Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Does South Africa Need a Signature Grape Variety?

We take a look at South Africa and ask where Chenin Blanc and Pinotage fit in amongst a myriad of grape varieties.
Illustration by Rebecca Bradley

Lauren Buzzeo, Wine Enthusiast’s managing editor of print, has surprising thoughts about Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. Meanwhile, San Timberg of South African wine importer Meridian Prime has his own take on South Africa’s signature grapes.


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Read the full transcript for “Does South Africa Need a Signature Grape Variety?”:

Jameson Fink: Jameson Fink, senior digital editor, Wine Enthusiast.

Let’s explore the wines of South Africa, it’s a really exciting time for wines in the country, and there’s always that perception of “Oh, do they have the signature red grape? Do they have the signature white grape? Do they need one?”

So we’re definitely going to look at that, but take a look at a lot of regions, a lot of grapes. Yes, we will talk about Pinotage, and it will be controversial, and even some Chenin Blanc talk that’s very bold, so let’s go.

Lauren Buzzeo: Lauren Buzzeo, tasting director and managing editor.

JF: Lauren, you just got back from South Africa, and the first thing I want to know is when was your last trip there, and what’s the biggest change that you’ve seen since the last time you visited?

LB: Wow, that’s really a dense question …

JF: I’m dense.

LB: Well, to start off, I’ll say my last trip there was a couple years ago, unfortunately. I had a baby, so that prohibited my travel schedule for a little while, but I’m back in the game, and thankfully returned to the beautiful country this past July. It was a fantastic trip. It was my fourth time to the country. It’s always a pleasure and an honor to travel to South Africa. Just a beautiful, fantastic, wonderfully accommodating, pleasant, happy place to be.

Of course, I’m speaking specifically about the Cape Winelands regions, so around Stellenbosch, Cape Town. I did take some day trips up to the Swartland, to Elgin. I think the exciting thing that I experienced this time, was that I actually participated in the Chenin Blanc Association’s judging of what they call their challenge to determine the top ten Chenin Blancs of those submitted in the category.

I was happy to be on the panel with four other fantastic experts, two of them MWs where we tasted 136 different Chenin Blancs from the country. I think overall we were just wonderfully impressed by the quality, by the increase in quality that we’ve all noticed over the past few years. We were all very happy to see that trends are moving back towards wines that are a little bit, I’ll say, less manipulated, that express their terroir and a little bit more elegance, refinement and balance, as opposed to those that are maybe a little bit more opulent, concentrated, certainly oaked. Again, they’re going back towards a little more of an elegant, refined, long-lived expression that we all very much appreciated tasting.

JF: When I think of Chenin Blanc I think of the lower valley, but I also think about Chenin Blanc as a chameleon. They can be dry, they can be sweet, they can be off dry. Is there that STe kind of diversity in Chenin Blanc production, and are they best known for dry Chenin Blancs or is it just a wonderful mixed bag of different styles and flavors?

LB: You know what Jameson? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in fact it is better. I think that they …

JF: Whoa.

LB: Yeah. I think that South Africa has, as a whole, a better handle on the grape, a better handle on the diversity of styles, on the different expressions, and are perfectly capable and suited to producing all of those different styles, moreso than any other region. I think that it’s definitely a strength that they have in terms of identifying the country with a specific varietal to give consumers an entry point to learn more about the wines of South Africa.

I’m not saying that’s the only thing the country does well, and, in fact, historically they’ve sort of had this slogan that diversity is in their nature. To a certain extent, it is. They absolutely are able of producing a variety of varieties, a wide range of grapes and styles. However, again, in order to solidify something for consumers to latch on to, some entry point for them to immediately associate and identify wines from that country, I absolutely think that Chenin Blanc is that calling card that they should be hanging their hat on.

JF: What do you, looking into your South African crystal ball of wine … What are things that as wine drinkers, as curious wine drinkers, as explorers, what should we be looking at or trying to seek out from South Africa that you’re really excited about besides Chenin.

LB: I was going to say, Chenin Blanc, of course. Again, there’s a very wide range of wines and styles to be enjoyed from South Africa. Aside from Chenin, certainly Pinotage is another local grape. I know it’s a love it or hate it. You’re giving me a face right now. We could have a separate …

JF: You can’t see that.

