South Africa – Flushing away misconceptions

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I have to admit, I used to have strong prejudices against South African wines. The lion’s share of my limited experience with them has essentially been about rubbery Pinotages and anorexic Chenin Blancs, stripped of any personality.

Image: South African vineyards, credit Julien Boulard
Image: South African vineyards, credit Julien Boulard

I began to seriously question my biased judgement two or three years ago, when a good friend of mine specializing in South African wines started to introduce me to the real stuff: intense though extremely palatable wild-fermented Chenins, as well as fruitful and flawless Pinotages. So, when Wines of South Africa (WOSA) offered me the opportunity to really change my mind, I jumped at the chance and went on a trip which took me around the main producing regions of this enigmatic country.

The first thing which confused me when we landed at Cape Town was the cool, almost cold weather, despite the dazzling sun over our heads. For most people, Africa is associated with high temperatures, but when you’re travelling along the coastal regions during springtime, you’d better pack a warm sweater, as the temperatures drop dramatically when the sun goes down!

Most wine regions are located between the 33rd and the 35th parallels, which is the equivalent in the Northern hemisphere of Morocco or of the Jiangsu Province in China. The main difference with its Northern counterparts is that South Africa’s weather is extremely influenced by the cold Benguela current and the freezing Southern winds, allowing regions like Walker Bay or Elgin to produce stunning cool-climate Chardonnays and compelling Pinot Noirs.

Another preconception people may have about South African wines is that it is all about Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. Although some Chenins were among the most enjoyable whites we drunk, most of the best wines we tasted were actually made from Bordeaux blends and Chardonnay. Of course, just like in most ‘new world’ countries nowadays, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are also very trendy varieties most producers seek to produce. However, besides these popular varieties, I was happily surprised to taste good quality wines made from much less common varietals such as an elegant, cherry-dominated Barbera produced by The Drift, as well as a very lemony, refreshing white wine produced from Palomino at A. A. Badenhorst among others.

Image: Julien Boulard in South Africa
Image: Julien Boulard in South Africa

During the week, many producers spoke of their desire to move away from the super-extracted, alcoholic and oak-dominated style, which used to dominate the top-tier.

Producers in the Swartland region seem to be leading the way, but winemakers in other areas, such as in the Bot River, are also gathering to collectively promote wines of utmost elegance and drinkability. The common thread between these producers is the desire to craft wines speaking of their terroir, rather than of the way they were made. Although this may sound a bit cliché, still there is no doubt that this movement translates into a more diversified product offering, and it should help the country in freshening up its image.

Image: South African vineyards, credit Julien Boulard
Image: South African vineyards, credit Julien Boulard

Another aspect of the South-African wine industry worth following closely is the aspiration of certain producers to associate their region to a particular grape variety or wine style.

For instance, many Stellenbosch wineries have been campaigning to make the region the South African reference for Bordeaux varieties (especially Cabernet Sauvignon). At the same time dozens of producers from the Breedekloof Valley are uniting under the Breedekloof Makers’ ‘Chenin Blanc Initiative’, going even further by setting a guideline regarding style and quality: the wine must show some oak component and it has to be the best Chenin within the winery’s range.

As long as the freedom to produce heterogeneous wines is maintained, I do think that partially concentrating efforts on a particular grape variety or wine style could be beneficial for the regions’ promotion. After all, when you think about the leading wine regions around the world, most owe their fame to a certain wine style: Marlborough to fresh Sauvignon Blanc, Barossa to luscious Shiraz, Napa to structured Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.

In terms of imports volume in China, South African wines are still far behind Australian or Chilean wines, but the growth has been quite impressive since 2013, with numbers increasing from 5.5 million litres in 2013 to over 15.5 million in 2016. The South Africa is expected to overtake the United States to become the sixth most imported wine in China. When I asked what was the main obstacle for South African wines in China, I was told it was essentially the negative image of the African continent among Chinese consumers. Well, I hope that wine lovers will lead the way in changing this unfair and groundless belief, especially that the country now produces some of the best value-for-money wines the wine world has to offer!

Here is a selection of wines to try:

Chenin Blanc: Villion ‘Henning’ 2016, Beaumont Family ‘Hope Marguerite’ 2016 (both from Bot River), Ken Forrester ‘The FMC’ Chenin Blanc 2014 in Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay: Storm 2016, Newton Johnson ‘Family Vineyard’ 2016, Creation ‘The Art of Chardonnay’ 2016, all from Hemel-en-Aarde (Walker Bay).

Sauvignon Blanc: Elgin Ridge ‘282’ Sauvignon Blanc 2016 from Elgin and Bouchard Finlayson 2017 from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Bordeaux Blends: Delaire Graff Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Tokara Director’s Reserve 2006, Stellenzicht Red Bordeaux Blend 1997, the three of them from Stellenbosch.

Syrah: Mullineux and Leeu Granite / Iron / Schist Syrah 2015 and Radford Dale ‘Nudity’ Syrah 2015 (both from Swartland).

Rhone blends: Avondale ‘Navitas’ 2009 from Paarl, David & Nadia ‘David Aristargos’ 2014 from Swartland.

Less common varieties: The Drift ‘Gift Horse’ Barbera 2015 from Overberg, A. A. Badenhorst Palomino 2015 from Swartland.

Sweet wines: Mullineux ‘Straw Wine’ 2016 from Swartland and Klein Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ 2013 from Constantia.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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