South Africa

by Elizabeth Cooper in Wine & Beer

I just returned from an incredible trip to South Africa. It is not the easiest or quickest place to go, but I can assure you it is well worth the time and effort.

The trip was organized through Wines of South Africa (WOSA), which is funded by the government of South Africa to help market their wine trade globally. I traveled with four other retailers from throughout the U.S., as well as the marketing manager of WOSA. These trips are always interesting, as you are grouped together with people you have generally never met and spend six or so intimate days and evenings with them eating, tasting, in the car/van and at the same hotel—so it is always my hope that the group plays well with others, and this one did not disappoint! The schedule was quite full, if not hectic, but really gave us a true cross section of the industry, from the tiny boutique to the mass producer. We were able to have one-on-one discussions with the winemakers, viticulturists, owners, etc. to get a personal and candid perspective of their wines, viticultural practices and what makes them so diverse.

I landed in Cape Town late on Sunday evening just before midnight (I left the Triangle on Saturday at noon) where I met a couple of my fellow travelers and we were off to our hotel in Stellenbosch—a quick 45 minute drive – to try for a good night’s sleep. On Monday morning we started bright and early at the WOSA offices for an orientation and quick rundown of the region.

South Africa dates its winemaking history back over 350 years from around 1659, just after the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape. Within the wines of origin, regions, wards and district is some of the most ancient viticultural soils, dating back over 500 million years. Even within a single hectare within a vineyard you can have as many as 13 different soil types, some of the most prominent are Shale, Sandstone and Granite, which account for the vastly different textures, structures, styles and flavors of wine. The vinelands are veldts and are influenced by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Agulhas current and surrounding mountain ranges—the landscape is simply breathtaking. The preponderance of the wines in South Africa are produced in the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only six unique areas in the world. This is the smallest yet most diverse region, with over 10,000 different plant species—more than in the entire Northern Hemisphere. Recognized as a world heritage site, the Cape Floral Kingdom is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world with over 70% of the plant species found nowhere else on earth. Though many of the wineries that we visited were employing both organic and biodynamic principals, South Africa has its own unique biodiversity and integrity certification that most adhere to; this is an audited certification from the SA Wine and Spirit Board to verify viticultural and winemaking practices conform to appropriate sustainable practices. As well, many are part of the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Initiative, an independent, non-profit group that is dedicated to safeguarding and improving the working conditions for agricultural workers. So much more than just a glass of wine!

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After leaving the WOSA offices we headed into the heart of Stellenbosch to begin our producer visits, each showcasing a particular area and sometimes soil type. Here is the rundown of our daily winery itinerary:

Day One: Stellenbosch

Mulderbosch, Reyneke, Jordan (Jardin here in the US as the Jordan name is already in use…), Ken Forrester Wines, Winery of Good Hope, Warwick Wine Estate for Lunch, Vilafonte, Rustenberg, Neil Ellis, Simonsig, Stark Conde, Man Vintners, De Trafford Wines, Flagstone, Plaisir de Merle Wine Estate for Dinner and Distell Wine.

We tasted through the highpoints of the range for each distributor, approximately 70-80 wines per day, give or take.

We had spectacular meals for lunch and dinner at wineries or restaurants hosted by the wineries.

Day Two: Franschhoeck, Paardeberg, Paarl

Boekenhoutskloof, Terra del Capo for Lunch, Anthonij Rupert Wines, Protea, Ernie Els, Guardian Peak Wines, Rust en Vrede Wine Estate, Glen Carlou Wine Estate, Backsberg, Rhebokskloof Wine Estate, Painted Wolf Wines, Noble Hill, Fairview/Six Hats for Dinner.

Day Three: Nederburg and Swartland

Nederburg, Mullineux, Riebeek Cellars, Badenhorst Family Wines, The Sadie Family, Lions Lair and Earthbound. We had lunch at Royal Hotel Riebeek Kasteel and Dinner at De Grendel Wine Estate with D’Aria, De Grendel Wines, Beyerskloof, Stellenbosch Hills, Elgin Vintners and Fryer’s Cove Winery.

Day Four: Robertson, Hemel en Aarde

Graham Beck Wines, Springfield for Lunch, Robertson Winery, Excelsior Wines, Van Loveren, Rietvallei Wine Estate, Bonnievale, Creation Wines for Dinner, Newton Johnson Wines, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, La Vierge Wines and Bouchard Finlayson.

Day Five: Elgin, Stellenbosch

Iona, Paul Cluver, Shannon Vineyards, South Hill for Lunch, Southerland, Luddite, Wildekrans Boutique Wine Estate, Beaumont, Corder, Belfield, Catherine Marshal, DeMorgenzon, Raats, Indaba, DeToren, Morgenster, Thelema (dinner), Kanonkop, Bartinney, Glenelly

Day Six: Constantia

Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, Buitenverwachting and The Steenberg Luxury Hotel for Lunch.

The schedule was quite busy and everyone most hospitable (as is the case all over South Africa) considering the large number of tastings we were juggling. My overall impression, as it was when I first visited in 2005, is the overwhelming pride in their diversity and care taken with the land they are blessed with farming. There was not one winery that did not stress how important it was for them to be sure that the decisions that were made in the vineyard were in the best interest of the land and future generations. It is unique, I believe, to these wine regions that with each hectare dedicated to planting, at least an equal amount of land is given to conservation. Imagine if every wine region in the world dedicated themselves to this type of sustainability!  Yes, there may be less wine, but what a wonderful planet we would have to pass along to our children and our children’s children.

