A mid-range renaissance

Flagship Wines 22.10.15

Flagship Wines 22.10.15 - Credit: Archant

In the South African section of wine merchant and supermarket shelves there is currently a polarsation of wines found there - from the cheap and cheerful entry point brands and own label wines through to the top end high quality wines.

The former are a useful part of the everyday drinking list whilst the latter can be quite expensive but delicious and sales at both extremes are quite bouyant.

Minor icon wines like the Chocolate Box have managed to develop their ‘boutique’ quality image and price points.

It is the mid-price section that provides a challenge to the retailer as few strong brands have developed to help position South Africa’s wines in the consumer’s mind over the last two decades. since the end of the apartheid era when South African wines were not available.

Also, prior to apartheid, the most widely sold wines were Steen also known as Chenin Blanc and Pinotage, a grape variety created in 1925 in South Africa from a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut to try to create an indigenous grape that would thrive in the local conditions.

Many of the wines produced until about 15 years ago from these two varieties were not great and thus didn’t help establish a South Africa brand. In addition, many Shiraz and Merlot vines were from poor clones so the resulting wines were green and stalky and generally unattractive.

However, there has been a gradual investment in vineyards replacing the poor clones with better ones and also improved knowledge of where specific vines grow best and when combined with better vinification there is an exciting wine industry in South Africa.

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This really came home to me when I was at Cape Wine 2015 a month ago in Cape Town. This is the bi-annual tasting where South Africa’s producers exhibit their wines to the world’s wine buyers.

It is in the mid-price range that much development had occurred not only in wine quality but in marketing and presentation trying to strengthen their image without the help of big brands and using regionality to support this exercise. KWV is an exception as were well known for their Roodeberg and Steen wines but have maintained a low but continuing profile until recently. Now with new representation in the UK they are planning to create a stronger niche for South African wines with both supermarket and independent retailers by creating wines for each sector.

Stellenbosch is perhaps the best known wine region with Dutch Boer history and where companies such as the long established Rustenberg have been successfully making excellent Chardonnays and the John X Merriman Bordeaux blend for generations.

There also more indiviual companies such as DeMorgenzon, producing delicious varietal wines from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah where many of the vines are grown in an amphitheatre in which classical music is played to ‘relax’ the vines. If the style and quality of these wine are anything to go by it really does work!

En route to Cape Town from Stellenbosch via Hemel en Aarde it was interesting to talk to a group of four producers namely Creation Wines, la Vierge, Domaine des Dieuxs and Ataraxia about their collaboration to promote a small hillside within this area. They were keen to show that whilst they all produced wines from the key grape varieties they all had their own style and yet all reflected the stony poor soils in the minerality of the wines.

There are also many quirky characters within the South African wine industry, one of who, Bruwer Raats, has been making big oaky Chenin Blanc wines but recently a more subtle nuance of fruit supported by light oak aging is a feature of his wine range together with ripe vibrantly fruity wines made Cabernet Franc grape.

Chef and winemaker Jeremy Borg continues to excite wine drinkers with his amazing textured wines sold under the Painted Wolf label resulting from his blend and taste technique as if cooking an exotic dish!

The funky wine makers of the Swartland Independent Producers Group and the another known as the Zoo Biscuits are also trying to create a high profile to put South African wines on the map. In addition to the memorable names the wines are good too!