17 September, 2009

Getting thirsty.

Pin cushion protea tree in bloom. South Africa has 370 different protea species, 120 of which are recognized to be endangered.

Barring limits imposed by religion or allergy, you simply cannot go to South Africa and not drink wine. If it isn't against the law, perhaps it should be. If you do have such a limitation, please bear with us wine drinkers. I promise I am also going to describe some delicious non-alcoholic options in an upcoming post.

Wine has been made in South Africa since the 17th century, far longer than either in Australia or California. While the original Dutch settlers brought French root stock with them, it was the subsequent wave of migrating French Huguenots who brought substantive viticultural skill and experience.
Today a broad swathe of the south-western Cape is South Africa's wine country, and quite spectacularly so. It is said that the world's longest wine route is the Cape's R62, which is peppered with hopelessly charming wine estates, many of which offer excellent, sometimes even world-class, dining and lodging. (I plan to write about my delectable experience at one of them in a separate, strictly food-related posting. My mouth waters at the memory alone.)
The main varietals, or cultivars, as the South Africans say, among the whites are Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (which benefits from having been planted for over a century), Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The white wines have a longer history in the Cape, but red varieties now make up over 40 per cent of the vineyard area destined for wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is now the dominant variety, followed by Shiraz and Merlot. A varietal developed in South Africa is the Pinotage, which was made in the 1920s by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It is a specialty--and the main ingredient in what have become known as ‘Cape blends’. According to Jancis Robinson, "some see it as South Africa's answer to California's Zinfandel and Australia's Shiraz." She goes on to explain that
...the structure of the South African wine business has also changed dramatically in the last 10 years. While the 60 or so co-ops are still important, providing grapes for cheap wines on the domestic market and some of the big export brands, there are now nearly 500 private wineries. It is hard to believe that only recently have individual wine estates been even allowed to buy in grapes, although a separate name must be used for the wine they produce - quite a contrast with most New World wine producing countries! South Africa is firmly hanging its hat on a programme encouraging wine farmers to adopt sustainable farming techniques and to retain the country’s exceptional biodiversity.
As with any travel, there was the inevitable constraint of time, and I don't feel that I came away with anything approaching a comprehensive viticultural understanding of the Cape. That being said, I did have the chance to taste some fine representative wines from the main regions.

Constantia, just outside of Cape Town, takes the honors as the Cape's oldest wine region. I enjoyed a dessert Vin de Constance Muscat de Frontignan 2004 from the Klein Constantia winery, although I was slightly deflated by its lack of a sustained finish.

Another prime area centers around the Afrikaans-dominated university town of Stellenbosch. I was advised to visit the beautifully restored town while class is in session, or else it seems rather barren. I can see where this might be true. I can also see happily spending a full day or two here, admiring the gabled and thatched-roof Cape Dutch buildings, browsing in the design shops and lingering over a local wine or two at one of the chic terraces. You may recall I recently got to take part in a viognier harvest here in the Cevennes. Terroir makes a huge difference, whether it is in the Cevennes, the Bouche du Rhone, or Stellenbosch. After getting over its startling difference to French viognier, I loved the very full tasting, slightly peachy organic 2008 Viognier from small Topaz Estate, one of the so-called boutique, or garagiste, wineries.

The third main area is Paarl, which produces even more wine than Stellenbosch, and is known for its fortified wines. I am afraid I wasn't able to visit. (Next time?) While I am thinking of it, I should note that all the wineries now charge a small tasting fee, which I am not used to. It seems that too many South Africans enjoyed themselves rather mightily...

I did spend some time in Franschhoek, which means 'French corner.' This is French Huguenot central, as one might infer, and a cute little place to boot. I visited the well-respected Boschendal winery, pictured below, where I quite enjoyed the Blanc de Blanc 2008. This predominantly Chardonnay blend was sprightly with a fruitiness that nicely balances its dryness. The winery describes it as having "pineapple and mango aromas."
But please remember, I'm no expert. For more in-depth opinions on all things related to South African wine, you can't beat the comprehensive, succinct and award-winning--yes, there are awards given for wine guides--Platter's. Keep in mind the major wine expo held every september--which I just missed. If you would like to plan a visit, or just dream about one, try Winelands. Happy sipping--and surfing.


  1. I can just imagine it - wonderful. I'm lucky enough to have a mother in law who lives in Constantia and we had our wedding reception at Uitsig. Petit Ferme is one of our favourite places in Franshoek - I need to start planning our next trip. Hope you're having an inspiring time! C x

  2. btw just saw I came up as Richard but it's actually Caroline!

  3. Thanks for making us dream..........

  4. Very interesting article. Minor correction - MOST of the BIG wineries charge a tasting fee. If you go "off the beaten track" so to speak you will have a far more personalised experience (usually with people who actually are involved in making the wine) than at the commercial operations.

  5. Good point. Since I was spending comparatively little time in the wine region, I wasn't able to seek out the little gems, where I would have indeed most likely have come away with a different experience--and without having to pay for it!


Thanks for visiting my blog and joining in the conversation!

Related Posts with Thumbnails