By Lara Creasy
If you don’t have experience with the wines of South Africa, now is the time to look into them and consider adding a few to your wine program. I was lucky enough to be invited to experience South African wine country first hand recently, and I realized there were many things for American consumers to learn about this wine industry that is thriving half a world away.
When we talk about Old World wines vs. New World wines, we usually mean Euro-pean wines vs. the rest of the world. The assumption is that Europe has been growing grapes to make wine for centuries, and the rest of the world has been chasing their lead. South Africa is by all accounts a New World wine region, but many people are surprised to know that South Africa has a wine heritage dating back as far as the year 1659. In fact, South Africa has been growing grapes for winemaking longer than parts of the Medoc.
Wine To Go
If there is one thing we know about Europeans, it’s that they love their wine. So it should come as no surprise that one of the first things the European explorers did when they dropped anchor in another part of the world was either figure out how to get wine to them by ship, or figure out how to make wine where they were. The Dutch East India Company set up a supply station near modern-day Cape Town in 1652. As trade ships rounded the bottom of the African continent on their way from Europe to Asia, they needed a place to resupply, and wine was a commodity they couldn’t live without. A Dutchman was assigned to man the station and plant vineyards. The first harvest took place in 1659, just 7 years after the Dutch first landed in Africa.
Settlers went on to establish the first wine estates in 1685, at Constantia and Boschendal. Wine farms boomed for a time, but over several decades many farmers decided to replant with other more profitable crops, like fruit and alfalfa.
In the 19th century, South Africa fell under British rule, which turned out to be a boon for the wine industry – the British started to import quite a bit of South African wine. Sadly, the phylloxera epidemic, which wiped out European vineyards in the 1860s, also found its way to South Africa at the end of the 19th century. Following this devastation, most vineyards replanted only high-yielding varietals, like cinsault.
As a result, by the early 1900s, there was a glut of wine in South Africa. It’s said that some producers took to dumping their extra wine into rivers and lakes just to get rid of it. To fight this problem of lopsided supply and demand, in 1918 the South African government funded the formation of an organization known as the KWV.
Originally formed as a co-op to help farmers market their grapes, the KWV grew to hold a position of power, setting prices, restricting yields and establishing policies for the entire South African wine industry.
There was no market for wine grapes outside of the KWV, with more than 95 per-cent of South African grape growers belonging to the co-op. To mitigate the grape surplus, the KWV encouraged the production of fortified wine and distilled spirits like brandy. While the aim was to stabilize the South African wine industry, the KWV also wound up stifling it, killing any pursuit of innovation or quality improvements that might have emerged.
A New Century
For a lot of the 20th century, South African wine received little international attention. This was partly because of its decline in quality and partly because of trade embargoes levied against the country in response to its apartheid policy.
When apartheid ended in the 1990s and the door to world trade was once again flung open, the wine industry began to experience a renaissance.
The KWV became a private enterprise. Consulting winemakers from Europe began to visit. Vineyards were replanted with suitable varietals, and vineyard sites were chosen not for maximum yield but for best quality. Once wineries were allowed to export, says Niel Groenewald, winemaker for Bellingham, they could specialize in certain varietals in certain areas. They discovered Chenin Blanc works better in Stellenbosch, for example, and Sauvignon Blanc works best in Durbanville, he adds. South African wine estates began to trade their quantity focus for a quality one, once and for all.
An illustration of the quick turnaround? In 1990, 70 percent of grapes grown in South Africa were sold off for distillation into brandy or eaten as table grapes, and only 30 percent were made into quality wines. By 2003, the tables had turned, with 70 percent of the country’s yield hitting the market as wine.
Distinctly South African
The company that hosted me on a recent trip to South Africa, DGB International, has been around since 1990, when two wine companies merged to become one of the country’s largest independent wine producers. Even today, about 80 percent of South Africa’s wine is produced by co-ops, 66 in total, according to Jacu Potgieter, chief oenologist for DGB.
However, DGB is a private company, made up of independent, historic wine estates, such as Boschendal, founded in Stellenbosch in 1685, and Bellingham, originally founded in Franschhoek in 1693.
Bellingham is of particular interest because of its previous owner, Bernard Podlashuk, a British airman who purchased the rundown estate in 1943. Known as “The Mav-erick,” Bernard planted varietals that no one else was planting mid-century. He made dry whites like rousanne and marsanne when others were making sweet wines. He made the Cape’s first rosé in 1949 and the first single varietal Shiraz in 1956.
Eventually, Bellingham settled on making Shiraz, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage, South Africa’s “native” varietal. A cross between pinot noir and the high-yielding grape cinsault, pinotage has gotten a bad rap over the years, with poorly made examples exhibiting aromas of burnt rubber, bananas and nail polish. According to Groenewald, the biggest challenge with the grape is to properly limit its yield. It has a short growing cycle, which is good because it ripens before South Africa’s late summer heat wave. The challenge is that the short ripening period means it has less time to develop complex flavors. Growing the grapes on bush vines allows them to be grown in windy areas. The wind blowing over the vines allows the grapes to develop more slowly.
“Made right,” says Groenewald, “Pinotage can age better than Cabernet.”
Bellingham and Boschendal both make excellent examples of this distinctly South African varietal (see sidebar). Other red grapes that shine in the Cape: Shiraz/Syrah (Brit-ish consumers prefer the varietal to be labeled shiraz, while Americans prefer it to be la-beled syrah) and Cabernet, which loves the South African heat, according to Groenewald.
Still, only 35 percent of South Africa’s wine production is red. What to seek out in the other 65 percent? Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc thrive in the Cape. In fact, some of Boschendal’s single-vineyard Sauvignons could easily be mistaken for Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. But the Cape’s real champ: Chenin Blanc.
Another star of the Loire, Chenin has character in spades. Ranging from bright and fresh to textured and wooly, South Africa’s Chenin Blancs are some of the finest wines they produce. (See “South African Wines to Try” for recommendations.)
If you don’t yet have a South African wine on your list, call your sales rep and set up a tasting. You’ll find a wine that surprises you, guaranteed.
Lara Creasy is a consultant with more than 15 years experience in beverage management. She has developed wine and cocktail programs for such restaurants as St. Cecilia and King + Duke through her consulting business Four 28, LLC.