South Africa – a wine industry that’s 320-odd years old. Or 20-odd, depending on your point of view (OK, some poetic licence taken there – strictly 366 and 24 years…). Either way, its rapid pace of change is making waves.
Others, like regional expert Tim Atkin MW or local critic Cathy van Zyl MW, would give deeper perspectives of the country than I, but this is the view I’ve formed since visiting first in November 2015 (with the superb organisational help of Wines of South Africa), then again over Christmas two years later, talking to many winemakers along the way.
After Dutch settlement, vines were established in places like Simon van der Stel’s Constantia estate on the east flank of Table Mountain, in the heart of the Western Cape. Winemaking flourished across the region.
The location of the region, by the Cape of Good Hope, on trading routes, coupled with the addition of Cape Colony to the British Empire, meant its wines were exported as well – especially as Sherry- and Port-style wines, fortified for the journey with locally-made brandy. The sweet white wine of Constantia was a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Though 19th century plagues of Phylloxera and mildew took their toll, and the industry had to adjust to the abolition of slavery, but wine continued to be made into and through the 20th century. But the isolation of South Africa on the world stage as a result of apartheid had different impacts on the industry, especially on quality.
The gradual domination of production by the near-monopoly of the KWV co-op not only reduced competition, but tended to depress innovation. Moreover, the industry looked inwards, with wines judged only against their South African peers. The definition of “good” became blinkered.
Fast-forward to the mid-1990s and the re-opening to international trade, with South African wines being compared with Global competition, and the degree of stagnation in quality and of under-investment became evident.
However, a new generation of winemakers was able to graduate from Stellenbosch and go to make wine around the world. Their progressive return with new techniques, technologies and ideas, coupled with substantial investment in vineyards and in wineries drove a rebirth.
Today, my view is that the pace of change in South Africa is perhaps faster than anywhere else in the wine world right now – faster even than new Chile, the Spanish renaissance or the recent resurgence of Australian winemaking.
Styles and trends
The stereotype of South African wines is, or was, New World ripeness of fruit with Old World winemaking – i.e. robust and often rustic tannins in reds. That classical style has whites that are big and bold, often over 14% ABV and sometimes lacking freshness, with a whack of new oak. Reds are upwards of 15% ABV, often carrying a roasted or smoky tone and with jammy, baked fruit, plus those robust tannins underpinning it all.
These wines can still be widely found and it should be said that there are producers like Meerlust that deliver this bolder style well.
However, the new generation are bringing much greater finesse to both whites and reds, carrying freshness and extracting with more control to create polished, sophisticated wines that are pushing the quality bar to a high level.
Vineyard investment to replant virus-free stock, and eliminate leaf-roll virus and control its mealy bug vector, winery investment in temperature control and reductive winemaking, along with higher quality oak barrels have all contributed to this trend. This has, in-turn. driven the quality bar upward. Luxury brands like Vilafonté, the Rupert and Rothschild joint venture involving the Lafite Rothschilds, or Leeu Passant wines all reflect that drive.
Most excitingly, the late 2000s and 2010s have seen more winemakers rediscovering old vines, especially of once-derided Chenin Blanc and making tremendously characterful wines. This also extends to red and white Rhône varieties. They’re finding new winemaking zones too, like the Swartland or Hemel-in-Aarde, and looking to altitude for freshness.
The return to Chenin Blanc is fascinating to me. Studying South Africa in 2004 would mostly have mentioned signature varieties, Pinotage and Steen (Chenin’s local synonym). With Pinotage a ‘Marmite’ variety, this made Chenin the obvious candidate to become South Africa’s ‘signature’ variety, like Malbec had already become for Argentina, since South Africa is essentially the only place that grew it at any scale outside the Loire Valley.
Instead, there was a major drive to market and to plant…international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet, thereby running straight into cheaper Chilean Sauvignon, better New Zealand Sauvignon, plus Chardonnays and Cabernets across the quality spectrum from a multitude of places.
The problem was that Steen was treated as a workhorse volume grape, often for brandy distillation, so people didn’t consider its quality potential. Thankfully, the likes of Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and others in the Swartland took a different view, generating top-quality Chenins and Chenin blends, with Ken Forrester likewise long championing the variety in Stellenbosch. David and Nadia Sadie, the Alheits and others have since raised the quality Chenin flag too.
Alongside the (re)discovery of varietal heritage, some winemakers are exploring terroir more overtly. Perhaps most visible amongst these are Chris and Andrea Mullineux, whose soil-specific ranges are achieving premium prices. This is particularly true for their Syrah range: Granite, Schist and Iron, from 3 separate vineyard parcels but vinified in a similar way and showing distinctly different expression. Peter-Allen Finlayson has recently followed suit with a set of Syrah wines at his father-in-law’s Gabriëlskloof estate in the Bot River region.
Of course, there is a solid chunk of hipster winemaking going on too – skin contact whites, low or no SO2 wines, amphorae, whole bunch red fermentations etc. These, as elsewhere have their hits and their misses but perhaps reflect the experimentation taking place in the country.
