|Measuring the Cape
The history of wine production in South Africa has been chaotic it began more than 300 years ago and only recently has it started to resemble a modern practice.
The vineyards of what is now the worlds eightth largest producer were planted by Dutch settlers in 1659. At first it was the sweet dessert wines from Klein Constantia that defined winemaking in the Cape. Sadly, the region later became known for mass quantities of brandy and other unwanted spirits, and surpluses became so large that in 1923, 55 million litres of wine were drained into the Eerste River at Stellenbosch.
As prices for grapes plummeted, a solution was needed to sustain the grape-growing industry. That came in the form of a wine farmers association known as the infamous K.W.V., which fixed prices for grapes and governed production for all wine-making facilities. In the absence of a free market, growers were protected, but this came at the expense of innovation and progress the system imposed quota limits on production, but did nothing to encourage quality wine-making. Hidden from the reality of the outside world, growers planted white grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Palomino and Clairette, focusing on bulk production for the purpose of distillation. Meanwhile, the world was turning its attention to quality wines and predominantly red ones.
During these years exports were dominated by wines labelled under inauspicious titles such as Africander Claret, Cape Hock, Veldt Burgundy and Table Mountain Chablis, and soon became synonymous with poor quality.
In 1925, Professor Abraham Perold introduced the grape variety Pinotage, which would later help with the transition to quality wine-making in the region. Also introduced in 1973 was the Wine of Origin (WO) system, which began to control the quality of wine coming out of South Africa. But the real change came from the producers themselves. After apartheid was lifted and the K.W.V. was altered, small, quality-minded producers began to spring up and innovation became the first order of the day.
Armed with healthy vines and top quality varieties, these highly educated entrepreneurs were on the search for cooler climates and more suitable soils. Unlike their forefathers, this generation was well-travelled and understood the modern techniques necessary to propel South African wine-making into the 21st century.
The traditional hot inland vineyards were abandoned for sites benefiting from cool ocean influence, where grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc flourished. High quality wines began to emerge from the Cape. Although stalwarts such as Meerlust and Kanonkop were making fine wines for decades, there was now enough good wine for a global marketing scheme. The Cape is now attracting international investment and the outlook for wine has never been more optimistic.
Today we can see a very different picture of South African wines fresh and fruity whites from Sauvignon Blanc to rich, complex Chardonnays, excellent Cabernets, and many classic Bordeaux styles, some of which can age beautifully for decades. Newer styles are also enticing, with their bright fruit aromas and bargain prices Pinot Noir from Walker Bay can be fabulous, although its more expensive and often difficult to find, and the quality of Pinotage (a grape made from crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault), a spicy, complex and uniquely South African wine, has never been better. However, the most exciting wines I have tasted come from the Shiraz grape, where the concentration and fruit of Australia is blended with the style and finesse of the Rhone.
Many of the wines are still undervalued because South Africa is redefining its global image, but I dont expect this will last. My advice is to forget what youve had in the past and get out there and taste some of these great new wines from the Cape:
· 2000 Douglas Green Sauvignon Blanc ($10.75) Lean, fruity and refreshing juice (available from The Wine Shop).
· 2001 Groote Post Chenin Blanc ($14.95) Mineral, flint and pink grapefruit aromas on a lively and fresh palate. (available at finer wine shops).
· 2001 Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc ($11.75) Classic gooseberry aromas and a simple but delicious mouthfeel (widely available).
· 2000 Robertson Shiraz ($10.95) Rich and spicy with generous ripe fruit (widely available).
· 1999 Graham Beck Pinotage ($13.95) Slightly rustic with ripe cherry notes (new, but should be available in better shops).
· 2000 Graham Beck Shira ($17.95) Quite simply the best wine for the money from South Africa, featuring massive fruit with complex anise and tar aromas (available in specialty wine shops).