South Africa may be the best country in the world to go wine tasting: most of the wine regions are within an hour or two's drive from the major city of Cape Town, many of them are located near the beautiful Atlantic coast, and the wine, like the food, is incredibly cheap. The low prices are in part because of the weak rand; this is great for the international consumer, but it is not particularly good for either the South African economy or the wine industry. A common complaint I heard from producers during my visit to South Africa is that the wine is "too cheap": the best wines simply do not fetch the prices that other countries can charge. Land and labour cost little, and the domestic market will not pay much more than 100 rand for a bottle. That’s about $8 right now, and I know of no other market where high quality wine is available for that price (and the mark-up in restaurants is very small).
Despite enjoying the low prices, I understand the concerns of those within the industry. In the UK, South African wine is very popular because of its affordability, but it's difficult to persuade customers to spend as much on a bottle as from, say, France or California. Meanwhile, in the US, those consumers who like to spend money on wine will choose a $100 bottle of Cabernet from Napa over a $30 bottle from Stellenbosch, even though they're the same quality - $100 sounds much more impressive than $30.
But while South African wine remains so affordable, there's no more consumer friendly wine market. I was there for just eleven days, which allowed me a short introduction to the country's diverse wine regions, and how they are fast developing.
South Africa's modern, international wine industry is very young, going back to the fall of apartheid in the 1990s. At the same time, winemaking dates as far back as many of Europe’s regions. Farms - as locals describe wineries - were established in the late 1500s, and the industry flourished in the late 1700s and early 1800s, before collapsing due to favourable tariffs in the UK being removed in the 1860s and the onset of phylloxera.
The wine that set the standard for South Africa two hundred years ago was the sweet white of Constantia, just south of Cape Town. It was as highly prized as any wine in Europe; no other "New World" wine, and few European wines, came close to its reputation or price. After the collapse of the wine industry and twentieth-century government protectionism, the wine had long ceased to be made before it was regenerated in the mid-1980s by Klein Constantia. This was part of a small number of conscious efforts by producers to revive the production of quality wine in South Africa, which laid the foundations for the post-apartheid boom. Now, Klein Constantia have over 75 hectares planted on the steep slopes rising up from False Bay, the winds from which make Constantia one of the coolest in South Africa.
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2013 (895 rand; $65)
Vin de Constance is mainly made from Muscat de Frontignan, harvested over the course of two months, from fresh, young grapes until the last to be picked are almost like raisins. The wine is rich and sweet, with expressive aromas of honey, marmalade, orange peel, and dried apricots, the sweetness on the palate lifted by a refreshing acidity, with a long finish of sweet spice aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. A complex wine that most likely has several decades' life left in it. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Wine production in the twentieth century was dominated by sweet, cheap white wines. It’s hard to imagine an area as warm as Tulbagh - despite being part of the Coastal Region, it's 75km inland from the coast - but things have changed over the last twenty years, mirroring the advance in South African wine since the fall of apartheid. Instead, the focus is now on Shiraz, which suits the warm climate that's still moderated by cool breezes from the sea and the protection of the surrounding mountains.
For all the interesting Shiraz being made, Tulbagh is also home to what I consider the country’s best Pinotage. Pierre Wahl is the winemaker at Rijk’s and makes three different Pinotages (as well as Chenin Blanc and Shiraz), under three different labels: A Touch of Oak (a terrible name, but the wines are very accessible), Private Cellar, and Reserve. The wines get better with each label, but maintain their quality throughout the range.
Pinotage has the often well-deserved reputation of being bitter, with an imbalanced combination of underripe and overripe aromas. However, all three of Rijk’s wines are quality examples of Pinotage. I asked Pierre what distinguishes the best Pinotage - i.e. his - from lesser examples, and his answer was enlightening:
Pierre convinced me, through his wine and his observations, that Pinotage is a grape capable of producing high-quality wine. Nevertheless, his were the only evidence of that opinion I tasted throughout the trip: the winemaker has to be fully committed to Pinotage to make memorable wine out of it.
