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For decades this country's wine industry struggled in the shadow of its oppressive political regime. With vineyards focused on high yields rather than quality, and a strong emphasis on sweetish wines made from Chenin Blanc (called Steen in South Africa), the country was out of touch and out of step with the rest of the wine world. However, now that full-scale democracy has taken root, and the doors of international commerce and communication are wide open, there is a great deal more interest in the wines of South Africa, and they can offer quality, value, and unique flavor characteristics.
Certainly one of the effects of the long-standing political isolation of the country is that the wine industry has evolved, to a certain extent, in a more independent manner. Some of the best known wines of South Africa have traditionally been made from Pinotage and Cape Riesling, varieties rarely grown outside the country. Perhaps the most famous wines of all are made from Muscat. Only in the last few years has South Africa begun to join the world-wide trend to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
While many of the country's vineyards still grow less noble varietals, in recent years South Africa has begun to invest in more traditional grape varieties, and has made steady progress towards involving the diverse populations of the country in management and ownership of the wineries. While new techniques in the wineries have improved quality, the biggest opportunities lie in reducing yields and improving viticutural techniques. New plantings in cooler areas hold great promise for some of the more classic European varietals. Following many years of politically based market resistance, the wines of South Africa are now poised to take a much more visible role in the world stage of premium wines.
Capetown was originally founded by the Dutch East India Company to serve as supply port for their lucrative trade to the Orient. As farms were developed, a few planted vineyards, and wines were produced primarily for local consumption. Despite an influx of French Huguenots in the late 1600's, there was a lack of expertise, and lack of capital investment, which resulted in relatively low quality wines for the local market.
When the British occupied the country in the early 1800's, it was a boon for the South African wine industry. With Britain at war with its traditional wine supplier, France, the British were actively searching for other wines. South Africa wines quickly found a home, and the new investments made for a significant leap forward in quality. As in Portugal, the British influence encouraged rich, sweet wines, in this case made from the Muscat grape.
All this came to a crashing end when the British made peace with the French, and once again had access to the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The latter half of the 19th century saw declining production, an invasion of phylloxera, and the ferocious Boer War with England. The combination nearly ruined the industry. It was only following the establishment of a major wine cooperative (KWV) near the end of World War I that some stability was established for South African wines.
The industry is still strongly associated with smaller independent farmers and growers, working in cooperatives. While they traditionally sold some wine within the British Commonwealth, the apartheid policies of their government limited their access to the world market. Now that apartheid has been abolished, these growers are seeing new interest, new markets, and new investments in their industry. The foundation has been laid for an exciting future for South African wines.
Due to the strong marine influence of cold water currents originating in Antarctica, the climate in South Africa is considerably cooler than you might expect from its location, only 35 degrees from the equator. These cold currents bring tempering breezes and create a typical Mediterranean climate at the tip of Africa. Rainfall ranges from 17 to 40 inches a year, with warm summer days and cool, wet winters without much frost.
Most of the best vineyards in South Africa are found primarily in the valleys and hillsides of the Cape Mountains, which protect them from the wildest weather, and create a wide range of microclimates. In moister areas nearer the coast, mildew can be a problem, while irrigation is practiced in the drier regions. Over-vigorous vines are pruned to keep the vine in balance, and fertilization is used to help vines in poorer soils. All of the vineyards in South Africa are planted on pest-resistant rootstock to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic phylloxera invasion. The Orange River region is farther inland, and consequently farther from the cooling effects of the marine influence.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of South African viticulture is the Pinotage grape, created by Dr. Perold of the KWV cooperative. This cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault has become one of South Africa's most famous varietals. The first Pinotage was released in 1961, and gives the country a unique viticultural product. The industry has a long tradition of this kind of experimentation, and there are a number of South African wines made from grapes not grown in other regions of the world.
Constantia: Muscat dessert and fortified wines
Douglas: Sultana and Colombard
Durbanville: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Chardonnay and Merlot
Franschhoek: Chenin Blanc, Pinotage
Klein Karoo: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Hanepoot, and Fransdruif (Palomino)
Orange River: Sultana and Colombard
Overberg/Walker Bay/Elgin: Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay
Paarl: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Pinotage
Robertson: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, and Chardonnay
Stellenbosch: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Merlot
Swartland: Chenin Blanc and Pinotage
Swellendam: Muscat, Chenin Blanc
Tulbagh: Cape Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Worcester: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Hanepoot
South Africa has a Wine and Spirit Board that controls various aspects of wine production in the country. Of most interest to consumers, the board must approve all wine labels and is responsible for all appellation regulations. It also must taste and approve the quality of any South African wine to be exported. Once approved, the wine carries a seal that guarantees the quality of the wine and the accuracy of the label in regard to origin, varietal and vintage. The highest quality wines are identified as Wines of Origin, and that phrase appears on the label next to the recognized viticultural area. These wines must be made 100% from grapes grown in the identified appellation, 75% from the specified vintage (the remaining 25% must come from either the preceding or succeeding vintage), and must contain at least 75% of the varietal named on the label (85% for those wines exported to the EU).
The Wine of Origin appellation laws in South Africa define only the specified geographic area. Vintners are free to plant, harvest, vinify and blend any combination of vitis vinifera grapes for their demarcated wines. Rather than using the more traditional appellation terminology, South Africa uses the term "region" for larger demarcated areas, and "ward" for smaller demarcated areas within "regions." "Estate bottling" can be used to describe any winery that grows and vinifies within a specified region or ward; there is no requirement that the vineyards and winery be contiguous.
