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Cape time: South African wine in perspective.

NO LONGER SHUNNED BY THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY, SOUTH AFRICA IS A NATION RICH WITH WINEMAKING HISTORY. ITS POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND VITICULTURAL CHANGES MEAN EXCELLENT AND UNUSUAL WINES FOR THE SAVVY BUYER LOOKING TO EXPAND A LIST OR PERSONAL COLLECTION.

Let's try a little exercise. What do you think of when someone says Australia? Maybe it's a movie star like Nicole Kidman, gigantic barbecued "yabbies" and killer surfing on Bondi Beach. Perhaps you think of laid-back attitudes, whimsical feature films or a can of beer so masculine as to inspire its own dialect of English. Maybe you envision vegemite, the Olympic Games, the Bloomin' Onion[R] from Outback Steak House or the graceful architecture of the Sydney Opera House. Wine makers in Australia are banking on the fact that, for the last 20 years or so, American consumers have been bombarded with positive images and ideas about what Australia has to offer. (Okay, never mind about the Onion[R]). American and European consumers may not know much about the soil, climate or grape varieties in the land down under, but if they're familiar with the idea of Australia, they'll be far more likely to pick up a bottle of Australian wine.

Let's try the same exercise, only this time I'll say South Africa. Now what comes to mind? Racial segregation, apartheid, Nelson Mandela in a jail cell, shantytowns--not exactly the upbeat images that invite a consumer to try a country's products. South Africa has been a wine-producing country for nearly 350 years, but in the current marketplace, South African wines are still struggling to overcome the dark political legacy of much of the 20th century, not to mention the trade sanctions that kept them largely isolated from the international export market. The good news, however, is that acceptance and demand for SA wines are on the rise because, at the end of the day, they offer great value, continental-style sophistication and the chance to experience unusual grapes and blends.

SOUTH AFRICAN WINE IN PERSPECTIVE

Dutch settlers arrived on the southern tip of the African continent in 1652; soon after, they successfully transplanted European vines to African soil, and in 1659, the first wine made with Cape-grown grapes was produced. Some thirty years later, French Huguenot refugees settled in the area and began to make their own imprint on South African wine culture. Simon van der Stel, the second Dutch governor to rule the Cape, planted the first Constantia vineyard. While the resultant dessert wine enjoyed a fine reputation in Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to the marketing and distribution efforts of the Dutch East India Company, not all Cape wines fared so well at first. The European and Far East markets did not take to the new import from South Africa, especially since the quality of the product often suffered from a lack of proper aging vessels. With time, though, nascent winemakers grew more skilled at working with local conditions, and the British occupation of the Cape created a large demand for the area's wines. In addition, when the British entered into a war with France, they began to buy greater quantities of wine from South Africa; unfortunately, once the two European nations resolved their differences, in 1861, the export market for Cape wines virtually collapsed. Some twenty years later, the industry took a further beating when a devastating phylloxera infestation began to sweep through the Constantia Valley.

In the wake of a tough century for South African winemaking that ended with a period of massive overproduction and its attendant hardships, Charles Kohler created the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV) in order to stabilize the industry and end overproduction. The KWV, with the express backing of the government, controlled prices and production levels, and severely restricted the planting of new vines in areas that showed promise. It cleaned up an industry that had fallen into chaos, but some feel that the level of control it exerted was partially responsible for holding South African wines back from their full potential for much of the 20th century. The other part of the equation was, of course, the advent of apartheid, or government-mandated, race-based segregation, in 1948. Because of the repressive regime, South Africa found itself increasingly isolated in the world: several nations enacted economic sanctions, and decreasing amounts of wine entered or left the nation.

Says Andre Shearer, chief executive of wine importing company Cape Classics, "The 'old' industry in the South African context represented oppressive control, poor market awareness due to the sanctions, grape-grower dominance, an emphasis on quantity production and payment for tonnage instead of quality production and payment for quality ... expression of terroir was a completely foreign concept." Rory Callahan of Wine and Food Associates agrees, saying, "A lot of the grapes being grown were going to brandy production. There was no incentive to produce high-quality product."