Finally, there is a distinct drive for sustainability in both vineyards and wineries. That’s particularly true for water management after 3 consecutive drought vintages 2015-2017 almost drained reservoirs and led to acute water restrictions in Cape Town itself. Restrictions on irrigation caused some grape growers to lose 80% or more of their 2018 production.
Beyond organic viticulture, solar panel installation and gravity-fed new wineries, sustainability also extends into the economics of the community. Traditionally white-owned wineries like Meerlust are taking steps to involve black workers in a more meaningful way than just paid labour. Bringing the black community into the decisionmaking and ownership dimensions of the wine business is an important long-term trend.
Key Grape Varieties
My view on what to look out for. Other varieties are of course grown, but…:
- Chenin Blanc (Steen): the vibrant acidity of Chenin works in the warmer, sunnier climes of the Cape, to bring freshness to the ripe yellow apple and stone fruit. Affinity for oak ageing which it often has. With old vines, as found especially in the Swartland, more depth and length, and a saline savoury tone – there often blended
- Sauvignon Blanc: in cool locations like Constantia, where Klein Constantia introduced it, this can be distinctive – ripe at upwards of 14% ABV, yet with decent acidity. I also find it often has a particular kiwi fruit character, sometimes with lime. Less aromatic than New Zealand, but with boxwood pungency and rich palate fruit
- Chardonnay: unashamedly vibrant fruit, given its warm origins. Arguably at its best in cooler Hemel-in-Aarde and Elgin, where there’s brisk balancing acidity and a judicious application of oak that is showing finesse from producers like Newton-Johnson, Ataraxia and Richard Kershaw MW. Also widely made in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Wellington – increasingly warmer regions
- Sémillon: not so widely planted, but a speciality of Franschhoek, most recognisably from Boekenhoutskloof. There is also a spicier mutation, Sémillon Gris, which people like Chris and Andrea Mullineux have taken an interest in
- Riesling: also not so widespread, but found in cool pockets, especially in Elgin where Paul Cluver makes a range of fine-boned wines from dry to botrytised sweet
- Muscats – Muscat Blanc (Muscat de Frontignan) and Muscat of Alexandria (Hanepoot): the base of notable sweet wines. In the case of Frontignan, Vin de Constance and Grand Constance from Klein and Groot Constantia respectively. More common Hanepoot can be fortified sweet
- Rhône whites – Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette: the speciality of the Swartland, often as blends and often with a substantial chunk of Chenin Blanc, such as in Eben Sadie’s stunning Palladius white blend
Again, other varieties are grown, but these are what catch my eye. I don’t include Merlot in this list; strangely it doesn’t seem to work particularly well in the country – as several winemakers also remarked. Though producers like Meerlust can produce decent efforts, it is not often made as a varietal wine and when done so, is typically uninspiring. Clonal material? Viticultural practice? Not sure… Anyway:
- Cabernet Sauvignon: ripe and full-bodied style, often at 14-15% ABV, that is particularly successful in Stellenbosch. Ripening can be affected to yield a grilled green pepper note of simultaneous under-ripeness and roasted grapes – leafroll virus being a particular contributor to this, I believe
- Syrah / Shiraz: many wines have been made and labelled as Shiraz in Stellenbosch, Paarl and elsewhere – big, bold & baked. But of more interest, for me, are Syrah styles, showing more restraint, elegance, balance and finesse, particularly those from the Mullineux’s, as well as Porseleinberg and Boekenhoutskloof
- Pinotage: South Africa’s own variety, generated by crossing Cinsault (aka Hermitage) with Pinot Noir. Love it or hate it, it is a signature of the Cape. Although it naturally has plenty of tannins that can be pretty rough at times, and naturally seems to generate VA ‘nail varnish’ aromatics, Kanonkop’s heavily-extracted, oxidatively made Pinotage is, in fact, very good – benchmark, in fact
- Pinot Noir: despite the overall warmth of the country’s climate, in cooler zones, Pinot can succeed, albeit typically in a riper, richer style with ABVs over 14% common. The Hemel-en-Aarde is perhaps the prime zone, long championed by Hamilton-Russell, though with others like Peter-Allen Finlayson with his own Crystallum label, Ataraxia and others achieving greater finesse
- Rhône reds – Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre: again the speciality of the Swartland, producing Rhône blends of complexity and interest, with Syrah and sometimes Tinta Barroca. Also some single-varietal Cinsault, especially from old vines, can excite, such as Pofadder from Eben Sadie
Beyond the rapidly advancing quality of the wines, the Cape Winelands are incredibly accessible for visitors – amateur and professional; individuals, tour parties and families. Stellenbosch is just 40 minutes from Cape Town airport; Constantia 25 minutes from Cape Town. Most wineries have tasting rooms, many wineries have great accommodation, restaurants or picnic areas. And the scenery is stunning.
