Digging South African Wines

(Originally published February 2003)

One of Hanes's resolutions for 2002 was to drink more South African wine. This was a goal on which he actually followed through. Here are some of his conclusions in atypical declarative sentences.

South African wines can be very good. Many are quite unique in their flavors and express well the South African terroir. Many wineries oak the crap out of their wines. This masks their inherent uniqueness. Prices are creeping upwards. Value is found mostly between $12 and $20. Sauvignon Blanc is the king of white wines. Chenin Blanc (aka Steen) is the prince of white wines. Pinotage is the king of red wines. Shiraz (aka Syrah) is the prince of red wines. If you do not enjoy the flavors imparted by South African soils you will really dislike South African wines.

So! What's all the fuss about South Africa? Well, not only must Hanes explore all the world's wine regions in order to increase his awe-inspiring, universal wine knowledge, he also is always on the hunt for quality cheapies. South Africa has been making wines for hundreds of years. The country was originally known for sweet dessert wines made from Muscat but a lot has changed since the 18th century. Like 200 or so years. During the late 19th century vineyards were plagued by the same phylloxera louse that had destroyed so many vineyards in Europe, requiring vast replanting. For most of the 20th century the wine scene was dominated by co-operative wineries. In the latter parts of the century many smaller wineries came into existence. In 1961 the first Pinotage came to market (more about Pinotage later) and in 1973 Wine of Origin legislation was passed to codify the regions and help to regulate quality. Oddly, despite possessing such a long history of winemaking South Africa is generally considered to be a "new world" producer such as California or Australia rather than an "old world" producer such as France or Italy.

Since the advent of the post-apartheid era in 1994 there has been more international acceptance of South African wines but they haven't really caught on big time (however, South Africa is like 8th world-wide in volume of wine produced). This is a bonus for those who choose to eschew "competitive wine shopping" and drink wines free of hype. Naturally, like wine industries across the globe, South Africa wants to be in the "big time" and there are major new marketing pushes to sell their wares, even if these efforts are not centralized in a very effective manner. In some sense, South Africa's wine industry is in transition and it's probably best to get in now before prices get stupid across the board and every winery thinks they can price their Shiraz competitively with the best from France's Northern Rhône Valley.

Most of the wine industry is centered in regions around the Cape peninsula area. There's about 12-15 major regions but those imported into the U.S. tend to come from only five: Constantia, Durbanville, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Swartland, with Stellenbosch far and away in the lead. Allowing for regional differences, the climate is cool and moderate, with few extremes in heat or cold. Rainfall is rarely excessive. The Cape area is more or less considered to be Mediterranean in climate, moderated on either side by ocean breezes and mountain ranges. Most vineyards are found on valley floors and lower mountain slopes or hills.

All this is well and good. What strikes Hanes as the most important aspect of South African viticulture is the soil. They gots some crazy ass dirt over there! Technically speaking, there are many different types of soil. Some are comprised of Table Mountain sandstone and tends to have good richness and hold water well. In vineyards along mountain slopes there tends to be more granite. In the valleys there is more alluvial soil which is very earthy and holds water excellently. Otherwise, there is a lot of shale and clay-based soil. A major common factor throughout South Africa is that the soils tend to be very acidic requiring many winemaking adjustments to produce the right amount of acid in the final wine product. To Hanes this is the heart of what makes South African wines what they are.

Regardless of region or grape type, Hanes has noticed a common theme in his tasting notes of South African wines. In red wines there is almost always a surfeit of smokiness, minerality, metallic earthiness and leather flavors and a great deal of acidity. In white wines there's usually generous portions of stone, steel, grapefruit citrus, grass and very bright acidity. In Hanes's experience there are virtually no other countries that create these trans-grape varietal similarities as South Africa does. It's messed up! This is not to say that, for example, South African Chardonnay tastes identical to South African Sauvignon Blanc. But there is a commonalty in there and chances are it's the soil. Further, as alluded to, if you are going to enjoy many South African wines you better like these flavors in your wine.

