With predictable interruptions, South Africa (S.A.) has been a serious wine producing region for a long time. The Europeans who colonized the Cape were already growing grapes and making wine in the late 1600s. Vin de Constance, a sweet wine made from Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) was first produced in 1680. Since then, S.A.’s vignerons have exploited viticultural bounty that includes sitting at 35o south latitude (some 900 km. closer to the equator than Niagara), an assortment of ancient soils situated at high and low altitudes with all possible sun exposures, and the cooling currents, winds and associated mists from two oceans. Grapes aren’t alone in thriving here. The Cape Floral Kingdom contains more plant species than does the whole of England.
People are a crucial element in the S.A. wine formula. The country boasts outstanding vineyardists and winemakers, many of whom trained at the University of Stellenbosch’s highly respected wine school. With judicious influences from “flying winemakers,” they’ve prepared themselves to make all kinds of wines.
Today’s consumer won’t have a hard time finding a wide selection of high-quality reasonably priced red, white, sparkling and sweet wines. S.A’s dry table wines display the ripe fruit you’d expect from grapes grown in a very sunny dry climate. Just about every grape varietal you can name and a few you’ve never heard of is grown here. Producers strive for very European structure and mineral notes from gravel dust to earth to frame that richness and render the bottlings food-friendly.
S.A.’s white wines are more interesting than the reds just now. The country’s signature white varietal is chenin blanc, famous for its performance in France’s Loire Valley. Ken Forrester, the King of Chenin, likens the varietal to a race horse that has been used as a workhorse. It has emerged from its checkered vinous past and is now crafted to compete with respected chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. This acidic appley white performs well in oaked and unoaked dry versions, on its own or blended with other white varietals, in sparkling wine, and in dessert wines made from raisined or nobly rotten berries.
Impressive dry white wines are also being produced from sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, muscat and viognier as monovarietals or in an increasing number of high-quality blends.
Red wines have lagged behind whites in S.A., but they’re catching up fast. Bordeaux and Rhône blends lead the pack, but you can find examples crafted from sangiovese, nebbiolo, touriga nacional and other Port grapes, pinot noir, and tannat, singly and in blends. All that choice and the producers’ expertise and imagination ensure that reds will improve steadily over time.
Pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and the Rhônish cinsault (a.k.a. Hermitage) was S. A.’s hallmark grape for many years but is now in a slump. Top producers like Kanonkop have demonstrated that the grape has huge potential, but it isn’t being generally realized. Die-hards haven’t given up on Pinotage and are waiting for a renaissance in years to come.
Piwosa (premium independent wineries of South Africa) is a collective of like-minded premium independent wine producers of South Africa’s Western Cape region. The group is working to increase awareness on the premium S. A. category at home and internationally. Piwosa visited Toronto in early June to show us what their member wineries are up to down there. Winery personnel were present to clarify the influence of their properties’ microclimates, sites and soils on their bottlings. Among those present were Ken Forrester, Kathy Jordan, and Nicolas Bureau (whose grandmother, Mme May de Lencquesaing turned Pauillac’s Chateau Pichon Baron into a super-second growth and, at age 92, is a principal in the winery.)
All the wines we tasted were excellent to outstanding. Despite the group’s stated intention of avoiding bargain-basement status, pricing was very fair across the group. Toronto wine veteran Laurel Keenan oversaw the proceedings superbly.
Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2016 ($22, score 90) is blended from two cuvees, one rich and one crisp, fermented and aged in stainless steel. The intense nose features attractive apple and white peach fruit, an acacia note, and subtle wet stone minerality. It’s crisp and creamy in the mouth with good fruit penetration. Lime pith notes join the party through a long fruited fresh finish. This wine is a natural partner for seafood.
Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($17.95, score 91) has lovely herbaceous and acacia aromas with restrained vanilla and wood, floral aromas, and ripe baked apple and stone fruit notes. It’s crisp and creamy, very rich and sweetly ripe with a long finished graced by citrus pith. This little beauty could go on to please for another decade or more.
Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($20, score 90+) is a lightly wooded chard with lovely sweet spice, vanilla and toasty notes with a hint of mango and papaya. It’s crisp and elegant, the restrained wood notes joined by ripe lemon pith through a long, fresh sweetly ripe finish.
Journey’s End Destination Chardonnay 2015 ($25-$30, score 90) has a sweet spicy vanilla nose with a smoky note, a hint of flint, and sweetly ripe apple, white peach and lemon preserve aromas. It’s fresh and creamy tasting of baked apple and white peach with a long harmonious flavourful finish.”
Jordan (Jardin in North America) Nine Yards Chardonnay 2015 ($21, score 91) is barrel fermented in Burgundian oak. It shows in the sweet vanillary toasty notes of the wine and in its rich and creamy mouthfeel. This will go where comparably priced white Burgundies fear to tread.
Paul Cluver Riesling Dry Encounter 2015 ($20, score 90+) is made from fruit grown in Elgin, the coolest zone in S.A. It boasts petromineral aromas, green plums and a citrus pith note. It’s crisp and just off-dry with lovely petromineral and herbal flavours through a very long tasty crisp finish.
De Grendel Op Die Berg Pinot Noir 2014 (? $25, score 90) is from the Ceres Plateau, a cool region best known for its fruit juices. It’s sweetly spicy with pungent minerality and restrained berry and plum fruit. It feels like raw silk in the mouth with fresh acidity, fruit and mineral flavours through a long grippy finish.
The Drift Farm Single Vineyard Gift Horse Barbera 2015 (? $30, score 90+)is sweetly ripe with rooty aromas, black berry and plum fruit, and sweet spicy sandalwood. It’s velvety and fresh with deep black fruit, sweet spices, and a long finish with velvet grip and floral nuances.
Twogh Radford Dale Black Rock 2013 ($30, score 90) is blended from six varieties of Rhône varietals. The nose is a mix of farmyard, plum and black cherry fruit. It has velvety grip and sweetly ripe focused black fruits, fresh acidity and a late toasty note all persisting for a long time. S.A.’s foremost wine writer, John Platter, gave it five stars and named it the wine of the year. The producer calls it “the true taste of Swartland.”
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2013 ($62, score 92) was first made in 1685. It became famous as the wine of kings and then disappeared from the late 19th century to 1980. This glorious sticky is made from Muscat á petites grains which, for historical reasons, are raisined, not botrytised. The grapes are picked berry by berry and the resulting wine is aged for less than four years in 500 L. French oak barrels. In a good year 40,000 half-bottles are made. In a bad one, none is produced.
Vin de Constance 2013 ($65, score 92) is deep gold with very rich ripe dried apricot fruit and honey aromas. On the palate it’s fresh and unctuously creamy, sweet but not cloying. (The acidity is a respectable 8 g/L, while the sugar is an impressive 150-156 g/L. This would be perfect on its own or partnered with for foie gras, salty blue cheeses line Roquefort, or with a creamy dessert featuring apricots or peaches. The stuff will improve forever with age. You don’t have to be a moribund monarch to love it.
Stellenbosch in the Western Cape region boasts magnificent views of the Simonsberg and Heraldsberg Mountains towering over the vineyards.
Ken Forrester looks and sounds a lot like a proud father discussing his increasingly well-known and well-respected range of chenin blanc wines.
[For more information, log on to the Wines of South Africa website at www.wosa.co.za]