By: Maurice Lee
If you look at the history of wine, you will see that almost every wine producing country in the world has experienced some sort of disaster. They include wars, floods, phylloxera (insects causing damage), other diseases and international politics.
South Africa experienced mixed fortunes from the time Jan van Riebeeck planted the first vine in the 17th century. During the 18th century, the wine industry flourished as Napoleon was playing silly devils in Europe, preventing England from getting her wines from France and resulting in South Africa filling the gap.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, England and France kissed and made up and the bottom fell out of South African wine exports. Worse was to happen when, in 1886, the dreaded phylloxera attacked the vineyards.
The country then endured the hardships of the Anglo-Boer War, which threw the wine industry into chaos. In 1934, legislation introduced apartheid, intensifying in 1948, which ultimately made it impossible to find imports from South Africa in the shops. She certainly had her share of trouble.
In spite of all the hardships, the wine trade survived and today there are over 5,000 grape farmers cultivating over 100,000 hectares of vineyards. The main types of wine producers are:
• Estate wineries: Make wine from grapes only grown on their own land.
• Co-operatives: Process grapes supplied by their farmer member-shareholders, into wine.
• Independent cellars: There are over 70. Some wholesalers buy in grapes and wine for bottling under their brand names – sounds a bit dodgy to me.
Seeing the strict controls they have regarding exporting wine, I don’t think we need worry about getting any of the latter here. If you are going to buy wine from the Cape, I suggest you buy Estate, Co-op or Independent Cellar wines.
All wines for export must be granted an export licence. Samples of every batch of wine for export are sent to the wine and spirit board near Stellenbosch (South Africa). The certification seal is rectangular, usually placed around the capsule on the top of the bottle. It guarantees that the wine, at the time of judging, was of good quality and that the origin – estate, region, district or vintage – has been verified and is true.
The seal has an identity number and the words Wyn & Spiritusraad (wine and spirit board) in black print. Through the identification number, the history of a bottle of wine can be traced back to the grapes from which it was produced. These are pretty strict controls, it cannot be said that South Africa does not take its wines seriously.
There are five main regions in the Cape: Coastal, Boberg, Breede River, Olifants River, and Klein Karoo. The wines we are most likely to see will be from the Coastal, Boberg and Breede River regions.
The town of Stellenbosch, in the Coastal region, is at the centre of South Africa’s premier wine producing district. There are 34 estates producing excellent wines from most of the noble grapes. From the same region we get the famous Constantia dessert wine.
Not far from Cape Town is the scenic town of Paarl, home of Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV), wines. What a mouthful that is. Just reading it could give one a thirst. There are some excellent reds produced in Paarl and are worth trying.
Other notable wines are the fortified ones from Klein Karoo and the full bodied reds and fortified wines from the Swartland district, Coastal region.
White grape varieties include: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc (Steen), Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc and Weisser (Rhine) Riesling. You’ll be familiar with those grapes so, if you want something a little different, try a wine from South Africa where the viticultural year begins in September, not May as in Europe.
Red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Shiraz. Pinotage is unique to South Africa and is not a new grape as many believe. It was created 80 years ago in 1925, by Professor Perold and is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Pinotage can be great or average, depending on the producer.
Although wine is produced in the drier northern and eastern regions, most is produced in the Western Cape. This is where the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet, creating climatic conditions similar to those of the Mediterranean.
Do try these wines, but make sure the label says more than “Wine from South Africa”.
As many South African wines are still trying to establish a European market, I’ve only mentioned some of those which are available. In time though we will see many more of its wines in our shops.
Coming next: Scientists, science correspondents, William Sitwell (editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated), Stelvinists and the inconsistency of their articles.
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