South Africa has a 350-year history of grapegrowing and winemaking. So why is now its moment to shine?

South Africa missed out on much of the expansion that the wine industry experienced over the last quarter century. The country’s apartheid troubles (and the trade embargoes that went along with them) did nothing to help the country’s wineries win recognition, let alone acclaim. Now that they’re on the “who’s who” list of emerging wine regions, they are up against the same challenges that wineries the world over are facing—the growing pains of overproduction and leveling demand. So what does South Africa bring to the table that will keep them in the game? Its incredible sense of place, the dizzying pace with which it is changing and the unprecedented impact that the rest of the world is having on this once very insular scene.

Not Just Another Wine Country
South Africa wine country is unique in every respect. The Cape climate is influenced by African continental elements and Atlantic and Indian Ocean currents, which form a number of microclimates. Outside the city of Cape Town, wild animals in wine country also reinforce this sense of difference. There’s a cheetah-breeding compound, for example, at The Village at Spier, a leading Stellenbosch wine country hostel. Zebra and ostrich are seen along the road on the way into Stellenbosch.

Grapegrowers here have to deal with some unusual vineyard pests. “Baboons like grapes,” says veteran Cape winemaker Neil Ellis. His winery in the Jonkershoek part of Stellenbosch has had its share of predatory primates. “Being strong apes, they can do a lot of damage to a vineyard when hungry…and they can get very hungry. They’ll not just pick grapes, they pull a whole shoot off a vine or a whole young vine clear out of the ground.” This definitely isn’t Napa or Bordeaux.

The Naming Game

South Africa’s way of articulating place on its bottles takes some getting used to. Appellations are indicated by the acronym “W.O.”—Wine of
—which is akin to the States’ AVA. The broadest geographical W.O. in South Africa is the all-encompassing Western Cape. Wine bearing that name can be made of grapes from any growing area. Some bottles even bear the more general “South Africa” W.O. The next step down the ladder to specificity is region. The Coastal region includes the significant, perhaps better known, districts of Stellenbosch and Paarl.

These neighboring districts are the heart of Cape wine country. A Northern California comparison is apt, perhaps with Stellenbosch as Napa, and Paarl in the Sonoma role, and great wines coming from many areas of each. These two districts are the South African wine industry’s core, home to its two heavyweight corporate entities: KWV in Paarl, and Distell in Stellenbosch, plus, of course, a multitude of other wineries of varying size and scale.

Within these districts are subdistricts called wards, which are analogous to Napa’s Rutherford or Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. In Stellenbosch, the Simonsberg, Helderberg, and Jonkershoek wards are noteworthy. Likewise, Paarl’s Franschhoek and Wellington appear on labels with growing frequency.

This is where the place-naming gets a little confusing. Some wards, even historically important ones like Constantia (the Cape’s first world-renowned wine name) are not part of any district—but are part of the Coastal region. Add to that the fact that many Constantia-based wineries have the ward name in the winery name, as occurs in Napa’s Stag’s Leap District, and the potential for confusion multiplies. —M.M.

Just as pervasive as the unique sense of place in South Africa is the overwhelming air of change. Change is in people’s minds, on their lips, in the things they do. Perhaps most telling for the wine industry is that, within the last seven years, more than one-third of South African vineyards have been replanted with better quality, virus-free vines—a move that is eerily resonant of California’s phylloxera-necessitated replanting.

Many older vineyards in South Africa are afflicted with leaf-roll virus, which affects both productivity and ripening. Improved plant material and resistant rootstocks, coupled with a much-improved understanding of terroir and site-appropriate plantings, are yielding grapes of higher quality than the country has ever seen before. The mix of grape varieties, too, is changing as the replantings continue. An industry that was once dominated by white varieties, especially Chenin Blanc (known locally as Steen), is now leaning toward red varieties. Of the vines that were uprooted in 2000, 87 percent were white grapes. Of the fruit that was planted that same year, 82 percent were red varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are receiving the most attention, but not to the total exclusion of Zinfandel, red Rhône grapes and the lesser-known Bordeaux varieties. The people behind the vines, too, are different than they were before.

“Wine farms have seen a change in ownership. Successful businessmen and overseas investors are changing the farming model from a production-oriented to a market-oriented one,” comments Emil en Dulk, owner of de Toren Winery, producers of Bordeaux-style Fusion V. “The new market demands a quality product, improved packaging and merchandising skill.”

En Dulk’s countryman, Charles Back, is taking this need for merchandising skill to heart. His Paarl winery, Fairview, has a tongue-firmly-in-cheek line called “Goats do Roam,” a Côtes du Rhône-inspired brand named for the goats that live on the estate property. The tasty and cleverly packaged wine looks like the first major branding success of a South African wine in the U.S. In fact, Back is following with a more upscale “Goat Roti,” a red similar to another, even more famous Rhône red, while the AOC monitors in France engage in anguished hand-wringing. French winemakers, on the other hand, are looking to South Africa with an interest in exploring the country’s comparatively uncharted terroir—and so are their winemaking colleagues the world over.

South Africa goes global
“We now know that the years of isolation [during sanctions] did more harm than we originally thought,” says Rustenberg’s owner, Simon Barlow, “but we’re catching up fast.”