LB: We could have a separate podcast all about Pinotage. I think something exciting that I did notice on this trip also is that wine makers are taking a little bit of a different and more thoughtful and considerate approach to Pinotage, which is something that I think you’re going to appreciate when you start to taste some of these new releases.

They’re really considering the grapes heritage, the parents, especially the Pinot Noir aspects of Pinotage. If you treat it like the delicate, thoughtful, nuanced grape that it can be when it’s not totally abused and punched vigorously and fully extracted, it actually can produce a really elegant fine wine. I think that that’s a trend that we’re going to start to see in upcoming vintages and new releases in market for Pinotage.

For those who maybe have a different impression of the grape, or no impression at all, I would definitely urge people to start considering trying some Pinotage.

JF: And I promise the next time you’re tasting them in the office to try them with an open mind.

LB: Awesome, that’s all I can ask.

JF: Thanks for relating some of the stories and experiences from your recent trip to South Africa.

LB: Anytime, Jameson.

Sam Timberg: Hi, this is Sam Timberg, managing director and VP of sales of Meridian Prime.

JF: Sam, I guess the first thing I want to know is why South African wine? What is it about South Africa that you find intriguing that you’ve dedicated your work life to?

ST: One of the things that I find gets overlooked in the wine industry all too frequently is the attachment to a place. So, people drink a bottle of wine and it’s much less about where it comes from, it’s just how does it taste, what does it pair with.

For me, South Africa is a visceral experience drinking South African wine. I first traveled to South Africa in 2005. My brother Craig and I traveled to the wineries in the Stellenbosch area of South Africa, and I was enchanted. I had never been drinking wine that didn’t come out of a bag. My experience with wine at that point was what I just said. Alright, this is okay, it tastes good and gets me a little tipsy.

South Africa was the first time I put my nose in the glass and I really understood. I remember it was a bottle of 2004 Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon blanc. On the back label it says something like, “You’ll smell wet stone in this bottle.” And I was like, “well that’s crazy. That makes no sense.” And I put my nose in the glass and I was like, “I get it.”

It was the first time I was really trying to analyze wines and trying to understand what I liked, why I liked it, and that stuck with me. I went back to South Africa again in 2006, and my priority when I went back was to spend as much time in wineries as I could. At the time I had no professional aspirations. I was an environmental studies major in college. I remember my brother, Craig, one time said, “You know, you could do this for a job. People do that.”

It struck me, it was kind of an amazing … it was an epiphany where I really said, “this is cool.” I like it, and I think I’m okay at it, and I think South Africa deserves to have a better representation in the United States.

JF: For people just getting a handle, like maybe they’ve never tried wines from South Africa, where’s a good place to start?

ST: I think the coolest part about South African wine and another reason that I became really attached to it is, I really do love wine. I love wine in all of its various forms. Whether it’s a day at the beach when you’re drinking rosé or it’s a meal you’ve been putting together for six months with friends and you think you have the perfect pairing and you cook everything just right and then you get the wine in the glass and you just nail it.

South Africa has all of that. I always tell people that … it’s not like … I think if you ask a lot of Americans what they know of Argentinean wine, they would say, “Oh, I really like malbecs.” And then you ask them about New Zealand, they go, “Oh, Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is where it’s at.”

For me, South Africa is difficult, because there isn’t that one thing to hang your hat on, but the diversity is such that if you like wine, you’ll like South African wine.

That’s really important to me to be able to … If we’re going to be a regional specific importer, we couldn’t do it in a region that was known for just one thing. We would have to do it in a region where you can have access to everything. So, I think the best way to get into South African wine is to just drink South African wine. Look on the back label, find a reputable importer, and if the importer is good, chances are the bottle is good.

For me, I got into South African wine with Sauvignon blancs and red blends, but that said, at this point, there’s weird stuff coming out of the country right now. There’s these extended skin contact orange wines, there’s old vine Chenin Blanc. Fifteen dollar Sauvignon blanc from South Africa is an incredible value. I sell a line called Two Dogs, A Peacock and a Horse. They also don’t take themselves too seriously, but the wines are great.