Now that we know they all taste the same, what grapes are grown in South Africa?

White grapes currently make up the majority of acreage planted. The mostly widely planted white grape is Chenin Blanc which also goes by the name Steen, holding about a 30% share. These can be quite nice, ranging from dry to sweet in style. However crop yields can be high with Chenin Blanc, making the wines taste somewhat dilute. To Hanes, the star white grape is by far Sauvignon Blanc. He can't be too far off since this is the white grape most likely to be found on U.S. retail shelves. Sauvignon Blanc wines are made in many styles but they are usually crisp and acidic and close in flavor and feel to some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines. Buy, buy, buy! Coming on strong is Chardonnay (duh, they want to sell wine to the U.S., right?!). Over time, Chardonnay should make the most in-roads in the U.S., especially if South Africa can produce it under $15 and compete with Australia, Chile and California as an everyday wine.

After these three it's totally random with many grapes planted near and far. Probably the leaders are Colombard, Sémillon, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Ugni Blanc. Not much of this stuff seems to make it here. But chances are high that if it does, it should be good otherwise who the hell would risk exporting it when they could sell Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay?

Much more new acreage is going to red grapes, around 80% of new plantings. The most distinctive and uniquely South African red grape is Pinotage, a hybrid created in 1925 at Stellenbosch University, although not planted in a vineyard until 1952. It crosses two varietals, Pinot Noir and Cinsault (the later of which is referred in South Africa, for some unknown reason as “Hermitage”). Thus, the name Pinotage represents a "smush" of its two parents' names. A good Pinotage always has those smoky, minerally, leathery characteristics that shouts "South Africa"! Although Pinotage is a hard sell and definitely an acquired taste, this is Hanes's favorite South African red and the one he hopes will prove most successful in the long-term.

Cinsault on its own has traditionally been widely planted in South Africa. And while a wide range of other grapes such as Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Gamay Noir are available (as well as a few Portuguese varietals such as Touriga Nacional that are used for local Ports), it's the main heavy hitters that are surging to the head of the pack. Because of the worldwide popularity of the grapes there are lots of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines being made. Hanes feels that despite the familiarity these wines represent for most buyers, in South Africa full ripeness is an issue and these wines often turn out too herbaceous or "green." Pinot Noir is increasingly popular and certain regions seem to be doing a good job with the grape, especially if their soil flavors complement the inherent flavors of the Pinot Noir grape -- Pinot Noir deserves to be watched.

The true claim to the throne comes from Shiraz. Why South Africa uses the Australian name for Syrah, Hanes does not know. But since he focuses on what is in the glass and not the label, he'll let it slide. This grape fits in really well with the South African climates and soils and can become much more complex than Bordeaux-styled wines such as Merlot or Cabernet. The downside to Shiraz is that most of the wines imported to the U.S. are expensive, retailing for over $25. But if you like the grape, it's absolutely worth exploring the efforts coming from the Cape.

As with most emerging winemaking regions, South Africa is struggling for market share. And, as with most emerging winemaking regions, many wineries figure the best way to acquire market share is make their wines taste like the wines that already have market share. This usually means one thing: age your wines in new toasty oak barrels! The majority of the wines being exported into the American and English markets are fairly severely oaked, giving the wines an uniform creamy vanilla, burnt toast or spicy character. This homogenizing process tends to, in Hanes's humble opinion, obscure the unique soil-driven nature of South African wines. While a problem with white Chardonnay wines, it is more prevalent with red wines, almost across the board (although happily less so with Pinotage). While least offensive with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, excessive oaking detrimentally hides the pretty qualities of many Pinot Noir wines and smoothes out too much of the rustic boldness of many Shiraz wines. Plus, the cost of buying new oak barrels usually translates into higher retail prices! Hanes hopes that the South African wine industry can discover a way to grab market share without pandering to the lowest common denominator, whether out of intent, fear of failure, or ignorance of what makes their wines unique. So next time, instead of a draught of mead, try a nice Pinotage with your mutton or wild boar...