During the colonial wars of the 19th century, plantings of colombard and chenin blanc proliferated in South Africa, resulting in massive, artless overproduction of white wine. Chenin blanc became known as South Africa’s ubiquitous Steen. Wine consumption soon fell out of favor, and despite the efforts of a few surviving avant-garde winemakers who tried to smuggle nobler rootstock from Europe to increase the quality of wine, Steen thrived early into the early 20th century.
In 1918, the government founded the KWV (Cooperative Winegrowers’ Association of South Africa) in a new effort to protect winegrowers and to improve wine quality. It fixed minimum prices, enforced winestock limits and demanded continuing distillation of any surplus. But it was still all about Steen — not a good formula for success! However, the KWV conveniently acquired 70 percent of the wine industry; thus, it became acutely necessary for the KWV to grow better fruit.
Then in 1973, the government loosened its grip on vines and land. It introduced a new system of regulations defining wines of origin and delineating where growers could — at last — plant noble vines. In the 1990s, the KWV itself lightened up, while on a global level sanctions against South Africa were lifted. The road to success was clear – the potential of this lush land as an important wine country became known. Today, we’re finally seeing some fine South African wines that rival the best of the New World.
Excited vintners are still exploring which varietals grow best on their land. Foreign investment is pouring in, yet today’s 226,000 acres of vineyards, farmed by some 6,000 growers, are still burdened by overproduction of that hard-to-lose Steen.
Of South Africa’s vines, 80 percent are white wine grapes. Of total crushed fruit — both red and white — only 30 percent makes it to vinification. To give you an idea of how much vine stock there actually is, if South Africa turned all its grapes into wine, it would produce three times as much as Australia!
Currently South Africa boasts 71 cooperatives (mostly under the umbrella of the KWV), 78 estate wineries and 105 private cellars.
The traditional grapes of Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon and merlot) are prominent throughout South Africa, but more recently winegrowers have branched out, planting more shiraz, cabernet franc, zinfandel, gamay noir, souzao and tinta barocca. However, these red grapes are still painfully scarce. As for white varietals, sauvignon blanc, introduced in the 1980s, is by far the best white wine varietal available. Other whites grown include Cape riesling, chardonnay, muscat and Rhine riesling.
When it doesn’t exist, invent it!
South Africa is home to a varietal grown few other places: pinotage — a cross between pinot noir (the red grape of Burgundy, France) and cinsault (a red fruit grown in France’s Rhone region). Pinotage is often compared to California’s zinfandel grape, and although developed at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch in 1922, it wasn’t planted until some 30 years later. Its unique flavor — deep berry peppered with spice, smoke, earth and a bit of game — perfectly complements heartier red meat dishes such as lamb and venison. In its youth, pinotage shows smoky raspberry and red fruit flavors reminiscent of its Rhone grape heritage. As it ages, though, it leans more toward its Burgundian roots, retaining its red fruit characteristics and exhibiting more hints of earth, truffle and tobacco.
As in France, since 1973, South Africa’s wine regions are divided into a series of official regions, districts, wards and estates arranged as circles within circles, narrowing down the origin of a wine. Currently there are 10 official areas of origin, with wines from these designated appellations carrying a certified “Wine of Origin” label. Vintners are still exploring, thus characteristics and styles may change over time.
South Africa’s most important viticultural land, known as the Coastal Region appellation, radiates from Cape Town. Planted in moist sandstone and granite soils, vines there thrive in a climate best compared to that of Santa Barbara. Warm, dry summers and good winter rainfall make irrigation unnecessary.
Within the Coastal Region appellation lie six areas of origin. Of these six, Stellenbosch is considered the center of gravity. Situated east of Cape Town and bordered on the south by False Bay, Stellenbosch produces wines reflecting the fertile soils and coastal influence needed to produce world-class products. With the highest concentration of wineries and widely diverse microclimates, Stellenbosch consistently produces South Africa’s best wines. The other five areas are Constantia, producing cool-climate wines and once synonymous with the world’s most famous muscat wine; Durbanville, just north of Cape Town and devoted to great reds; Swartland, a hot, dry district where large cooperatives produce large-selling, low-priced chenin blanc and some straightforward pinotage; Tulbagh, further inland, with its varying soils and mountainous terrain, and producing mostly whites; and Paarl, between Cape Town and Tulbagh, which is South Africa’s wine capital and home to the KWV and some of the country’s best vineyards and prestigious winemakers. (Boberg, located within Paarl and Tulbagh, is another appellation in the Coastal Region. Its name, however, can only be used for fortified wines.)
Along the umbrella appellation of the Breede River Valley, northeast of Cape Town, two areas of origin — Worcester and Swellendam — produce white table wines as well as some fortified sweet stuff. Also in the valley, Robertson, with its lime-rich soil, is becoming known for high-quality reds and whites, especially shiraz and chardonnay. On the southern coast, the cape’s coolest climate, new vineyards in Overberg are producing fine chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. The easternmost area is known as Little Karoo, with a dry climate and extreme temperatures. Here, mostly fortified wines, brandy and, well, yes, Steen, are produced. This is true also for Benede-Orange, Olifants River and Piketberg, three warm, dry appellations along the northern coast.
A Final Note
The demand for South African fine wine — especially red — has become huge, and the little that reaches the United States is swallowed up by retailers immediately. Though the reds can be expensive, they’re generally worth the price.