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Top sommeliers explore four of South Africa's key regions

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Wines of South Africa’s Escape to the Cape initiative has brought on-trade buyers to its winelands in growing numbers. Fiona Sims tags along with some top sommeliers to find out what might make it onto their final lists


ROBERTSON


Some 120km east of Cape Town and next door to Worcester, Robertson is a hot, dry district that is rather paradoxically best known for its whites. There are now 58 wine producers here, ranging from cooperatives to garagistes, scattered along the world’s longest wine route (Route 62). Many of them nudge up alongside the Breede River, which winds through the valley, contributing alluvial soils and water for irrigation.

Vineyards - Robertson South Africa - Vineyards around Robertson South Africa Vineyards_around_Rober_opt.jpg As well as wine, Robertson is also known for its champion horse breeding and, er, its roses. Put these three things together, and it’s no surprise that wine tourism is big here – in fact, second only to Stellenbosch. They welcome folk with open arms at their slick visitors’ centre in Viljoensdrift. You can even taste as you cruise up the Breede in a flat-bottomed barge, complete with (jokey) warning signs about the crocs.

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and bubbly lead the way, but Robertson is becoming increasingly recognised for its Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The region produces 13.5% of the national wine grape harvest and average daily growing season temperatures are about 22°C, with less than 400mm of annual rainfall.

Key producers: Van Loveren, Graham Beck, Springfield, Weltvrede, De Wetshof, Bon Cap

One to watch: Quando

Sommelier Viewpoint

Christine Parkinson, wine buyer, Hakkasan and Yauatcha, London

‘There are some very sensibly made wines here. The handling of oak is far better than in Stellenbosch, where they’re obviously making wines aimed at winning awards, which can arguably be a tad clumsy. Robertson is known for its Chardonnays and I think that the variety still stands up – especially when you look at the likes of Springfield’s 2004 Méthode Ancienne. The fruit is so beautifully ripe, with an appetising texture and a wonderfully elegant minerality. Serious stuff!’

Star wine: 2006 Weltevrede Rusted Soil Chardonnay; £8.71, Hallgarten Wines, 01582 722538


CONSTANTIA


A legendary name in the Cape wine archives (referring to a highly sought-after, aromatic, concentrated dessert wine made from Muscat that shot to fame in the 18th century), Constantia is now a demarcated wine ward on the eastern flank of the Cape Peninsula.

Kept cool in the summer on two sides by south-easterly breezes, the grapes take a little more time to ripen here.

But which grapes, exactly? Well, like the rest of South Africa, it’s a viticultural melting pot, but Constantia is most recognised for its whites, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscat.

Constantia is also home to one of the Cape’s most popular tourist attractions and many flock to the government-owned Groot (‘Large’) Constantia Estate to ogle at the picture postcard thatched and gabled Cape Dutch architecture, with its slick winery alongside.

But while whites rule the roost here, the Groot Constantia Estate is putting its money into reds – namely Bordeaux blends and Merlot – though Shiraz is also winning hearts in the district.

Two other producers who have helped turn attentions away from the area’s famous sweet wine are Buitenverwachting and Klein (‘Little’) Constantia, which turn out star reds and whites by selecting grapes from the best blocks.

Key producers: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig, Steenber

One to watch: Constantia Glen

Sommelier Viewpoint

Graham Price, co-owner of Brunning & Price pub group

‘The Sauvignon Blanc tasting we had here was very positive indeed – fresh, clean, aromatic fruit, but with a nice spiciness. We were also very impressed by the unified power of the region’s winemakers – everyone seemed to be talking to each other. We all saw a distinct style in the winemaking from this region, and we want to know more about that, as this type of information makes it much easier to sell the wines to our customers. WOSA should be marketing those regional differences much more heavily.’

Star wine: 2002 Buitenverwachting Christine; £10.95, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711


ELGIN


Elgin is still in its infancy as far as winemaking is concerned, as it was only formally identified in the mid 1980s and today has just five producers. It’s a stunning 70km drive east of Cape Town, over the Hottentots Holland mountain range. The N2 route dissects the Elgin Valley, which has vineyard altitudes ranging from 210m to more than 600m above sea level.

We’re talking cool climate here – think delicate fruit and flavours that are a touch more mineral than most in South Africa. You could almost be in Scotland, with its dense forests, rolling hills and fruit farming.