So if that’s your style, if you are all about having a great time, having fun, learning a bit about a region, but really at the end of the day having good wine that doesn’t take itself too seriously, try more South African wine.

JF: What makes those grapes distinct in South Africa? Do you drink a South African Sauvignon blanc and you’re like, “Wow, that is South Africa.” Maybe it’s not that cut and dry. What is your take on that?

ST: Let’s take Chenin Blanc first, because Chenin Blanc to me is a grape that I think South Africa really can do a great job getting out to the United States consumer. It’s a grape that can be made in a number of different ways. You can make a very clean and crisp stainless steel fermentation and aging, toss it into a bottle, young, fresh, and then crack the bottle, it’s going to be delicious, crisp. In between Sauvignon blanc and a lighter style Chardonnay, a little more texture to it, but nice tropical fruit flavors, a lot of sort of lush fruit on the wines.

Then you have some of these really stunning older vine Chenin Blancs that are barrel aged, barrel fermented, but a lot of the wine makers I personally like to work with are using larger oak barrels, maybe 500 liter barrels, older oak barrels. They’re not really trying to impart too much flavor. They’re really trying to these beautiful old vines do all the talking and just give it a little more polish.

So Chenin Blanc is … to say there’s one style in South Africa is really difficult, because I think there’s a broad range. There’s over 50% of the world’s plantings of Chenin Blanc in South Africa, so it really is the signature white wine of South Africa. It says it on the label, so you’re not going to drink a Vouvray and wonder what kind of grape you’re drinking. It says Chenin Blanc and if you like Chenin Blanc you should keep digging into South Africa on that side.

Sauvignon blanc from South Africa is going to be a little less in your face than New Zealand. A little less brash. A little less announcing itself to you. Maybe a little bit more polished on the palette as well. Really balanced acidities. There’s some lovely cool climate Sauvignon blancs that to me drink closer to a Sancerre than New Zealand, but generally what I think of South Africa is that it’s that middle ground between the old world and the new world. You have as much sunshine as Sicily, but you also have some of the oldest soils found anywhere on the planet Earth. Because of that, South African wine makers are able to really decide what kind of wine they’re going for. Do they want these big wines with a lot of generous fruit, or do they want something a little more subtle, a little bit more elegant, a little bit more food friendly?

I think the best wine makers in South Africa right now are really trying to be true to the terroir. They’re trying to make wines that are a reflection of where they come from. That, to me, is something that I find is getting a little bit lost in the wines that I have access to from California at the, call it, 40 dollar and under price point.

From South Africa you’re spending 30 bucks on a bottle of wine, it can be a life changing wine.

JF: Obviously, Sauvignon blanc and Chenin Blanc are the most notable or the white wine grapes from South Africa that I see the most, but what other grapes is South Africa doing well, as far as white wines that you think people … you want to beat the drum for?

ST: As far as white wines go, I think there’s a lot of great Chardonnay made all over the world, so it’s a hard grape to set yourself apart from the pack on. It’s a grape that I love, however, and I think the Chardonnays I represent … one that jumps to mind is Richard Kershaw. He’s the only master of wine making wines in South Africa. His Chardonnay comes form the coolest climate wine region in South Africa called Elgin, which is probably a 40 minutes drive from Stellenbosch, which is much more of a Napa like climate. Hot, and it gets a little sweaty during the summertime. Elgin reminds me of the Hudson Valley. Apple trees are the main product there, so there’s these beautiful pockets of cool climate vineyards, and Richard’s Chardonnay is mineral driven, steely, focused and world-class.

I would say Chardonnay is a grape that definitely deserves a second look from South Africa.

I think Chenin Blanc, like you mentioned, there’s so much opportunity with Chenin Blanc and South Africa. There’s old vine Chenin that really pulls out the texture and really showcases the terroir in a beautiful way. It’s funny, because I’m starting to see some really interesting, some great old Sémillons. Old vine Sémillons. I mean these vines are 70, 80 … I’ve tasted Sémillons from South Africa from over 100 year old vines, and they’re really staggering. And that’s what’s cool is you’re starting to see these white blends. You’re seeing Rhone style white blends, a style I absolutely love, coming out of South Africa now.

