South Africa – Old World in the New World

With a wine glass in hand, we tend to forget that the Old World-New World distinction didn’t spring out of Robert Parker’s head but from Amerigo Vespucci’s and the way we use it today differs greatly from the original meaning. One significant difference is that while the whole of Africa geographically belongs to the Old World, on a wine map however, South Africa borders California, Australia and Chile. In the wine world, continents approach each other at an almost visible speed and the Old World-New World distance possibly isn’t shrinking at a faster rate anywhere else than here.

The most successful New World country of the last decade has been New Zealand. Predictably, the next might be South Africa. New World precision meeting with the exciting Rhône varieties and low costs seem to be a winning formula.

History

Grape growing in South Africa has a respectable past (the symbolic beginning is 1695) but it had to start again from scratch at least twice during the past 150 years. One of the blows was phylloxera which also had Europe on its knees, and they responded to the epidemic by spreading the abundantly growing Cinsault. This didn’t turn out to be a smart decision as it soon led to an overproduction crisis and a great part of the grapes were turned into spirits instead of wine. The second blight was brought along by South Africa itself. As a consequence of the international sanctions imposed against the apartheid system, South Africa became isolated, and the lack of competition and the narrowing of the knowledge and technology exchange resulted in a decline in quality. On top of that, the sector’s profitability balanced on a knife edge because the industry couldn’t afford to protect the grapevines against the large-scale leafroll virus and hence didn’t use uninfected foreign grafts. Thus, beside the fall in yields, they were forced to replant the grapes every 15-20 years. The abolition of the apartheid system in 1991 brought along a complete system change in winemaking as well and freed up enormous energies. The majority of the wineries that are responsible for today’s success were established after 1995. 

 

The Mediterranean turn

During the years following the turn of the millennium, a whole group of talented young winemakers ‘marched out’ to Swartland, situated to the north of Cape Town. The place is traditionally regarded as the pantry of South Africa, although as its main crop is cereal, grapes could only be moved to the hillsides that are harder to cultivate. These vineyards became the testing grounds of the young, creative but underfinanced winemakers. In 2011, they founded their association called SIP (Swartland Independent Producers) which by today includes internationally acknowledged wineries as well. In their founding document, they voted for Mediterranean and Rhône varieties, and they banned the likes of Cabernet and Chardonnay, and stated that grapes must be naturally produced with minimum manipulation. The visible success of Swartland fundamentally changed the way we look at South African wine and can provide guidance for other wineries. 

 

Middle-sized

South Africa is the world’s eighth largest wine producer: the yearly average is about a quarter of that of France and four times as much as that of Hungary. Regarding the area under vine, it’s one-sixth the size of France’s and twice as much as that of Hungary. 

 

Climate

Due to the icy currents flowing in from Antarctica, the climate resembles Spain’s and the south of France’s. Around Cape Town, which is the cradle of South African winemaking, the annual rainfall is 20% higher than in Hungary, and even in the case of Swartland, which turns into a semi-desert during the summer, rainfall is only 20% lower than in Hungary. Apart from the coastal regions, the summer is hot and dry but the winter is cold, wet and windy, with frequent snowfall in the mountains. During the harvest months of February and March, average temperatures reach 23 °C. Vineyards planted after the millennium have concentrated on cooler mesoclimates and south-facing locations (in the southern hemisphere, north means warmer and the south cooler).    

 

Varieties

Every successful New World country has a trump card that plants them firmly on the wine map. What Malbec is for Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc for New Zealand, South Africa could have two of them, but currently has none. The most obvious candidate is Pinotage, but the sole problem is that the quality rarely reaches the required standard for it to be successful internationally. The choice of the white candidate, Chenin Blanc, is a lot more favourable: it is competitive at every level from the bottom to the top shelf, and at really competitive price. According to critics, the chances of South African Chenin Blanc now are no worse than those of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc 25 years ago.