The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is here, too. This is a marine and floral kingdom boasting 1,600 different plant species and a variety of soils and microclimates that stretches along the coast from Gordon’s Bay to Bot River (Elgin is just 3km from the sea) and inland to Grabouw and the Groenland Mountain.

Paul Cluver was the first to set up shop here, planting Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Weisser Riesling on the De Rust Estate. The early 1990s saw more red variety action with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that things really started to take off. That said, the region is still finding its feet – or its grapes, to be more precise – though it is Sauvignon Blanc that is currently turning heads.

Key producers: Paul Cluver, Iona, Elgin Vintners, Oak Valley, Ross Gower

One to watch: Iona

Sommelier Viewpoint

Traci Perkins, co-owner and wine buyer, The Forest Hotel, Dorridge, near Solihull

‘I think the fruit is fantastic in Elgin. I particularly loved Paul Cluver’s Gewurztraminer and his Weisser Riesling, and also most of the Sauvignon Blancs. There was a definite unpolished edge to the reds, though, and it’s obvious that they’re still somewhat in the dark as to what grows best here. I’d love to come back in five years time and see what has happened to the wines.’

Star wine: 2005 Paul Cluver Gewurztraminer; £5.75, Hedley Wright Wine Merchants, 01279 465818


FRANSCHHOEK


The name means French Corner, although it was originally known as Olifants Hoek (Elephants’ Corner) because elephants took to producing their offspring in the sheltered valley way back when.

Then in 1694, nine farms were assigned to Huguenots fleeing persecution in France.

Rather liking the climate, the settlers planted vines. Today the group is called Vignerons de Franschhoek and has 33 members.

Actually a sub-region of the Paarl wine district, Franschhoek is best known for its Cabernet and Semillon, though many other varieties are also grown here, from Shiraz and Merlot to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Plantings of vines creep up the slopes of what must surely be one of the most picturesque wine valleys in the world.

Franschhoek has also become a food and wine mecca for locals and tourists alike, with top restaurants, swanky hotels, chic B&Bs and art galleries galore.

Key producers: Boekenhoutskloof, Boschendal, Grande Provence, La Motte, Môreson, Plaisir de Merle

One to watch: Haut Espoir

Sommelier Viewpoint

John Anderson, MD, Oxfordshire Hotels

‘I adored Boekenhoutskloof’s Syrah and ‘The Chocolate Block’, but I’d have to put them on my list at over £40 and I just wouldn’t be able to sell a South African wine at that price. Though I’m going to give it a go – by the glass at first.

‘From what I’ve seen so far, the future of South Africa could very well be with its Syrah, and definitely its blended red wines – especially as I’ve noticed a backlash against Australian wines recently. There is a shift away from high alcohol wines and, while it might be a big challenge for South Africa to take on Oz on that score, its winemakers definitely should be looking at that.’

Star wine: 2004 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah; £20.26, Jeroboams, 020 7288 8888


WHITES GOOD, REDS SO-SO...


John Hoskins MW, MD of The Huntsbridge Group, gives his impressions after a week in the Cape.

‘I came away with very mixed feelings. I think South Africa’s whites are more reliable in general – the Sauvignon Blancs obviously, but the Chenins are also improving all the time, and the Chardonnays have all the potential but need a lighter hand during winemaking.

‘Some of the reds, still have that South African earthiness that I see as a definite fault – probably due to a lack of ripeness, despite the hot weather. The Syrahs were the most disappointing after all the expectation and all the recent planting. I suspect that they need to amass the full Rhône armoury so that they can blend à la Southern Rhône, rather than trying to make Hermitage-style wines.

‘Some of the red blends were good, though, especially at Fairview and Tulbagh, and Grenache and Mourvèdre seem to be doing very well. The Pinotages were also much better than I had expected; and the Cabernets can be excellent, of course – though most small producers seemed to be over-doing it when it came to extraction and oak.

‘Most interesting of all was the comment made by Eben Archer, the viticulturist at Neethlingshof, who said that over time they will re-plant all of their vineyards with different varieties and planting systems. South Africa clearly has great vineyards but it is still trying to find out what works best where, and how best to plant it.’


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine July/August 2007


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