I think the white blend category is one that deserves a lot of recognition from South Africa as well with these cool older vines and wine makers that have traveled internationally and really know how to make that style of wine.

JF: I guess I should have backed up a little for people who might not know. Where is South Africa’s wine country. If I’m in Cape Town, I think of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek would be the major areas, but am I overlooking other important wine regions in South Africa?

ST: The wine industry is really focused in what’s loosely called the Western Cape. Outside of Cape Town. You fly into the Cape Town airport, you drive maybe 30 minutes, maybe a little bit less from the airport and you’re in Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch for me was the conversion experience. Driving through Stellenbosch and looking at the signs on the side of the road and then opening up the John Platter guide and seeing if they got good scores. Let’s pull in there and see what they’re all about. That’s where I really learned to love South African wine, was Stellenbosch. It is so close to Cape Town. It’s maybe a 45 minute drive to Cape Town, but what’s amazing about Stellenbosch and the way it sits, you have the southern part of Stellenbosch, it’s close enough to the Indian Ocean. From the Chardonnay vineyards on Eikendal you can actually see to False Bay. You can see to the ocean. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much ocean influence there is in that area.

The vast majority of vineyards are a 90 minute drive from Stellenbosch. You can get into Elgin in under an hour. You can get into the Franschhoek Paarl region very quickly just driving almost due East from Stellenbosch. Then you go over the mountains, these beautiful that every time I go over this pass I feel like I’m going to see dinosaurs, it’s the craziest place I’ve ever been.

Then, all the sudden you open up into the Breedekloof Valley and Robertson. Then to the north you have the Swartland region, you have all the way along the Indian Ocean Coast a really lovely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay coming out of the Cape South Coast, the Hemel-en-Aarde region.

It’s all within striking distance of Cape Town. People always think, I’m going to fly into Cape Town, I’m going to stay there for four or five nights. I always tell people, spend four or five nights in wine country. Spend two or three nights in Cape Town, because wine country is just an experience. The hospitality is wonderful, the food is incredible. People are wildly friendly. It’s a great place to go.

JF: I guess switching … where’s South Africa at with red wines. I guess I would think of mostly Rhone varieties and blends and things like that. What are the red wines that represent South Africa and the ones that are just knocking it out of the park?

ST: It’s interesting, my favorite grape is Pinot Noir. It’s an incredibly difficult grape to get right anywhere in the world, and it’s especially difficult to get right in South Africa. As we’ve been building the portfolio, it’s been a slog to find really good Pinot Noir. We went from this time last year, early 2016, we didn’t have a single Pinot Noir in our portfolio. And now all of a sudden I have five and they’re outstanding, and they’re all cooler climate Pinot Noir with the exception of the Peter Falke Pinot, which comes from an estate in Stellenbosch but 50% of the fruit does come from the Elgin region.

It’s cool climate Pinot Noir in South Africa is a style that’s emerging right now that the people that are getting it right are knocking it out of the park. We’re going to bring in a new wine called Sourwine, which is an amazing name for a bottle. The wine maker is a woman named Jessica Sourwine and she makes this tiny Pinot Noir from a cool climate region that was just tasted in South Africa against Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The fact that these wines are even on the STe table, to me is really remarkable.

I think Pinot Noir is one that’s probably a little bit under the radar from South Africa that’s really emerging nicely. For the reds that I think have established the credibility of South Africa wine, I would say that you hit the nail on the head. Red blends, certainly red Rhone style blends, Syrah, Greneche based wines are quite lovely. Some of the wines I truly love are Bordeaux blends from South Africa, so often Cabernet led, but there’s some lovely merlot led Bordeaux blends from South Africa.

Then there’s really lovely single varietal Cabernets out of Stellenbosch. You see lovely single variety Syrahs that I think are absolutely on par with the best wines coming out of the Rhone, and one of the things I love is doing blind tastings with people, because the hardest part for me is getting people to take South Africa seriously, so if you really challenge someone and put a beautiful glass in front of somebody and don’t tell them what it is, and then let them get there on their own, it’s a cool way to convert people.