In 1973, South Africa adopted a Wine of Origin scheme inspired by the French A.O.C. system. (Today, there are five designated wine regions, and 14 wine districts). Between 1990 and 1991, the South African government dissembled the apparatus of apartheid and, accordingly, the wine industry in the beleaguered country began again to look outside its borders both for inspiration and renewed markets. Callahan helped organize one of the first tastings of SA wines in the States, in 1991. He recalls that, initially, South African winemakers flooded the export market with poor-quality wine that had been produced during apartheid.

"It really hurt the image of the country," says Callahan, "but as the doors began to open and people were able to travel to the Cape and see and taste what was possible, they traveled up the learning curve very quickly."

SOUTH AFRICAN WINE TODAY

Today, South African winemakers are increasingly taking advantage of the Cape's extraordinary geographic features in order to create wines with specific and nuanced expressions of terroir. The Atlantic and Indian oceans converge at the very tip of the continent, creating predictably cooling winds (referred to as "the Cape doctor") and fogs that are moderated by the Mediterranean climate and soaring mountain ranges. Winemakers rely on the state-sponsored Nietvoorbij Institute for Viticulture and Oenology, with its experimental winery and network of research farms, for information about the latest techniques and advances in the industry. The University of Stellenbosch and the Elsenbeurg Agricultural College also contribute to the ever-increasing success of the South African wine industry, and its key players are not afraid to examine other success stories in pursuit of a superior product.

"South African winemakers are now flying all over the world learning more and more about their trade, and the wine quality has really gone up as a result," says Stephanie Fredericks, an international wine consultant who teaches a class on South African wines for the American Sommelier Society. "The KWV doesn't control the industry the way it used to, and young winemakers are pursuing a more modern style, with nice fruit."

Less than ten years ago, 80% of the wine grapes grown in South Africa were white; today, they constitute just 55%, a shift that reflects increased market demand for red wines. The country's white-friendly soil and climate have not changed, however, and South Africa still produces a number of superior white wines. Chenin Blanc, or Steen, as it is known locally, has been grown in abundance since the earliest days of South African winemaking, and today remains the country's most widely-planted grape. Vast quantities of Chenin Blanc were produced to please colonial palates in the 1800s, but by the next century, the grapes were more often harnessed for brandy production. Currently, most Chenin Blancs are made in a traditionally fresh and fruity style, but lately some South African winemakers have experimented with oak fermentation, the introduction of noble rot and the selective pruning of older vines to create more sophisticated, expressive wines. Sauvignon Blanc was only introduced to South Africa in the 1980s, but already winemakers are giving New Zealand and Australia a run for their money.

"The Sauvignon Blancs coming out of South Africa are world-class," says Fredericks. "I find that they're very grapefruit-y, as opposed to having the gooseberry notes found in Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand." The trade organization Wines of South Africa reports that, in 2006, growers are concentrating on replanting Chardonnay as part of a focus on noble varietals. At 2006 International Wine and Spirits Competition, South African Chardonnays (along with Chenin Blancs and Rieslings) took a number of prizes, including a gold medal for the 2004 from the Jordan Winery in Stellenbosch.

Between 2000 and 2001, red wine varietals accounted for 80% of new plantings in South Africa. The primary Bordeaux grapes--Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon--have historically dominated the red grape category, plantings of Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Gamay Noir, and especially Shiraz have increased markedly in the last decade.

"Shiraz has skyrocketed," says Callahan. "In fact, it's doing so well that it's overtaken Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of total acreage." Shiraz may well become the signature red wine of South Africa, but let's not forget Pinotage, the hybrid grape created in 1922 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, known then as Hermitage. As detailed in AC issue 81, Pinotage is a complex, challenging grape whose notes of animal dung, baked fruit and tar can overwhelm an unsuspecting palate. When made using modern techniques and blended with less aggressive grapes, however, Pinotage makes for a pleasing and uniquely South African wine.
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Publication:Art Culinaire
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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