Rijk's Reserve Pinotage 2013 (375 rand; $27)
The top range Pinotage is made from 70% bush vines, which add extra concentration. Although the wine has rich aromas of ripe red and black fruits, there's great structure, with firm tannins, a spicy finish, and a long, lingering finish. There's a subtlety to this wine that's so often lacking from the obvious chocolate, coffee aromas of most Pinotage. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Saronsberg Full Circle 2014 (400 rand; $29)
Saronsberg produce a range of Rhône reds, and this wine brings them all together. Mainly Shiraz, with Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier also in the blend, the Full Circle has ripe, spicy, smoky characteristics, attractive floral aromas from the Viogner, and ripe but firm tannins. Still a young wine, with the structure to age well. ✪✪✪✪✪
Stellenbosch is the Napa of South Africa: full-bodied Cabernet-based wines that are more expensive than anywhere else in the country, and where the tasting room is as important as the wine. It’s a beautiful region, cooled by the nearby Atlantic coast but warm enough to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes fully ripe. The mountains also shape the region, resulting in different climates: wind is an especial factor, blowing in from the coast and buffeted around by the many mountains. This is the one region where producers - often backed by international money - are trying to make wine that can compete internationally, both commercially and in terms of quality. In that, those wines can taste little different from other full-bodied, ripe reds from the New World, though there is slightly more of a herbaceous quality and the wines are usually not quite as extracted as, say, those of Napa.
As elsewhere in South Africa, there are good Shiraz/Syrah-based wines being made, the warm climate giving the wines an attractive voluptuousness. There are also some very good whites, and it was very pleasing to see Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends. This is the classic white Bordeaux blend, but it has been much neglected in recent years in favour of single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc. Again, the warm climate, together with some oak ageing, gives the wines full richness, but the acidity of both the grapes keeps the wines refreshing. These are extremely good food wines (fish, white meat), convenient given that many of Stellenbosch wineries have excellent restaurants.
De Toren Z 2013 (330 rand; $24)
It was pleasing to find a producer (from anywhere, not just South Africa) willing to take Merlot seriously. Although it's only 50% of the blend, it's the backbone of the wine and there are engaging, balanced aromas of smoke and tobacco, herbs and sweet spices, ripe but not overripe red and black fruits, with gripping, textured tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪
Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2012 (210 rand; $15)
Another Shiraz-based wine - in this case, blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre - that demonstrates the potential for the grape in South Africa's diverse climates. The wine, named after the winemaker, is full of black pepper, liquorice, earth, and blackberry aromas, but what really makes the wine stand out is the dusty tannins which make it especially reminiscent of the Rhône. ✪✪✪✪✪
Vergelegen GVB 2013 (340 rand; $24)
Taking their Bordeaux influence to an extreme, the top wine of Vergelegen (don't even try to pronounce it unless you speak Dutch or Afrikaans) is a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend. On its own, with rich aromas of stone and tropical fruits, beeswax, vanilla, nuts, salt, and cumin, this is an interesting, powerful wine. With food, it becomes something else. We ate at the on-site Camphors restaurant and this wine paired superbly with the pork belly dish, cutting through the fat and sweetness of the pork, which in turn subdued some of the wine's intense aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪
Very different were the wines a little further along the coast. Wind and coastal influence are so important in South Africa, and nowhere more so than the Elgin, Walker Bay, and Elim regions, which are all an hour’s drive together east from Stellenbosch. Although the sun beats down on the regions, the wind is noticeably cooling. This makes the regions great for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and, most unusually for South Africa, Pinot Noir. These wines are still full of ripe fruit aromas and not tame by any means, but the acidity is refreshing and crisp in the whites and the tannins firm and gripping in the reds that they take on a different aspect from other wines in South Africa.
Paul Cluver Estate Pinot Noir 2014 (180 rand; $13)
Travelling through the Southern Hemisphere has one disadvantage: the warm climates make it hard to find quality Pinot Noir. Elgin's cooler climate, however, is well suited to the variety and the nose of this example immediately took us away from the warm sunshine of Stellenbosch. Smoky, with aromas of wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, coffee, black pepper, and liquorice, and with really gripping, grainy tannins, this is one of the few New World Pinot Noirs I could confuse for Burgundy - and at a ridiculously good price. ✪✪✪✪✪
Hamilton-Russell Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnay 2016 (395 rand; $28)
It's rare to taste a wine so young that already has such deep complexity. It was bottled just three weeks before we tasted it; no surprise that the acidity was so fresh, but the aromas of stone and tropical fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and a smoky texture were astonishingly developed. We immediately bought a bottle of this wine and drank it with our sandwiches while we looked over the lake next to the tasting room. Like the Paul Cluver, this was a wine that could be mistaken for Burgundy (though at a not dissimilar price) - Walker Bay and Elgin are regions to look out for. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
As important as the cooling influence as the Atlantic Ocean is, South Africa’s climate, even by the coast, is still warm. Alcohol is high, fruits are ripe, and the wines are rich. In a climate as sunny as South Africa’s, that’s how it should be. The country, after a century of isolationism, is still learning its trade. Because of the value of its wines, it may at times struggle to be taken seriously, but take advantage of the low prices to taste some very, very good wine.