Absolutely, red blends from the Rhone style, the Bordeaux style, Cabernets, Syrahs …

JF: Alright, we’ve gotta do it, we’ve gotta talk about Pinotage. What do you think about it?

ST: Oh, that’s a hard way to start.

JF: What would be … I could say what I think of it. Look, I don’t like it. How about that? I’ve had a fair amount of it. You know what I’ve liked? Southern Wright, that Hamilton Russell. He’s a very strident person about it, that Pinotage is being marketed wrong. Oh, it’s a cross between Cinsaut and Pinot Noir. I mean, look, to me they’ve had a lot of that burnt tire, burnt rubber kind of thing. It’s a flavor I don’t like. You know, some people don’t like vegetal Cabernet Franc. I love that. I think it’s just they are like statement wines, that it pulls no punches.

It’s probably a more nuanced topic than I’m aware of. I haven’t tasted a ton of Pinotage lately, but what is its role? I would think it would be an asset, but then it’s so polarizing too. I don’t even know. I’m just throwing up my hands. Help me out.

ST: You’ve actually hit it. Pinotage is tough. It’s divisive. People love it or they hate it. I almost always hate it, and I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for that. For a number of reasons. I’ve had some great Pinotage from South Africa. World class wines, not world class Pinotage, really just outstanding wines. The problem with Pinotage is … My portfolio is close to 100 wines and we have two Pinotage in the portfolio. They are both excellent, and I suspect if you tried either of them blind, you wouldn’t think they were Pinotage. Pinotage is just like South African wine making. It’s a microcosm of what’s going on in South Africa. There was a style that was dominant 15 or 20 years ago that I think a lot of people thought was the way you were making wine. And South Africans 20 years ago were comparing their wines to other South African wines. They weren’t saying, “This Pinotage is as good as the Pinotage from my neighbor or the Pinotage from that region twenty miles to the south.”

They didn’t have the international experience due to trade restrictions to see maybe this isn’t what the international public is looking for.

JF: That kind of house palette thing.

ST: Absolutely. What you’re seeing now with Pinotage that I find actually, it pains me to say it, but very exciting, is wine makers that are treating it incredibly differently than they would have 15 years ago. Nico Grobler the wine maker at Eikendal makes Pinotage that is carbonically macerated. It tastes like a Pinot Noir. It tastes like a funky, cool Pinot Noir, and it’s Pinotage. It gets good ratings all over the world, nobody thinks it’s Pinotage, and Nico would argue until he’s blue in the face that that’s Pinotage, that’s the way you should treat Pinotage. Really try and showcase the subtlety of the grape. I don’t think anyone would ever think of Pinotage and subtle in the STe sentence.

What I’m starting to see in the wines that Meridian Prime is having success with on the Pinotage side are wines that challenge people’s perception of the grape. I think my larger issue with Pinotage is that for a long time I agreed that South Africa was marketing it wrong. It’s not … South Africa shouldn’t be focused on Pinotage. I’ve heard, and you’ve probably heard it as well. Zinfandel in California is like Pinotage in South Africa. No one says I’m going to California and all I want to taste are the Zinfandels. People go to South Africa and say, “Cool, I’m going to try all the Pinotage I can find.” For me, I’m thinking, that’s actually a really small piece of the puzzle down there. If you just focus on Pinotage you’re really missing the bigger picture.

I’ll have tastings with people and we’ll open up ten fantastic bottles of wine and not a single Pinotage in sight, and inevitably the question leads back to “Well, where’s the Pinotage?” And I have to say, “Well didn’t you think all these other wines were really outstanding and deserving of merit on their own, without having to talk about this polarizing grape that you’re probably not going to like anyway? You’re just looking for a reason to tell me why you don’t like South African wine.

I think the next five years are going to be really important to what the future of Pinotage looks like. I think if more wine makers get the picture that if you treat it with a softer hand, if you treat it a little bit lighter, you can make really lovely wines. But you’ve got to sift through a lot of pretty funky, weird stuff before you get to the good ones.

