Column: The revival of South African wines

10:04 14 March 2013

Flagship Wines 14.03.13

Flagship Wines 14.03.13

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READING through my notes from a recent trade tasting of South African wines it was pleasing to see that more often than not I commented on the quality of fruit used throughout all price points. This did not used to be the case and it is a reflection of the attention to quality in the South African wine industry. This fact plus the easing of Rand exchange rate means there are reasons to be excited about South Africa wines again.

Gone are the days of the searingly acidic Steen (another name for Chenin Blanc) based wines and in their place are many well made wines based on contemporary fruity appley Chenin Blancs. Some make light, easy-drinking styles that easily compete with and beat Pinot Grigio in style, quality and value for money such as Cape Heights and £6.49 per bottle and others are altogether more serious wines such as that made by Jeremy Borg under the Painted Wolf The Den label.

South African wine growers also make wines from ubiquitous grape varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnays and Viognier which shout of their provenance. The Sauvignons are crisp and leafy rather than being brimful of gooseberry fruit notes as in New Zealand and the Chardonnays are great when unoaked, with pure fruit notes and very special when judiciously oaked as they gain a delicious creamy opulence. Rustenberg, Graham Beck and Vergelegen make great examples of these wines amongst others.

Growers and producers of the native Pinotage grape based wines have made great strides in moving on from the rustic rubbery ‘difficult’ wines historically made from this grape variety and as a result though there are still a vast array of Pinotage styles available the majority are drinkable! The best have a balanced structure and appealing dark berry fruits and spice on the nose and palate. Pinotage is a native South African variety that was created in Stellenbosch in 1925 from a crossing of the Pinot Noir with the Cinsaut and some of the best are the sub £10 wines including the False Bay Pinotage and then the premium versions such as the rich, chocolaty fruity with ripe tannin style Guillermo Pinotage under the Painted Wolf label and the softer, appealing Warwick Estate Bush Vine Pinotage.

Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot based wines also abound and are eminently drinkable especially as the many of the Shiraz vineyards have been replanted with quality clones and thus produce wines with rich silky damson notes rather than the burnt rubbery styles previously on offer in some cases. An area of great success is proving to be the blended wines as South African winemakers are not bound by outdated wine laws prohibiting blending across geographical boundaries or vine types. So winemakers like Jeremy Borg create the Madach of Shiraz, Pinotage, Mourvedre Grenache and Merlot; and the white Lekanyane of Chenin Blanc, Verdelho and Viognier. More classic Cabernet Merlot blends are widespread.

The general consensus from two groups, the wine trade and the consumer is that the South African wines are riding high at the moment and it is recognised that the best may be yet to come. Winemakers are seeking new varieties and wine growing regions in the cool climate areas of Elgin and the periphery of the Cape and developing a better understanding of all the elements of winemaking. Watch this space or better still, try some South African wines yourself!

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