- Q & A
This country has had the best and worst of the wine industry. It may have the most perfect weather and soil for growing wine grapes in the entire world. There is almost never rain at harvest, no frost, a long growing season and classic soils. That's the good part. Unfortunately, all these natural benefits were completely stifled by apartheid in the late '70s and '80s. Unfortunately for them, there was more progress in global wine technology during this period than at any time in recent memory. South Africa was isolated from the wine industry and stuck in a provincial political system. It had a big jump to make in order to compete globally in the '90s. That jump was made, however, and quite successfully at that.
South Africa's principle grape-growing districts are all huddled at the very tip on the country around the Cape of Good Hope. Grapes were planted in Constantia by Dutch traders in the 1650s for the purpose of making wine. It was the first stop for ships sailing from Australia to Europe and wine was believed to cure scurvy, a common problem for sailors at the time. From Constantia the vine spread to South Africa's best known area, Stellenbosch, just 10 miles to the east; Paarl, home of their best fortified wines; and Swartland, the fine wine capital.
In 1918 a cooperative of over 5,000 growers called the KWV was formed to limit overproduction and stabilize inventories and prices. For 70 years the KWV was all that those outside the country knew about South African wines since there were less than 80 growers who bottled their own wine.
In less than a decade, South Africa has gone further faster than probably any wine-making nation in the world. The KWV is still the largest producer, but each year its piece of the pie is being chipped away by artisan winemakers hungry for the worldwide recognition they were denied for so long.
The most widely planted grape here is Chenin Blanc, known as Steen. It is a versatile grape making lovely, melon-scented dry and semi-dry wines as well as rich dessert wines. Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, has become the most distinctive wine in South Africa. It's flavor profile ranges from a light and refreshing to complex, dense and spicy.
The newer area of Swartland is racing to the fine wine forefront with stellar Sauvignon Blanc and many an outstanding Shiraz and Pinotage. South Africa is catching up very quickly with the rest of the world's fine wine producers. Typically, as quality and recognition rise, so do prices. South Africa is a good value right now in the fine wine arena. But, that is subject to change with increasing fame.
Although best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and Pinotage, Stellenbosch produces a host of wine types including port style wines and some excellent Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Stellenbosch returns lower average yields than hotter, more extensively irrigated inland regions. It is the source of only about 16 per cent of the country's total wine production although it boasts the greatest concentration of leading estates, an extensive wine route network, and scores of restaurants. Estates and cellars particularly famous for their wines include Alto, Delheim, Grangehurst, Hartenberg, Jordan, Kanonkop, Lanzerac, Le Bonheur, Meerlust, Morgenhof, Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, Rustenberg, Saxenburg, Simonsig, Stellenzicht, Thelema, Uitkyk, Vriesenhof, Vergelegen, Vergenoed, Warwick, and Zevenwacht.
Paarl means pearl in Afrikaans and houses the headquarters of the South African wine industry. The Co-operative Growers' Association (KWV) handles the annual surplus, producing port-like fortified wines, brandies, and other spirits (gin, vodka) and liqueurs (including the mandarin-flavoured Van der Hum). Paarl's latitude, 33.4 degrees south-Jerez in Spain is on a similar northern latitude-is cited as a reason for the quality of South Africa's solera-system flor sherry style wines, first made by the KWV in the 1940s. Paarl is a warm region. A few well-known estates market a spectrum of wines, reds and whites of the classic varieties, sparkling wines, port style wines, and recently even estate-matured brandies. The district reaches north into Tulbagh (a separate area of origin) and Wellington and east toward Franschhoek (meaning `French corner'), home of the first French Huguenot settlers. The best-known cellars include Backsberg, Bellingham, Boschendal, Cabriere, Fairview, Glen Carlou, L'Ormarins, La Motte, Plaisir de Merle, Veenwouden, Villiera, and Welgemeed. The biggest producer is Nederburg, with a comprehensive range of 40 labels; it produced the Cape's first botrytized wine, labelled Noble Late Harvest, from Chenin Blanc in 1969.
Swartland is a bit warmer than the rest accounting for its specialties of fortified and robust red wines. An occasional outstanding Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz imerges, but the main Swartland is generally considered the home of South Africa's best sherry and port-styled wines.
Wine of Origin (WO) legislation introduced in 1973 ended decades of a labelling free-for-all which made it impossible for the consumer to tell what wine came from where. The government set up a certification system which set some order to the labelling chaos.
Blended wines qualify for a varietal statement provided the variety makes up at least 75 per cent of the blend; and at least 75 per cent comes from one harvest. The balance may come from the preceding or subsequent year. Blends which do not claim single varietal status may state the grape composition.
Participation is voluntary and about 35 per cent of Cape bottled wine is certified. Non-certified wine is liable to spot-check analysis for health requirements.
Wine for certification is submitted to the government-appointed Wine & Spirit Board. The wine must pass an analytical test and is blind tasted by a panel which may reject wines judged faulty or atypical, and often does. The designation `Estate' is the Cape's equivalent of the French Chateau, or Domaine. All the wine must originate from and be fermented at a registered, demarcated estate. The definition of an estate is loose. Two vineyards owned and operated by one proprietor may be miles apart but their crops can be blended and qualify for a single estate label, provided the authorities deem the `ecological circumstances' similar. An estate cellar may not vinify more than half its production in non-estate grapes, and these must be separately demarcated in bulk and must be bottled under a non-estate label.