Nestled on the slopes of the Cape Mountains above the city of Capetown, Constantia has a long tradition of making famous Muscat-based dessert wines. The area is relatively cool, with enough rainfall that the vines require no irrigation. The shade of these mountains, which protects the vineyards from the late afternoon sun, plays a key role in flavor development and adds concentration and acidity to the wines. Many different varietals are being grown here, from Chenin Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon. Only in the past few years, the legendary tradition of the region has been renewed, and Muscat wines are now again being produced.
Far from the coast, the Douglas region in the Orange River Valley stands out in its isolation from the rest of the South African vineyards. Its vineyards are sources for dessert wines and inexpensive table wines.
Durbanville lies so close to Capetown that in recent years some of its vineyards have been turned into housing subdivisions. With its location so close to the coast, the breezy afternoons protect the vines from excessive moisture, and the grapes rarely suffer from mildew and rot. The warm afternoons and deep, well-drained soils may be best suited to producing red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage.
Franschhoek is located within the larger area of Paarl. In addition to benefiting from its excellent winegrowing location, the region's inhabitants trace their roots back to 17th century France, a legacy that some feel can still be detected in a more elegant character in its wines. Given that the region is best known for sherry-style wines, this may simply be wishful thinking.
Klein Karoo is a large, long region that extends eastward, paralleling the southern coast of the Cape, some distance inland. These warmer interior valleys get far less rain, and the hot daytime temperatures are best suited for the dessert and fortified spectrum of wines. Chenin Blanc is also grown here with some success.
Olifants River, another inland region, is a major producer of wines destined for the country's large brandy distilleries. It is a land of sandy soils and warm climate.
Orange River, in the South African interior, produces almost exclusively white wines-nearly half of its vineyards grow Colombard, and Sultana and Chenin Blanc account for another forty percent. The grapes are used for both dessert wines and inexpensive table wines.
Perched on the southern coast east of Capetown, the Overberg/Walker Bay/Elgin area has recently emerged as a fine potential producer of Burgundian varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Sauvignon Blanc. While relatively new on the scene, the region holds considerable promise for the future.
Fifty miles northeast of Capetown, Paarl is a justifiably world-famous wine region, home to some of South Africa's best-known wineries. At a latitude of some 33.5 degrees from the equator, the region is best known for its dessert and fortified wines, similar to the sherries of Spain. The climate is quite warm, and the vineyards often require irrigation. New plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Chardonnay may soon find their way into the export market.
The Robertson region initially gained fame as a source of some of the country's finer white and fortified dessert wines. The region has a warm, dry climate, and virtually all of the vineyards need some irrigation. Recently, however, new interest has been generated by the powerfully ripe Chardonnay grapes that are being grown in this area. While the Robertson region incorporates many better known areas such as Stellenbosch, wines with a Robertson Wine of Origin label will come from the larger, less restricted area.
Not only is the Stellenbosch area known for its remarkable wines, but it is also home to the country's leading school of viticulture and oenology. With its background of a strong winemaking heritage and tradition of viticultural research, it is not surprising that Stellenbosch produces some of South Africa's finest wines. These range from world-famous Pinotage and Shiraz, to a wide spectrum of white and even dessert wines. Here the rainfall is moderate (27 inches per year, average) and the temperatures combine warm days with cooler nights. If there is one region of South Africa that every wine drinker should know, the fine wines of Stellenbosch make a strong argument for this famed appellation. While world famous, the region produces only 13% of the wine in South Africa.
Swartland lies to the northwest of Capetown, a region of warmer temperatures and rich wines. These can range from powerful and flavorful red wines to quite well-made fortified dessert wines. Neighboring Piketberg to the north shares similar growing conditions and produces a similar range of wines. Recently, both areas have seen an increase in interest in lighter white wines for current consumption.
Just to the east of Robertson, a few wineries and vineyards are part of the Swellendam region. Like Robertson, this area is well suited to Muscadel and other sweet wines. As in many other areas, growers are experimenting with Chardonnay and other grapes more popular on the world market.
The small region of Tulbagh lies in a valley amid the impressive peaks of the Winterhoek Mountains. The climate is quite dry and warm, and the active geology of the region has created a wide range of soils. Not surprisingly, the region produces a wide range of white wines and some reds. The Cape Riesling is particularly well-known here.
Nearly a quarter of all the wine produced in South Africa comes from the Breede River Valley in the Worcester growing region. While it is famed for its brandy production, it also produces a broad spectrum of wines. Not quite so warm as the Robertson region to the east, this large region has a wide range of viticultural microclimates suitable to many different varietals.
Pinotage: A blend of the Pinot Noir grape from Burgundy and the Cinsault from the northern Rh'ne, this varietal was developed in South Africa by Dr. Perold. It produces a rich red wine that has some clove and spice characteristics combined with red and black fruits, most notably mulberry. It is perhaps the most famous of all wines from South Africa.
Cape Riesling: A varietal known in France as Cruchen Blanc, this is a crisp white wine with interesting floral elements in the nose. The best-known version of this wine comes from the Tulbagh region, but it is grown with success in many other areas.
Hanepoot: A white grape not grown outside South Africa, this varietal is better suited to warmer climates, and can be used to produce a range of fortified wines from fresh and fruity to full-bodied, rich and sweet, capable of some aging.
Fransdruif: Not unusual at all, Fransdruif is the South African name for one of the great white wine grapes of the sherry (Jerez) region of Andaluc'a, Palomino.