label are true, thereby ensuring the integrity of every bottle that leaves the shores. This year new lightweight bottles have been introduced in an effort to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
Colourful, passionate and inspirational characters abound amongst growers and winemakers, with a sprinkling of anarchy and unconventional opinion added to the mix, this provides the breeding ground for young talent to develop and forge new paths Windswept and energetic, Duncan Savage, the young winemaker of Cape Point Vineyards, encapsulates the new face of the South African wine industry. Expressing his unique terroir on the thin stretch of peninsula towards Cape Point, he is making world-class, mineral edged, Sauvignon Blanc from spectacular sea-facing vineyards planted in 1996. The wine is herbaceous in youth but develops texture and depth with maturity. Savage is constantly developing new ideas and has recently started using 600-liter clay amphorae for red and white wine making and maturation. His enthusiasm is tangible, and completely believable when he says: ‘For me South Africa is “watch this space”. The potential is huge.’ Sauvignon Blanc is planted widely and one of South Africa’s big success stories, producing herbaceous or more tropical styles with equal success.
Adjacent to the Cape Point vineyards, facing False Bay, is the historic Constantia Valley, where grapes were first planted in the 17th century. Vineyards cling to the Eastern slopes of Constantia berg where the cooling ocean breezes ensure slow ripening. Here, many famous estates such as Groot Constantia, Steenberg, Buitenverwachting as well as Klein Constantia continue to produce award-winning wines of great finesse and elegance. Klein Constantia produces South Africa’s most famous unfortified sweet wine made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (Muscat de Frontignan). The varieties, Pontac, red and white Muscadel and a little Chenin Blanc were included in the historic wine that was prized in the 18th century by Europe’s aristocracy: it is even said that Napoleon asked for a glass of Constantia on his death bed.
Talented young winemaker Adam Mason, now entrusted with the wines on the estate, believes in creating the wines in the vineyard, and simple ‘hands-off’ guidance in the cellar. His wines are focused and resonate with authentic brilliance. The Vin de Constance is richly aromatic with a nose of candied orange, sun-dried peaches and sandalwood – imparting a sense of history and golden sun-filled days in every glass. Limited quantities are allocated to selected outlets in Europe where it is eagerly sought after by connoisseurs.
And the wards keep coming. A recent triumph for South Africa on the international wine stage was Danie Steytler’s Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2006, which won the International Trophy for Top Red Single Varietal wine in the World at the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards in London. The wine was competing against some 10,285 entries. My tasting note on the wine reads ”The wine has deep layers of black fruit, mulberry and spiced plums with harmonious tannins giving definition to multi-layered fruit; richly textured yet elegant with the balance to age beautifully.” Danie is a true artist of the soil, to whom such accolades are nothing new: his Steytler Vision 2001 (Pinotage/Cabernet blend) was named best red blend in the world in 2004 International Wine and Spirit Competition in London. He loves to experiment with new wine styles; and his Marketing Director and wife Yngvild sometimes – if proudly – despairs at having another wine to sell! Danie is a member of the prestigious Cape Wine Makers Guild. Members are invited by their peers in recognition of at least 5 years of winemaking excellence. An annual auction of these rare limited edition, collector’s wines, is held on the first Saturday of October, attracting buyers from around the world.
Pinotage is a South African homegrown variety created in 1925 by Professor Abraham Perold. He successfully crossed Cinsaut (then known as Hermitage) and Pinot Noir to marry the reliability of the former with the nobility of the latter. At best it makes densely textured wines with great longevity and easy drinking, the fruity styles which are gaining popularity amongst younger consumers. On the cellar wall of the famous Pinotage producer, Kanonkop , the following words appear: “Pinotage is a wine made from women’s tongues and lion’s hearts: drink enough of it and you could talk forever and fight the devil!”
The versatile Chenin Blanc still comprises about 19% of plantings and is enjoying its elevation from workhorse grape to ultra-chic varietal. Precious old bush vines are given tender love and care by Chenin enthusiasts such as fellow Cape Wine Master, Irina von Holt of Old Vines Cellars. She specializes in the production of characterful Chenin – including an outstanding Methode Cape Classique sparkler! South Africa’s Chenin plantings are the largest in the world, surpassing those of its home ground in the Loire region of France. Wine styles vary from light, unwooded quaffers to seriously slick, barrique-aged numbers from cellars such as Raats, Ken Forrester and Jean Daneel. Cabernet Sauvignon is still the most planted red varietal with sensual Shiraz catching up fast. Cabernet makes characterful wines with great structure and longevity while Shiraz can produce elegant spicy/peppery wines in the cooler areas or rich, velvety wines bursting with fruit from the warmer vineyards. Some older styles can have a pungent earthiness which was once described to me as reminiscent of “farm-yard and horse stables”, whilst Shiraz with a touch of Viognier blended in can be delicious, with the floral tones of the white grape lifting the dark fruit and spice of the Shiraz.
All these vinous riches lie within the world-renowned botanical biodiversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom. Recently declared a world heritage site, its is the smallest and richest of six such kingdoms in the world containing an abundance of rare floral species. South Africa is recognised as a world leader in sustainable winegrowing, with two encompassing initiatives to protect the environment. The Biodiversity in Wine Initiative, which began in 2004, now has 170 participants pledged to protect 118,500 hectares of the unique fynbos and renosterveld, covering 20% more land than that of the vineyard footprint. Moreover, the compulsory Integrated Production of Wine guidelines, in place since 1998, provide for environmentally sustainable practices both in the vineyards and the cellar as well as the protection of biodiversity. Exciting experiments, such as using indigenous plants as cover crops, are also in progress., and all these initiatives have now been fully integrated into an industry handbook for sustainable farming. With vintners pushing the boundaries of new vineyards to ever higher slopes and extremities, these measures will ensure that what makes us unique, will not be sacrificed on the altar of Bacchus.
A vintner once said: “I enjoy winemaking because this sublime nectar is simply incapable of lying. A bit too early a bit too late – the wine will always whisper into your mouth with complete, unabashed honesty, every time you take a sip”. With respect, vision and a quest for quality, the honest message of South African wine is being whispered into mouths across the globe.