South Africa’s tumultuous political circumstances may have limited the country’s participation in the late 20th-century’s world wine scene, but that doesn’t mean that their leading viticulturalists were sitting idle. A strong domestic market (as well as trade with some countries) kept its wine industry afloat, but somewhat out of touch when it came to viticultural advances.

Pinotage: South Africa’s Home-Grown Red

Pinotage is a hybrid grape, the field and laboratory “test-tube baby” of noted 20th-century South African scientist and viticulturalist Izak Perold. In 1925, Perold successfully crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault, a Rhône grape known in South Africa as Hermitage. Still, it took over 15 years to make the first experimental wine, and another couple of decades until the first commercial version appeared.

South Africa’s indigenous grape has been made mostly into a workaday drinking red, often spicy, rustic and sometimes rough-hewn. Recent, more sophisticated renditions reflect better vine management, redefined definitions of ripeness, and more finely tuned winery handling. The best Pinotages display improved texture and more intense fruit flavors, and they tame the rougher qualities that can be part of the grape’s flavor profile. They can improve with age, generally peaking (much like Pinot Noir) at between four and eight years of age. This tangy, flavorful red goes well with grilled meats, and is the traditional accompaniment to a braai, the South African mixed-grill barbecue.

“[During trade sanctions] we were deprived, with no buildup or exchange of generations of knowledge,” says Alex Dale, partner at Radford Dale. (The Radford half of that partnership is Barossa-born Ben Radford.) “Then we were suddenly, massively exposed, followed by great improvement.”

With apartheid abolished and trade soaring over the last decade, open-minded South African winemakers, young and old, learned that they had some catching up to do. They needed well-packaged, quality products, and sophisticated marketing professionals in their corner. Cape viticulturalists headed overseas to learn from successful American, French and Australian wine companies—or they lured top international professionals to their small slice of Africa. One such example is Australian winemaker Linley Schultz, formerly of Banrock Station, who is now making wine at Fleur du Cap.

As a result of this cross-pollenization (which sounds, on a larger scale, like a student exchange program), South Africans began to realize that from the vineyard on—beginning with vine management and ripeness—they had a lot of relearning to do, but it was for the best. De Toren’s den Dulk says that “Global exposure makes winemakers better. They learn about new techniques in the vineyard and winery, about market needs and about the need for differentiation.”

“Cross-pollenization has reaped tremendous advances for us here in the Cape,” says Dale. “At Radford Dale there’s me and Ben [Radford], a viticulturist from New Zealand and a French enologist-consultant. It’s a perfect example of combining diverse expert talents with the immense natural potential of the Cape.” Dale’s other venture, Vinum, has a similarly international South African-British-French team. “We have a massive opportunity here. It’s a blank sheet on which to design our future, using influences from everywhere with our unique local ingredients,” the British-born, French-raised Dale concludes.

American winemaker Zelma Long and viticulturist husband Phil Freese first came to South Africa in 1990 and, as do many visitors, fell in love with its uniqueness. In 1997, after many return visits, they embarked on a project to produce their own Sauvignon Blanc, called Simunye (which is Zulu for “we are one”) for their global portfolio, Zelphi. Backsberg’s Michael Back helped Long and Freese locate a desirable vineyard parcel, and became their on-site partner.

While Americans and Australians have played major roles as consultants and employees in Cape wineries, the French are arguably the ones who can take the most credit for the changes in South African winemaking. They’ve bought estates on the Cape, which entails deeper commitment, invested in estates with their own capital or, at the very least, secured outside investors. Alain Moueix, of the famous Bordeaux family, has two ventures with South African Graham Knox: Siyabonga (which means “give thanks” in Khosa, a Western Cape tribal language) is in a unique valley in Paarl’s Wellington ward, and produces a Pinotage, a Cab-Merlot blend and a white blend. Moueix and Knox’s other endeavor, Ingwe (which means “leopard” in Khosa), is located in Stellenbosch’s southerly Somerset West, with vineyards cooled by breezes off False Bay.

With plenty on the table in Bordeaux, why does Moueix play here?

“I had consulted on Cape wines and knew the great possibilities the right situation would present, especially one with real vineyard control,” says Moueix. “In early 1997 we secured one estate. Later that year, the other presented itself. Too inviting to pass on, we ended up involved with two unique and differently challenging situations.” Luckily for Moueix, South Africa afforded him freedoms that France’s rules and regulations did not. “Here I can control vine density and plant whatever grape I want to, wherever I think it belongs. For a Bordeaux boy, it’s fantastic. I am very confident about the long-term possibilities for world-class wine from the Cape.”

Moueix’s countrymen are following him Capeward. Anne Cointreau-Huchon, of the familiarly named liqueur, owns the Morgenhof winery in Stellenbosch’s Simonsberg ward. At the renovated historic estate, the young Ryanie Strydom crafts svelte, tasty wines like Morgenhof’s Premiere Selection.

The improving quality of Cape wines and a favorable exchange rate bode well for the success of South African wines in America. South Africa’s major export markets are the United Kingdom and Holland, but here they hold only a small market share. A gain of a percentage point or two will be major growth.

The friendly, motivated wine people of the Cape understand that success will be based on creating a unique, quality-associated identity for South African wine in the mind of the American consumer. It’s up to us to give them the chance by tasting the wines from this unique wine source.

Published on October 1, 2002

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