Of the top-10 wine producing countries today, South Africa may be among the least familiar.
This land, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide, has a history of viniculture going back to 1659, when grapes were planted to help ward off scurvy during the voyages along the SpiceRoute. At one time, Muscat from the Constantia vineyards was famous throughout Europe. Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte asked for a glass on his deathbed.
Today, if you ask someone to name a favorite South African wine, a blank stare will most likely greet you.
South Africa did not have the great influx of grape-growing immigrants the way that Chile and Argentina did. Most land was used to produce food for the population and to support the ostrich feather industry, with a small percentage allocated for vineyards. And, instead of bottling wine, distilling brandy was the first priority. Transporting wine to world markets presented another problem, as did the phylloxera aphid, which arrived in the late 1880s and devastated the grapes, requiring all vines to be grafted
As recently as 1990, only about 30 percent of fermented wine was bottled, with 70 percent made into brandy. However, by 2003, the trend had completely reversed.
Today, South African wines have gained an international reputation for quality, with new regions developing to complement the newest techniques in enology. French grapes take center stage with Syrah, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet Franc for red wines and Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc for whites.
In South Africa, Chenin blanc, locally known as “steen,” has been one of the greatest success stories. Grown throughout the different regions and made in a variety of styles, it should be on every wine drinkers list.
South Africa has its own indigenous grape known as “pinotage,” a cross produced from pinot noir, the great black fruit of Burgundy, and cinsault, a red blending grape from the Rhone valley. Some drinkers express an aversion to pinotage, especially in the nose, but others enjoy it, enough to keep demand high.
Take a walk through a Fine Wine and Good Spirits store, and the number and variety of South African offerings deserve recognition and tasting. Syrah is bottled alone, blended with pinotage or, in the classic style of the Rhone Valley, with Mourvèdre and grenache.
Cabernet sauvignon is available as a solo offering, as a rosè or in Bordeaux blends. Chardonnay and pinot noir are blended to make sparklers that rival those of France.
The amazing thing is that all these wines are distinct from any others I have tried. This land on the tip of Africa has a terroir that produces quaffs that are too easily overlooked in our modern markets. The wines possess a certain tautness and balance that I find intriguing in a world of overly fruity blends.