by Jeanne Horak-Druiff
One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is the unshakeable belief held by many of my countrymen that if something is imported, it is by default better than something local. How else can you explain the fact that people will shell out exorbitant amounts of money on French champagne when a premium South African bubbly will be almost indistinguishable in a blind tasting? The truth of the matter is that South African wine can more than hold its own on the international stage and people are often surprised at the age and sophistication of our wine industry. Although we make pretty much every style and colour of wine, it is our reds that we are justly famous for, and it is reds that I will focus on in this article.
Although South Africa is a generally classed as a New World wine producing country, many people are surprised when they hear that the first wine was made at the Cape in 1659. Jan Van Riebeeck was the leader of a band of Dutch settlers charged with establishing a refreshment station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company travelling round the Cape of Good Hope to the East. They came ashore at Table Bay in 1652 and immediately set about building a settlement and planting crops. in 1656 the first grape vines were imported from France, the Rhineland and Spain and successfully planted in the Company gardens and on 2 February 1659, Van Riebeeck wrote in his diary:
“Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes”
So we have a history of wine-making stretching back almost three and a half centuries, making us the oldest of the New World prodeucers. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the sweet wines of Constantia (such as the now-revived Vin de Constance) were much sought after in the courts of Europe, sometimes in preference to, say, Madeira or Sauternes. The combination of the disastrous phylloxera pest and the Anglo-Boer war at the end of the 19th century threw the wine industry into chaos and it was not until almost 1920 that it started on the road to recovery – only to be dealt another blow in the 1980s when anti-apartheid sanctions meant that export markets for South African wine virtually dried up. Today, however, the industry is thriving with SA wines appearing on shelves all over the world. The wine farming industry is also one of the most progressive in terms of assisting previously disadvantaged labourers to learn the wine-making process and eventually produce their own wines and manage their own vineyards. According to figures released in 2004, SA is ranked at no. 9 in the world in terms of volume of wine produced and supplies 3.4% of the world’s wine. Red grape varieties make up 45% of the total plantings, and include Cabernet Sauvignon (13% of the total), Shiraz (10%), Merlot (7%) and Pinotage (6%)..
So how do you go about choosing a good South African red then? Well, for a start, you can try to stick to recognised producers as I said. The Big Boys in terms of benchmark reds are Nederburg, Rust en Vrede, Kanonkop, Meerlust and Alto – the list is by no means exhaustive, but if you buy from them you are unlikely to go w rong. The second tip may be a bit harder to follow – buy wine from a red wine region (for example there are few world class red wines produced in the Karoo – Stellenbosch and Paarl are where most of the flagship reds come from, whereas Robertson is better known for its whites). The problem with this tip is that the majority of wine is labeled in terms of the “Wine of Origin” scheme as being from one of four large regions rather than a specific district as shown on the map. So “wine of origin coastal region” could be a blend of wines from Paarl, Stellenbosh, Swartlad and Constantia! This leads me to tip no. 3 – if you are going to be visiting SA’s winelands or plan to buy a lot of SA wines, invest in the authoritative John Platter wine guide – you can either subscribe online or buy the book. The book is a wealth of information (including which region a wine was produced in – see previous tip!) and has reviews of pretty much all of the wine estates in the country as well as individual reviews of their wines. You may not always agree with the reviews, but you can usually safely buy a wine recommended by him and not be too disappointed. Tip four is to look out for the Veritas award stickers. These are the symbols that a wine has been tasted and rated by an independent tasting panel and has been awarded either a double gold, gold, double silver, silver, double bronze or bronze medal according to average points awarded by the panel. If you buy a wine with a Veritas sticker, you can be pretty sure it’s a goodie. The current and past lists of Veritas winners are also available online.
Now that you are armed with all the correct tips, all that remains is to select your wine! Personally, I feel that South Africa excels at Cabernet Sauvignon and lately Shiraz (also known as Syrah) has been receiving a ton of good press as well. I also think we make some exceptional Bordeaux-style blends. I am not personally a fan of Merlot, so I wouldn’t want to express an opinion on that, but I believe we make some very good Merlots as well. And of course the Walker Bay area is producing some fabulously classy Pinot Noirs – Hamilton Russel and Bouchard Finlayson spring instantly to mind. But South Africa’s most famous cultivar and gift to the oenological world is the Pinotage cultivar which was developed here. It was created by Prof Abraham Izak Perold (a faculty dean at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa) in 1924 and was the result of crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault (then locally known as Hemitage) grapes. The resulting cross, named as an amalgamation of its parents’ names, proved to be disease-resistant, vigorous and early-ripening, and the first commercial plantings began in the 1940s. The textbook tasting notes for a Pinotage would include an appealing “boiled sweets” nose, with plums, bananas, cassis, cherries and berries in its youth, often taking on more austere “barnyard” flavours as it ages. However, I often find Pinotage to be disappointing, either too nondescript or too stridently chalky, like the scariest Merlot you can imagine. But if you choose well there are some great examples out there, like the Uiterwyk (now De Waal) Top-of-the-hill Pinotage made from a single vineyard of old (50+ years) vines. Or check out last year’s winners of the South African Pinotage competition – if you can’t find something you like amongst that list you are just being picky! What you don’t want to do is buy a wine that’s largely made of Cinsault (it is grown as a high-yield, indeterminate quality grape in SA), or some of the scarier (and often cheaper) blends – Pinotage/Cabernet Franc or Ruby Cabernet/Cinsault blend is never a good idea in my book…
Last but not least, here are a couple of my completely subjective personal favourites:
La Bri Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet/Merlot blend
Welgemeend Douelle (a particularly interesting blend of unusual red cultivars)
Springfield Cabernet Sauvignon (particularly the 1996 vintage if it’s still available)
Nederburg Petit Verdot (the first single-cultivar bottling of this grape in SA)
Bellingham Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1981 vintage was my favourite for years till stocks ran out…)
That should give you more than enough inspiration to go and try some of South Africa’s premium reds and maybe discover some lesser-known estates. And you can always use the facts, figures and trivia to impress your wine-buff friends!
Jeanne Horak-Druiff lives in London but her heart and her palate remain resolutely South African. Although she works in the legal field to fund her expensive travel habit, her true passion is for food, wine and writing. She maintains a food blog at www.cooksister.com and has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal Europe and the BBC. She also contributed to the Digital Dish, a collection of food writing from the Web. When she grows up she wants to live in Plettenberg Bay and lead culinary tours of the Garden Route!
This article first appeared in the Winter 2007/08 Issue of WE Magazine for Women