South African Wine Uncorked: Filling your wine glass in 2018

The Following article is from a new contributor to the Cuvée Corner Wine Blog, his name is Gallant LeVogue from South Africa, this is his first contribution, so please welcome him. 

Buitenverwachting – one of the eight award-winning wine estates in Constantia Valley.

By: Gallant LeVogue 

The world of wine and its making is a rich source of interesting stories, and memories – some crisp and freshly new, and others aged before release. The culture and traditions, the regions and/or terroirs, among others as valuable components of these great stories, importantly, have a hand in and go a long way into selling bottles of wine. They mold perception, which matters of course. They also, therefore, hint at the potential quality of wine in specific regions.

No wonder then, we often find enthusiasts engaged in spirited (pun intended) chats touching well on the subject of the “Old World” and the “New World” of wine. The subject gives off a perception of value, or quality, about wines from certain countries or regions, and what influences these two aspects. Of course, such splitting has its imperfections. It is not hard to imagine that plonk may well be produced in either of the two worlds, and the opposite is true.

However, the imperfection seems to not be as blatantly evident as it’s the case of South Africa. Would it not, then, be interesting to travel together through a narrated story and explore a little of South African wine? Sure it is, so grab your wine glass, and let’s take a few minutes of a wine tour to Cape Winelands.     

Narrating a South African wine story without touching on the ground on which it unfolds is nearly akin to ‘enjoying’ your lovely dinner with no glass (full) of wine in sight. To begin with, South African wine (re)entered the world stage of wine trade only in 1994, thanks in (most) part to the Apartheid system and the resulting sanctions imposed on the country during its time, which restricted exports. Prior to that, the rest of the world was lamentably deprived of some additional fine wine.

The history of South African wine and its making, however, trails back over 300 years, when a Dutch colonial administrator and the founder of Cape Town, Jan van Riebeeck, planted the first vines in the Cape Colony during the 1650s. This was in Constantia Valley, a region situated right ‘behind’ Table Mountain, and some 10 minutes’ drive from Cape Town CBD – it is today split into 8 award-winning wine estates (Groot Constantia, Steenberg Vineyards, Groot Constantia, Constantia Uitsig, Buitenverwachting, Eagles Nest, Klein Constantia, Constantia Glen and Silvermist Vineyards). Groot Constantia, which was founded in 1685, has been recorded in history books as the first wine producing farm in South Africa.

It is worth mentioning, while we are at it, that sweet red wines from Constantia were once considered the world’s best and a hit in Europe. It must’ve been bittersweet for former French monarch, Napoleon Bonaparte, who sourced his wine from this region when he was imprisoned in Saint Helena.

Back to our main story, Constantia Valley is just one among many regions which boast a winemaking tradition which lingers back to the 17th century across the Western Cape Province – a province which accounts for most of the wine produced in the country. Among the noteworthy of these are Stellenbosch, second oldest and home to some of the well-known South African wine farms; and Franschhoek, which literally means French Corner, an indication of the location as a place where the French Huguenot settled.

There are indeed some newer vineyards, which are already releasing some impressive wine (e.g., I’ve recently discovered De Grendel wine estate, whose vines are just 14 years old but their winemaker is already producing some remarkable wines – their flagship Bordeaux style red blend bottle, the Rubaiyat, is my favourite red blend to date. Some more new wine estates continue to pop up, including in the historical regions of, for instance, Stellenbosch, as it is the case with other wine-producing areas of the Cape.

That knitting of older and the very new wine estates is aimed at highlighting that South African wine story overlaps the “Old” and the “New” world. This is especially true when we consider that initial winemakers in South Africa, as already hinted, were immigrants from the Old World, particularly of French (notably the Huguenots) and German origin, who brought with them the European winemaking tradition and skills. The centuries of winemaking and the resulting wealth of culture is nevertheless complemented by new technological developments, brought together to make us fine wine. More so, as a result of re-entry into the world stage of the wine trade, which meant South African winemakers had to follow global trends to stay competitive.

