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Reprinted with the permission of
Serving industry professionals for over 65 years.
South African Smorgasbord
by Pameladevi Govinda

When it comes to the wines of South Africa the buzzword is diversity. Home to varied microclimates, different soil types and a myriad of grape varieties, this is wine country that has plenty to offer.

South African wine sales have quadrupled in the last five years yet compared to the likes of Australia and Chile, the Cape has small market share. Rather than play against Southern Hemisphere giants, South Africa shows promise in the middle to high-end segment.

Quality wines are winning over buyers and the exchange rate seals the deal. The dollar being relatively strong to the rand keeps even the most sought after wines affordable. Molly Choi, senior vice president of Cape Classics, quips, "If you’re going to do a blind tasting with sixty-dollar California Cabernets or Bordeaux — bring it on. Our ultra-premium twenty-five to thirty dollar wines consistently over deliver against almost any category. It’s fun for us to do blind tastings, since it never fails to surprise and delight. Our Rustenberg John X Merriman was awarded the Top Gold /Best In Class medal at the recent STAR Wine Awards, which was judged by Master Sommeliers. It beat every other Bordeaux– style blend from everywhere in the world."

De Toren, the producer of Fusion V, is another winery that shows how well Bordeaux grapes fare in the Cape. Based in the Polkadraai area of Stellenboch, owner, Emil den Dulk offers, "The cool air from the ocean gives an air-conditioning effect to the vineyards which lengthens the ripening process resulting in more complex wines." When he started planting vines at the 25-hectare property in 1996 it was revealed that there were seven different soil types from one block to another and each has been planted with different cultivar clones to maximize the wine’s complexity. Other Bordeaux-style producers worth getting excited about are Vergelegen and Graham Beck.

More recently, we’ve seen another grape on the rise. Syrah, sometimes called Shiraz in South Africa, offers distinct characteristics. Sean Sant Amour, managing partner of Blue Ribbon Restaurants in New York supports, "We’ve had a few Shiraz wines from South Africa on the list. Right now we’re pouring the Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz. They’re so different from Australian Shiraz or even Rhône Syrahs. The best South African examples manage to be earthy, mineral, clean and balanced."

Gems Of The Region

Sauvignon Blanc continues to be the bright star of the region. The grape variety that does particularly well in coastal areas, Sauvignon shows beautifully in Constantia, Stellenbosch, Elgin and Elim. A leader of quality Sauvignon, Mike Dobrovic, winemaker at Stellenbosch-based Mulderbosch, offers, "I have been making Sauvignon Blanc for 25 years and demand has increased every year." Dobrovic’s own style of Sauvignon is elegant and balanced, which, he says, stems from being close to the sea and at high altitudes.

Then there is Chenin Blanc. Once known as the workhorse of South Africa, Chenin was cultivated for brandy but some producers are focusing on quality-driven wines. "We have as much Chenin in South Africa as the rest of the world put together," emphasizes Teddy Hall, winemaker for Rudera. He continues, "Most of the vineyards are mature and many of them planted on the best viticultural sites. It is difficult not to get excited when you realize this is the white grape that will put South Africa firmly on the wine map. This is the next Pinot Grigio, only better."

Richard Kershaw, winemaker for Kanu, makes an unwooded Chenin, a barrel fermented version and a late harvest dessert wine. He says, "Generally, in South Africa, a lot of vines have been ripped up; however, it still holds sway in the vineyard plantings and unfortunately suffers from abuse at the hands of the big factory production wineries who churn out a watery anodyne style. Luckily for the U.S. not a lot of this production plonk makes it to your shores, which means that the public can see Chenin as it shines."

The much-maligned hybrid varietal, Pinotage, now has producers championing its cause. "Pinotage has only had ten years to start exploring where it is best suited to grow and what conditions impart the most favorable flavors. It is now starting to receive the attention to detail which could possibly allow it the opportunity to be received as one of the great varietals of the world," offers Mike Ratcliffe, managing director of Warwick Estate.

Understanding the grape’s characteristics and finding the right terroir has led Ratcliffe to produce a mono-varietal Pinotage wine, which has found success in the U.S., and a blended wine featuring the grape. Ratcliffe explains, "One of the fastest growing categories of red wine has been the Cape Blend, which is loosely defined as a red blend from the Cape which contains Pinotage."

Peter Morales, founder of 57 Main Street Imports, touts Pinotage’s food-friendliness as one of the many reasons it is performing well in the U.S. He says, "Pinotage is an extremely unique and exceptional varietal and it pairs perfectly with the diverse array of flavorful ethnic foods in the U.S."

The other varietals Morales noted as stand-outs of the region are Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blends, and Shiraz.
Boutique wines aside, South Africa could also become the next stop for everyday drinking wines next to California and Australia. Lindemans recently launched Lindemans South Africa, Gallo has plans to launch a new South African label and there are more launches underway.

With retailers and consumers catching on to the quality and value that South African wines have to offer, Morales says that "these wines are really getting an international flavor about them."

He continues, "The key to fostering growth lies not only in the winemakers continuing to make excellent wines, but also in marketers helping people understand that these diverse wines pair well with so many different types of foods." He adds, "If we keep sending this message of diversity, it will facilitate growth."

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