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South Africa's Rapidly Changing Wine Scene

South Africa's Rapidly Changing Wine Scene
© AFP
Andrew Beatty meets South Africa's new generation of winemakers.

For decades, South Africa has been the promising but slightly troubled cousin of the wine world. However, a new generation of vintners are creating distinctive, and some say world-beating, wines.

Quaffed by the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin and Frederick the Great, wines made on the tip of Africa by Dutch settlers were the envy of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. But that heyday was followed by centuries of blight, war and stagnation.

Then came the apartheid years, which brought an export embargo. South African winemakers, hobbled by the trade curtain, shunned new techniques and tastes and instead catered for a domestic market that largely wanted cheap and cheerful plonk.

By the advent of democracy in 1994, some quality wines were still produced, but according to Mark Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, too many were "harsh and tannic and acidic and astringent.

"You were always told, 'give the wine some time,' 'the wines would come around,' but of course they never did," Kent says. "If a wine is made out of balance it is never going to come into balance."

South Africa remained in the doldrums as other New World producers, including Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and the United States, racked up sales and awards.

The industry's problems ran deep.

"The vineyard quality in the early 1990s was not of the standard that we would have wanted," admits Christo Deyzel, sommelier at Vergelegen's Camphors restaurant.

Leaf-roll and other viruses blighted vines. In many instances "it was physically impossible to make a world-class wine," Deyzel adds.  

Gradually, as export cash came in and the trade curtain fell away, old virus-infected vines were replaced. The centuries-old idea that one estate could produce several different kinds of top-class wine gave way to planting the right grape in the right place.

Chris Alheit tests one of his wines; Mark Kent of Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek
© AFP | Chris Alheit tests one of his wines; Mark Kent of Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek

Twenty years later that decision is beginning to bear fruit.

From their base in the stunning but windswept valley of Hemel en Aarde ("Heaven on Earth"), Chris Alheit and his wife Suzaan manage plots across the Western Cape.

They are determined to create not only world-beating wine, but one that is distinctly South African.

"What South Africa needs, what we are beginning to grow now, is an identity," says Alheit.

For many years, South Africa producers believed that this could be done through the uniquely South African grape pinotage. Created in the 1920s by a Stellenbosch professor, it was a crossing of pinot noir and cinsaut.

It offers the deep fruitiness of a pinot, but critics often complain that it smells of burnt rubber.

"It's been misunderstood, badly planted and badly made," Alheit explains.

Like fellow South African "maverick" winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris Mullineux, Alheit is looking further back in South Africa's winemaking history to chart a way forward.

It is time, they say, to cast aside attempts to mimic Bordeaux or Burgundy, and use old vines and grapes planted in the Cape for 300 years, particularly white varieties like chenin blanc.

"Chenin has been in South Africa since about 1656, so that's about 80 years longer than the first written record of cabernet sauvignon appearing in the Médoc," Alheit says. "We are talking about really authentic Cape Wine varieties here."

Chenin is still the most planted variety in South Africa, covering 18 percent of the country's vineyards and accounting for the largest chunk of exports, but most is used for unremarkable table wine.

By using older bush vines and taking a hands-off approach, Alheit says the wine can speak for itself. He hopes that chenin – which is also widely planted in France's Loire but few other places – can distinguish South Africa in much the same way that malbec has transformed Argentina.

Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie
© Sadie Family Wines | Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie

And the mavericks' labors are starting to get noticed.

Wine-Searcher columnist Tim Atkin MW recently described South Africa as "the most exciting wine-producing country in the Southern Hemisphere." The Wine Advocate's Neal Martin is a notoriously hard marker, but awarded Alheit's 2011 Cartology a rare 96 points out of 100.

"I am now coming to the end of my second decade in wine," says Boekenhoutskloof's Mark Kent. "The next 10 years in terms of South African wine are probably going to be the most exciting.

"I think the time is right. I think people are looking to us as an alternative for quality wine."

But conscientious wine-making comes at a price. Tracking down healthy old bush vines is tricky, as many of them are in outlying areas that have been neglected. 

Eben Sadie's flagship white blend Palladius uses grapes from vineyards that are up to 55 years old, and he produces 'Mev Kirsten' a chenin blanc from 90 year-old bushvines. At the Cape wine 2012 convention, he claimed apartheid had saved South Africa's old vine heritage.

"When we came out of sanctions, South Africa sat back and we realized that although we might have seen ourselves as being 'behind,' this had probably all been good in the artificial preservation of the country and its old vineyards," he said. 

However, yields from old vines, especially those over 20 years old, are notoriously small.

That pushes up prices in a wine producing country that is better known for its value for money. Yet its top-end wines are still a fraction of the cost of similar quality wine from Bordeaux, Piedmont or Napa. 

The weaker rand may help keep prices down, but increases seem inevitable.

Still, as the distinction narrows between Old World and New World wines, South African producers hope their position straddling both will be their ticket to success.

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