The saying goes that one can experience four seasons in a day in Cape Town, and there is much truth to that. A related fact is that nearby wine regions experience varying climatic conditions, some of the fairly cold climate while others, as examples, Stellenbosch and Paarl (home to, for instance, world-renowned Nederburg estate) are warmer. In the warmer regions, red grapes do mainly get very ripe and yield some full-bodied, high alcohol wines. Given the location of the Western Cape, it is exposed to influences of the weather conditions of both the cold Atlantic Ocean and the warm Indian Ocean, which meet at the province’s Cape Agulhas (southernmost tip of Africa).

The far Southern and Eastern parts of the Western Cape Province are mostly cooler. Two regions which stand out in terms of cool climate wines are Eglin and Elim. The former, which was previously apple producing area, is home to the renowned estate, Paul Cluver (the winemaker’s namesake) which makes absolutely elegant wines.

Elim is situated at the southernmost tip of Western Cape, and by the same token, it is the southernmost region of all wine farms in Africa. The vines of this picturesque region are no older than 22 years, but they are already offering promising cultivars, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Constantia Valley also gets its cool breeze ushered by False Bay, with Steenberg offering some absolutely stunning white wines with minerality (if you will) that showcases characteristically granite and sandstone soil composition in this terroir.

Places such as Tulbagh, experience variable weather conditions from day to night, giving the production a mesoclimate condition, which farmers cash in on to produce different styles of wine. Shiraz and Méthode Cap Classique (South African equivalent of champagne wine) are notable producers of Tulbagh, and the region is made mostly of new farmers.

Global Reach and Recognition: 
It has been only two decades on the world stage but South Africa, as the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OVI) recognizes, already ranks as the world’s 7th wine producer (10.5 ml of 267 mhl produced worldwide in 2017), and world’s 6th wine exporter (4.3 ml). Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most famous wine export.

One of the first biggest markets for South African wine is in Britain, which dates back to the 19th century, following Britain’s rule of South Africa at the time. Interestingly, the UK still remains South Africa’s biggest wine import market to date, although different wine estates and exporters reach much of the world where wine enthusiast is found. Wines of South Africa (WOSA), as a promoter of South African abroad, has offices in many countries across the world, which is handy for anyone wishing to find out where to get wine from this region.

As South African wine increasingly makes its inroads into the international arena, it also proves to hold its own, particularly regarding quality and thus garnering some popularity. South Africa’s renowned wine critique Michael Fridjhon (AKA Wine Wizard) often notes optimistically that the country’s wine is showing great developments and a growing in popularity across the world. Indeed, remarks by some world-renowned wine critiques (e.g., Neal Martin, who covers South Africa for e-Robert Parker), and accolades collected by local winemakers in international competitions, dispel any possible suspicion of mere bias in Fridjhon’s views.

It is for this reason that South African wine has been hailed as value for money, for its affordability while delivering well on quality. That, however, does at time obscure a full picture, notably because it underplays bottles in the premium segment and contributes little to the image of the South African wine brand. Indeed, out of competition, South Africa tends to undersell its wine to acquire market share.

2018 Global Wine Supply: 
South Africa experienced rain shortage in recent years, the worst of which took place during the 2017/2018 period. The Western Cape was particularly hard hit, with Cape Town still teetering on the verge of Day Zero (the day taps would run dry). For winemakers, this means an expectation of reduced crop production.

Although dry farming is a common practice among some farmers, especially those who follow biodiversity, large commercial farmers mostly target high yield production methods which need irrigation and the drought means they won’t be able to meet their demands. The flipside of this is of course that there will be some improved quality in some wine grapes (e.g., intense flavours). What is inevitable is the higher price per bottle as demand will exceed supply.

However, not only was the Cape Winelands subject to the tragedy, as the International Organisation of Vine & Wine envisages the worst wine shortage seen in 50 years, with an 8% fall in production noted in 2017 already. USA’s Napa Valley experienced fires, while France, Italy and Spain unexpectedly experienced extended winter spell – France and Italy were especially hard hit by frost. Meanwhile, OIV has indicated that there has been a steady increase in wine consumption globally. We know what that means.

Could it be about time you filled the wine glass in your hand with the delicate blend of the Old and New worlds of wine from South Africa? With all that has been said thus far, South African wine might indeed be your better choice this year. The first reason may, of course, be a price factor, resulting from the envisaged global wine shortage. The second and perhaps more important may be to afford oneself an opportunity to explore this fascinating region.


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