JF: I just don’t feel like there’s a grape with that kind of reputation that’s such an intrinsic part of a wine country’s history. It’s such a unique situation. It’s really fascinating to me. Well, thank you for being candid about that.

ST: That was actually pretty nice.

JF: I guess one thing I want to do is, I’m always curious about what’s exciting you right now? It is it regions? Is it grapes, or wine makers, certain styles? What are we going to look at five years from now and be like, “Wow, this is incredibly how x, y, and z have developed.”

ST: I think the future, the last five years of wine making in South Africa is going to influence the next 15 really dramatically. There’s been a really big shift in the style of wine being made in South Africa. A lot of wine makers historically were trying to really show off. They were smacking the wines with a lot of new oak. They were leaving the grapes on the vines to really develop the sugars, so you could really make these wines that in their own right are sort of show stoppers. They’re big fruit. They’re exciting for half a glass. Then you’re like, “All right. I kind of want to move on.” They’re a little bit too extracted. They’re a little bit too full body. If you knew what you were looking for you could get around those wines.

The past five years I’ve started to see a lot of winemakers. It’s sort of the second generation of wine makers since Apartheid ended in the early nineties that have traveled internationally, drink a lot of international wines, have done harvests all over Europe, all over the United States. Those wine makers are the ones that are exciting me. One of the best wine makers that I work with is a 29 year old named Reenan Borman who makes the wines at an estate called Boschkloof is Stellenbosch, but then he has side projects where he makes 1,200 bottles of this, and 800 bottles of that.

Those are the wines that South Africa really needs to … Distribution will never be massive on those wines. There’s never going to be a lot of them, but people need to start searching those wines out. Those wines are going to start developing reputations, and once these younger wine makers have really shown their chops and really shown that they can make world class wines, I think a lot of these wine makers are going to stop, they’re going to shift into larger roles at the larger estates. I think that grassroots, hands-on wine making is going to infiltrate the larger estates that are always, every region of the world, slower to change and slower to adapt to what the consumers are telling them.

For me, what’s most exciting right now is the age of the wine makers and the quality of wines they’re putting out at an incredibly young age. I have five or six wine makers that are under 35 years old. To think, 15 years from now, if they’re making wines of this caliber today, what are the going to be in 15 years? That’s what’s so exciting about South African wine, and why it’s so exciting to be a part of it right now. It feels like if America hasn’t gotten it yet, that’s fine, because there’s going to be so much stunningly good wine coming out of South Africa in the next ten or fifteen years.

A lot of people that, I don’t love the word, but the millennial generation, that is just drinking wine right now the way I used to drink wine, which is, you have a passing interest in it, you think it tastes good. But, millennials travel all over the world, they’ve spent time in South Africa and if they start getting as excited about it as I am, then that can be for me … Obviously we’re banking on the fact that it’s the future. The wines are incredible. The diversity in the wine making is lovely, and I think the future is really bright because of these wine makers that are really trying to showcase single plots of land. Single vineyards all over the country that really, when you get that bottle of wine, you’re getting a unique expression that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

JF: Great. Well, Sam, thanks for making the case for South African wine. It’s just exciting to hear about what’s going to be happening now, so thanks for speaking with me and sharing your passion and enthusiasm.

ST: Thanks for having me. It’s always fun to make that argument, and I’d love to do it again sometime.

JF: You’ve got it.

ST: Interested in breaking news from the wine, beer, and spirits industries? Read the new, free, multimedia information news hub, Beverage Industry Enthusiast. Written and produced with a fresh point of view. B.I.E. is your go to online destination for the trade. You’ll meet the people who power the industry, watch exclusive videos with industry professionals, and receive a weekly news email. Sign up now at www.winemag.com/bie.

JF: This podcast is produced by Larj Media. L-A-R-J Media.

Wine Enthusiast is made possible by grapes, sunshine, and wine. And by the hardworking editors who bring you news and information on your favorite beverage every day. If you like what we’re doing, share our podcast with your friends and give us a review on iTunes, or where ever you get your podcasts. For more fun wine information, follow us on Twitter and Facebook at wine enthusiast.

Published on August 3, 2017
Topics: Podcast


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