While South Africa is considered a New World region, with a history of wine production going back 300 years — longer than California or Australia — it can often be described as bridging the gap between old and new.

Throughout its history, setbacks such as phylloxera, apartheid and other government interventions have put South Africa in flux, at times isolating it from the world’s wine-producing map. But recent years have brought renewed interest in the country’s wines.

Most of South Africa’s wine regions are found on and near the coastline of the Cape. They are distributed around lush rugged landscape, and a mountainous backdrop allows a diverse range of styles.

Vineyards looking over Cape Town – Photo courtesy of Groot Constantia and Wines of South Africa

We can thank the many new enterprising winemakers but can’t ignore its original roots when Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape during the early 1650s. His most important mission was to make the Cape into a post capable of producing fresh provisions for Dutch ships heading east. This included vegetables and assorted fruits including grapes, which would ward off scurvy, so he thought.

Wine production started in Constantia in the 1680s with the first vintages made from French Muscadel. The production of the legendary dessert wine Vin de Constance was born, and it was lauded throughout Europe.

“Today there is much more to explore. There are numerous regions to become excited about,” says Barry Scholfield, sommelier, consultant and educator of Somm 101.

“There is way too much going on to just single one out, but we’re working very hard to shake the stuffy perception off and make Stellenbosch cool again while focusing on the myriad of subregions that make this area so diverse,” Scholfield said. “Also, not (altogether) content to be known for only brandy grapes, the Breedekloof Valley is baking their bark with some world-class wines from the newly launched Chenin Blanc initiative.”

If the Cape wine industry hasn’t benefited from a singular transcendent star grape, two signature grapes could be recognized. One is the Chenin Blanc, which is still the most heavily planted variety in the Cape. Historically regarded as a workhorse grape, the vigorous variety was used for large-production wines and the base for local brandy distillation.

Chenin Blanc grapes – Photo courtesy of Wines of South Africa

Sometimes still called Steen, Chenin Blanc is the same grape that made French regions such as Vouvray and Savennières famous.

“Chenin Blanc fell out of favor with the Sauvignon Blanc tsunami that swept the world,” Scholfield said. “From hardship, however, came reward!”

“Often abandoned and too expensive to uproot, today we are blessed with a wealth of older vines — resurrected and now passionately protected by The Old Vine Project. They produce outstanding and unique wines that are often richer, denser and more approachable than Loire Chenin, still with that beautiful light freshness, delicately waxy mouth feel and characteristic floral perfume that can often outlast the best white wines of the world.”

A historic South African cultivar, these ancient beauties are fast becoming regarded among the world’s greatest vinous treasures.

The other distinctive variety from South Africa is Pinotage. With a love-it-or-hate-it reputation, the crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir was developed during the 1920s by the Stellenbosch University. It hasn’t gained the traction that Chenin Blanc has, but its potential has been given credit.

“See if you can get your hands on B Vintners Liberté Pinotage 2016. It’s outstanding, like the love child between some young fruity Premier Cru Burgundy and a slightly aggressive Northern Rhône Syrah,” Scholfield said. “But for every masterpiece conceived of its great heritage, too many unfortunately just leave me scratching my head.”

Wine tasting – photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, Wines of South Africa

Other varieties with which South Africa has been successful include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (often found as a blend), Syrah and Pinot Noir. In addition to Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc is also widely grown, with the best examples coming from the coolest regions.

Chardonnay can make exceptional wines of quality also when planted in the right places. With use of Burgundian techniques such as barrel fermentation, they contribute to the character of many premium examples. In addition to the traditional red and white Bordeaux blends, complex combinations of red and white Rhone and Mediterranean varieties are on the rise.

“South Africa is one of the most dynamic wine territories of the world,” Scholfield said.

“Young, quality-minded, small-scale producers [are] exploding onto the scene,” Scholfield said. “South Africa has slowly established itself as a consistent producer of affordable, consistent, good-quality wine. However in recent years, we are seeing more and more young winemakers focusing all their efforts on small parcels of contract vines and producing limited quantities of world-class wines.”  

 

 

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