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I believe that we have quite an extensive selection of wines from South Africa, and many of the above wineries are well represented in our stores. Going forward, however, I plan to expand our selection to include something from each available region and soil so that our customers will have the opportunity to taste the individually unique soils, styles and wines. Here are some noteworthy favorites both current and new:

Springfield Estate – They produce some wonderful examples from the Robertson area, but two standouts for me are:

Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc: “Stones have no flavour that they impart on wine – they simply make the soil less. If there is less soil the vine produces more concentrated fruit, the same happens with old vines, also when vines are planted in high density. As the rock opposes the vine so does a nearby plant; and age limit growth and crop. Life from Stone has the good fortune to have all these 3 concentrating factors in its favour — thus the unmatched complexity of a great wine” (springfieldestate.com). From 70% quartz soil, the wine sees 100 days on its lees, adding a richness of character to this impeccably structured, flinty crisp citrus and minera-driven Sauvignon Blanc.

The Work of Time Cabernet Sauvignon: “Time – The lost element in today’s winemaking, can be so precious – yet it is free. It was our desire to produce a Bordeaux Blend and so we planted the classic varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. These vines were planted on carefully selected sites and took nine years to reach a level of maturity which we felt comfortable to use for the maiden vintage (2001).The grapes were fermented whole with native yeasts (true to our ancient custom) and  left for 5 weeks on their skins.  A slow 2 years of barrel maturation followed and a further 4 years of bottle maturation.  Finally, we released this wine rich, classic and complex from age – of vines and wine. This long wait, justified only by our passion, does bear fruit. It’s called-‘The Work of Time.”’ (springfieldestate.com).  A true expression of dedication and patience – elegant and smooth with dark berry fruit, mineral and earth on the nose and a mid-palate that shows hints of sweet tobacco and steeped tea notes of lapsang souchong; the wine is full bodied with a clear old world character.

Badenhorst Family Wines - AA Badenhorst Family Wines are grown, made and matured on Kalmoesfontein farm in the Swartland appellation of South Africa. The old bushvines grow in the Siebrits Kloof part of the Paardeberg Mountain. They produce lovely Rhone-style blends as well as Chenin Blanc from old vine bush vines. The stand out for me was the white blend:

White Blend (Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Gris, Verdehlo, Colombar, Viognier, Chardonnay, Semillon, Clairette Blanc) grapes are cooled overnight and then whole-bunch pressed the following day. The free-run juice runs off directly into old casks and a small concrete tank for a lengthy and nervous (for the winemaker, great for the wine) natural fermentation. Various varietals are blended early during the pressing if they happen to be harvested on the same day, otherwise they are blended after 13 months in casks.  The wine is quite rich without being flabby, a sign of great structure. This would be a lovely accompaniment to duck, washed rind cheese or simply on its own.

Sadie Family Wines – Eben Sadie started his winemaking career at Charles Back’s Spice Route Winery before heading out on his own. His early vintages include the first ever release of Columella in 2000 made in the Back facilities. From the outset, Sadie has embraced the principals of organic and biodynamic farming. Only wild yeasts are used for fermentation and all the reds are done in small manual press baskets. He is also (at his own admission) quite the Gin aficionado as well as making his own small batch tonics! “The 2011 Columella is more reticent on the nose when compared directly against the 2010: straight-laced and linear with subtle tertiary notes that unfurl with aeration. This seems more masculine than the previous vintage. The palate is vibrant and poised on the entry with fresh crisp tannins, effervescent citrus fresh red and black fruit, a dash of white and black pepper and a beautifully poised finish. Once those aromatics awaken with time, this will be a stunning Columella. Drink 2015-2025. 95 points. Wine Advocate” (gute-weine.de).

LaVierge (You can already find these in our Mount Pleasant store) - The rich, elegant chardonnay is produced from shy-bearing vineyards that are situated on the Babylon Farm in the Ward of Hemel en Aarde Ridge, Walker Bay. The wine is a clear reflection of the potential of these unique soils. It has ripe orchard fruit with hints of delicate stone fruit, mineral character and white floral aromatics.

Reyneke– The philosophy at Reyneke is to strive for quality through integrity. Environmentally, this is covered by our adherence to organics and biodynamics, culturally through the Cornerstone project.

Reyneke Capstone Bordeaux Blend – 92 points Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

The 2010 Cornerstone* is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc. It has an expressive bouquet of dark cherries, cassis, crushed violets and a touch of peppermint that are beautifully defined. The palate is full-bodied with crisp blackberry, tar and cedar notes, the Cabernet firmly in control, though the Cabernet Franc lends this wine a touch of dried herbs and truffle towards the slightly alcoholic finish. Drink now-2020. * This wine is known as “Cornerstone” in South Africa and “Capstone” in the States where we have our own “Cornerstone” wine.” (klwines.com)

Certainly as you look through the list of wineries that participated in this trip, I think you will find a representation not only in Southern Season, but in many retailers and restaurants throughout the U.S. If you are not familiar with wine of South Africa, don’t miss out any longer—stop in, mention my blog and we will pop open some samples that will give you an idea of the quality and value available. If you have had the wines in the past and found them to be less than palatable (and yes, I found some absolutely lovely Pinotage!), do yourself a favor and come back to revisit—you are sure to be pleasantly surprised!