 

Pinotage: the dilettante hero

The first test sample of the variety was made in 1941 by two professors of the Stellenbosch University, Perold and Niehaus. In its name, they combined the words Pinot and Hermitage (the latter is the local name of Cinsault). According to the ill-tongued, if Perold had tasted the wine made from Pinotage, he would have cut out the vines by his own hands. Why is it so controversial? The intensive earthy-mushroomy, liquorice notes are not caused by a genetic disorder but mainly by the stress caused by the lack of rain, and fermentation carried out at an excessively high temperature. By now, they have managed to find the ‘recipe’, something which is also proven by our two new Pinotage arrivals. Furthermore, owing to Pinotage’s special notes, it can be paired excellently with food, such as with spicy grilled meat.

 

Chenin Blanc, the South African Lego

Chenin Blanc is the variety that is most easily mixed up with Furmint, while its place of origin is the Loire Valley. Originally, it became widespread because it grows vigorously. Chenin Blanc is the South African Lego: there’s plenty of it, it’s cheap and anything can be composed out of it – from sweet through to fresh and fruity to complex terroir wines. Top quality can be expected mainly from old bush vines. Apple, honey aromas, oily palate, acids that are similar to those of Chardonnay, and a bit of residual sugar suits it very well. Today’s South African Chenin Blanc has an almost unbeatable price-value ratio.

  

Painted Wolf Wines

Founder Jeremy Borg has had an adventurous career: he started out as a chef in California, then he learnt winemaking. Upon returning home, he organised safaris and later worked at the world famous Fairview Winery for seven years. Eventually, after a spell working as a consultant, he founded Painted Wolf. The initial capital was put together by the ‘pack’: grape growers, artists, environmentalists, family members and a Douro winery.

The crop of solely organically cultivated plots, small batches of mainly Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. They spend 4% of their annual turnover on saving the African wild dog that the winery got its name from. 

  

Reyneke

Johan Reyneke is one of the cult figures of South African winemaking. His is the country’s first biodynamic winery, which has been Demeter-certified since 2004. Three-quarters of the 40-hectare farm that seeks complete self-sustainability and recycling comprises grapes, with the rest shared by cows, poultry and they also produce wheat for their bread. Reyneke is a true oddball – he studied philosophy, worked as a waiter, and then before taking over the family estate, he did an internship at the De Toren winery. He has never given up on his second love of surfing, either. After changing to biodynamic cultivation, the power of the vines returned in five years, which resulted in a jump in quality with the 2010 vintage. 

 

Jordan Wine Estate

The Jordan winery is located in the central wine region, in Stellenbosch, in a picturesque environment surrounded by Table Mountain, False Bay and the Stellenbosch hills. The geologist husband and the economist wife made the estate’s first wine in 1993, following a decade of preparation. Out of all the wine producing regions, the soil is the most ancient here: gravelly granite, sandstone and clay-loam. Owners of the 100-hectare estate aspire to sustainability and put great emphasis on preserving forest flora and fauna. 

  

Cave de Pongrácz

The winery’s eponym, Count Desiderius Pongrácz, attained his agricultural degree in Budapest. In 1944, he was captured by the Red Army and spent almost a decade in Siberian labour camps. He left Hungary in 1956, and settled in South Africa where he had a great career: as an agronomist, researcher and chief viticultural advisor he helped shape the development of the South African wine industry. Owing to the initiative of another Hungarian, Dr. László Julius, South African sparkling wines made by the traditional method have been called Méthode Cap Classique Pongrácz since 1990. The multi-award winning Pongrácz sparkling wines owe their success mostly to their elegant, sophisticated Old World style. 

  

Stellar Organics

The winery, established in 2001, produces wine from the grapes of the independent farmers of the region. It’s the largest winery in South Africa to have obtained organic certification and the first that sells sulphur-free wines as well. On top of that, they are also certified Fair Trade, and pay special attention to sustainable farming and the well-being of employees. Through the foundation, the workers have 26% ownership in the winery.