In wine speak – and travel agent speak – South Africa is part of the New World. Along with Australia and New Zealand and other countries below the equator it promises sun, sea, sand and plenty more at the gloomiest times of the year in the UK. The problem with ‘New World’ is that South Africa doesn’t see itself that way – and certainly not the South African winemakers. They’ll quickly point out that the first grapes were pressed for wine in the Cape in 1659.
The Dutch, of the Dutch East India Company, were the first to settle, followed by the French Huguenots and the British. The Cape became famous for its Constantia wines and Vin de Constance features in the novels of Jane Austen. This succulent, honeyed wine has been revived at Klein Constantia estate, south of Cape Town.
Throughout much of the 20th century the wine industry was controlled by a state co-operative, the KWV. This was dissolved in 1997, and since the coming of democracy in 1994, South Africa’s wine industry has been transformed. The change is remarkable: foreign and local investment in wineries, winemakers travelling the world to learn, new varieties being planted and experimentation everywhere. The ‘Old World’ wine country is suddenly very new.
One of the key slogans of the new South Africa is ‘Variety is in our nature’. It’s not just a political statement. South Africa is also a focus for biodiversity, with the Cape Floral Kingdom alone containing more plant species than Europe and North America put together. The South Africans believe the enormous diversity of soil and geography makes a real difference to their wines. The wineries are also starting to sign up to sustainability programmes to protect their land, and their wines. By 2010 all wines made for export will need to have been grown according to sustainable principles.
So do the wines reflect this much-claimed variety? The answer has to be yes. South Africa is now the ninth-biggest producer of wine worldwide and number five in retail volume and value in the UK. More than a third of the total vineyard area has been replanted and four-fifths of the new vines are red varieties. At present red vines make up 44% of total planting, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage the key varieties.
Of the white grape varieties, the most popular are Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In both whites and reds, there has been remarkable change in a short time. Chenin Blanc, for instance, used to be the country’s cheap white; sweet and a bit fruity. Today, some of South Africa’s top producers choose to specialise in Chenin and the variety has become a real hero. Sauvignon Blanc, too, has come out of the shadow of New Zealand and France. A South African Sauvignon has a French elegance and a bit of the NZ ripeness, but it is now standing up proudly for itself.
There are two reasons for this. First, the grape-growing and winemaking have improved. Second, producers are hunting down the best vineyard sites. Where this is virgin land, it may mean serious expense laying water pipes and services, but the results can be exceptional, as the Sauvignons from the coast, far north and west of Cape Town prove. In the same way, the cooler, high-altitude vineyards inland at places like Cederberg and Piekenierskloof are winning awards for their wines, grown in the right conditions for quality. The isolation of these vineyards also means they can introduce organic growing.
A hot spot, in terms of its wines, is the Swartland, north of Cape Town. Once home to old bush-grown vines for the KWV, these forgotten vines are now producing wonderfully concentrated and intense wines for producers such as Eben Sadie. Along the coast east of Cape Town are Walker Bay and Hermanus, good whale-watching country. Visitors who come to watch the whales should not miss out on the chance to discover the exceptional Pinot Noirs grown around here: Hamilton Russell, Newton Johnson, Ataraxia, newcomer Shannon and plenty more.
Though there are plenty of new regions, do not overlook the established areas of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Both have an excellent selection of hotels and restaurants, some of the best attached to wineries and set in the vineyards.
For a tourist, the Cape has to be one of the most beautiful and spectacular wine regions in the world. There is plenty happening, with new producers and new winemakers. There are also increasing numbers of BEE (black economic empowerment) businesses to discover, from Thandi, one of the first, to Ses’fikile, a recent arrival (with wines in Marks & Spencer). In 15 years, South Africa’s wine businesses have moved faster and further than they did in the whole of the last century. Keep watching and keep tasting the wines, for this Old World country has plenty of surprises to come.
To find out more about South African wines, or if you are planning a tour of the wine lands, visit www.wosa.co.za and read the annual yearbook and guide John Platter’s South African Wine Guide.