It is the 25th largest country in the world, has a population of roughly 50 million, 9 provinces and 11 official languages. It is home to the world champion Springboks [rugby team], has great white sharks that breach the water, penguins and monkeys, is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and also happens to make some pretty darn good wine.
I am from Cape Town, the oldest city in South Africa, and as such is known as the mother city. It is the second most populous city and is also the legislative capital of South Africa. It is located on the shore of Table Bay and was established as a supply station for Dutch ships sailing to East Africa, India and the Far East. Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival on 6 April 1652 established the first permanent European settlement in South Africa.
The first recorded wine was produced on the 2nd of February 1659 and in 1685 the Constantia Estate was established by then Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. This estate was large [1850 acres], but after the Governors death, it fell into disrepair until it was revived in 1778 by the Cloete family. South Africa has a long history of making wine and today, the Groot Constantia Wine Estate still produces some of the Capes most exciting wines, along with neighbors Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting.
Groot Constantia also happens to be the first winery where I ever worked.
For much of the 20th Century, South Africa received very little international attention, its isolation was exacerbated by the international stage boycotting the products of South Africa in protest of the Apartheid system. It was not until the abolition of Apartheid, that South African wines began experiencing a re-birth of sorts, being able to export their wines to overseas countries. In essence, South Africa, despite a rich history in winemaking, was one of the new kids on the block.
Most of the wine regions are located next to coastal influences of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. These regions have mostly a Mediterranean climate, marked by intense sunlight and dry heat. Winters tend to be cold and wet, with annual rainfall between 10 and 60 inches. Harvest tends to occur between late January and early April, with Stellenbosch, Constantia and lately the Swartland leading the way in terms of quality.
As of today, South Africa is 9th in terms of wine production [although I think Chile might possibly be close to overtaking that]. In the early 1990’s only 18% of the vineyards planted were of red varieties, today that number is closer to 45%. Cinsaut was the most widely planted red grape, today Cabernet is King, with 12% of the total acreage of grapes. It is however the second most widely planted grape, the number one position is held by Chenin Blanc [locally known as Steen]. South Africa has more Chenin Blanc planted than anywhere else in the world combined. Along with Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc, I think Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc gives South Africa the best chance to compete with international wines in terms of quality.
But what of the Pinotage grape [cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut], well lets just say that I have the same opinion of Pinotage as I do of Norton. It does represent roughly 6% of the total acreage and is used in blends known as “Cape Blends”. Still I think that fad is waning and more attention is given to Shiraz and Cab [rightly so in my opinion]
The only problem with South African wines, is that they are extremely hard to find in the US, most of the wines exported are to Europe. Familiar names on shelves are the Sibeka, the range of “Goat” wines from Fairview, Mulderbosch and Herding Cats, all fairly good quality at a very reasonable price point. But South Africa does so much more, may I recommend Chenin Blanc from Raats, Eben Sadie’s “Columella”, Hamilton Russel Pinot Noir, Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc or any of the Vergelegen wines made by Andre Van Rensburg. The range of wines are as diverse as the country they are made in and I hope that in the near future you will get to try them and love them as I do.
For those in Charlottesville, try the Shebeen restaurant for a wide range of wines, or send me a list as I will be travelling to South Africa in April along with my wife.
In my opinion, it is one of the best keep secrets, but hopefully not for too long