South Africa is a very attractive place for wine lovers, in all senses and for all senses. Here are summaries of key regions, as I see them:
- Constantia: if Cape Town is on roughly the north side of the Table Mountain massif, the Constantia region is on the east facing slopes, directly into the cooler morning Sun. Coupled with oceanic influence both from the west, through gaps in the ridge and from False Bay to the south, it is a cooler climate zone. Whites flourish here, especially Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet blends are the classic red style. Then there’s the natural sweet wines epitomised by Vin de Constance and Grand ConstanceWinery profiles: Klein Constantia, Constantia Glen, Steenberg, Eagle’s Nest, Constantia Uitsig, Groot Constantia
- Stellenbosch: east of Cape Town and inland is the warmer sort-of triangular ‘valley’ around the university town of Stellenbosch. The heart of the Cape winelands, it is flanked on the north and south by significant ridges of hills, and at the eastern end is dominated by the dramatic granitic outcrop of the Simonsberg that separates it from Franschhoek. The western end towards Somerset West opens towards the cooling influences of False Bay, then gets warmer towards the east, altitude variations notwithstanding. Whilst a wide range of varieties are grown here, Cabernet Sauvignon is particularly successful for reds and Chardonnay is perhaps the main white grape. Pinotage can also succeedWinery profiles: Jordan Estate, De Morgenzon, Rust en Vrede, Meerlust, Vilafonté, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Thelema, Vergelegen, Warwick Estate, Asara
- Franschhoek: from Stellenbosch, following the elevated pass around the southern edge of the Simonsberg, brings you to the start of the Franschhoek valley that points south eastwards in an almost comma shape. This compact valley, surrounded by granitic escarpments on 3 sides, is perhaps the most beautiful of South Africa’s wine regions. Settled by French Huguenots, it’s Cape Dutch architecture is infused with a French flair and with French gastronomy. The wines show some great finesse as well. Again, a broad range of the usual varieties are grown, but old vine Sémillon is of particular interest hereWinery profiles: Chamonix, Mullineux, Rupert & Rothschild, Allée Bleue, Boekenhoutskloof
- Paarl: heading around the north flank of the Simonsberg, or driving straight north out of Franschhoek takes you further inland to the warmer Paarl region, itself wrapped around the lower flanks of the imposing Paarlberg. The town of Paarl itself is on the eastern side, with wineries scattered around. Ripe styles of the usual suspects hereWinery profiles: Fairview, Laborie
- Wellington: facing opposite and to the north of Paarl, on the western flanks of the Drakensberg mountain ranges is the warmer-again Wellington region, producing richer and riper styles of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet and so onWinery profiles: Linton Park
- Swartland: distinctly further north and a little west from Paarl and Wellington is the wide area of Swartland. More rolling hills here, with a lot of arable land – as the Cape’s breadbasket. Nevertheless, vines have been long planted here, with a wide array of grape varieties, but particularly with Rhône varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne, Viognier and Cinsault, as well as other Mediterranean grapes such as Tinta Barocca and Palomino. With old vine Chenin to boot, the Swartland Revolution event focused the spotlight on this super-exciting regionWinery profiles: Mullineux, Porseleinberg, Kloovenburg
- Elgin: from Constantia east to Somerset West, then south-east into the hills over Sir Lowry’s Pass, arrives at Elgin. This zone, cooled by both altitude and proximity to False Bay is producing some exciting, cooler-climate, restrained Chardonnay as well as crisp and focused Riesling. Pinot Noir, unsurprisingly, is being made here, but Richard Kershaw MW is showing what Syrah can achieve here as well
- Bot River: a region I’m only just getting to know, thanks to the wines of Gabriëlskloof, now made by Crystallum’s Peter-Allan Finlayson. Continue south east through Elgin and descend out of the Hottentots-Holland Mountain Catchment Area and the road descends into the valley of Botrivier around the town of Bot River. Syrah looks good here, in a fuller style than Elgin – at least based on what I have tasted so farWinery profiles: Gabriëlskloof
- Hemel-en-Aarde: as the crow flies (but main roads do not) further south east of Botrivier is the Hemel-en-Aarde valley that runs north east-south west, down to whale-watching capital, Hermanus, on Walker Bay. On each flank (north west and south east) are parallel ridges that channel cool air from Walker Bay. There is also altitude to play with, since the region is generally split into the Lower and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, with many newer producers taking to the higher ground further inland from Hermanus. Pioneered by Hamilton-Russell, at least in quality terms, this is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country. Though the Pinots tend to be in a full style and north of 14% ABV, Hamilton-Russell’s are certainly ageworthy. Chardonnays carry fine natural acidity to balance rich stone fruit. Lots of new and exciting producers here too, like Crystallum and AtaraxiaWinery profiles: Hamilton-Russell, Newton-Johnson, Ataraxia, Crystallum
- Walker Bay: the wider area that actually encompasses both Hemel-en-Aarde and Bot River, and which is generally an ocean-cooled region for more natural acidity and restraint
- Other regions not yet visited: Cederberg Mountains: a long way north of Swartland, vineyards can be found at altitudes around 1,000m. I’ve tasted the wines of David Nieuwodt from both his Cederberg label and his Ghost Corner joint-venture with Chile’s Julio Bouchon, both of which suggest this potential for wines with good natural acidity. Robertson is a large region and Tulbaugh somewhat smaller, but both being further inland (Tulbaugh over the hills from Wellington) are hotter. I don’t know either well but others suggest there is interest in both, beyond volume production