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A Look at the Wines of Stellenbosch, South Africa : Some History and the Wines of Simonsig

simonsig farmMost people who like wine and are more than occasional cork poppers are aware that South Africa produces wine.  In fact they produce quite a bit, and rank about 8th in production and world wine exports.  Their vinicultural tradition goes back to the establishment of the colony , and vines from Europe were planted as far back as 1655.  By the end of that decade they were making wine, and the sweet, fortified wines from Constantia became very popular in the late 1600’s and were exported to Europe, a trend that continued until the phylloxera scourge found the colony.  Still, as the rest of the world recovered so did South Africa,   However the export side of the business floundered and the wines suffered in quality.  It was only in the later part of the 20th century, when changes in the wine laws and re-establishment of post-Apartheid  international trade dramatically altered the vinicultural landscape, that South Africa began a swift journey towards higher quality and a re-emergence on the world stage.  The country is now in a full fledged wine renaissance, with new varietals and methods mixing with the old.

You can still get plenty of Pinotage (an indigenous cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and Chenin Blanc (locally known as Steen), but you can also get excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and many others.  I recently ran across a bottle in a local shop from the Swartland District that included Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet, two very Portuguese varietals.  Different and exciting things are happening here.

With a wide variety in climate and geology, and numerous districts and wards you could spend quite some time talking about the South African wine industry.  We’re going to focus, at least in this series, on what is probably the heart of that wine industry, and that is the Stellenbosch District.  Founded in 1679, Stellenbosch is the second oldest town in the country, lying just to the east of Cape Town.  The wide valley is perfect for growing grapes, from the valley floor to the hills and higher elevations of the surrounding mountains, there is no shortage of variety in the local terroir.  More than swr_logo150 farms, estates or winemakers are members of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes organization, which promotes the local industry and has an excellent website at www.wineroute.co.za.  They’ve split the district  into five areas for the benefit of mapping out a visit, and a quick look gives you an immediate appreciation for how big the wine industry is here, as farms dot the map everywhere.  You can see the wine route map below.  We’re only going to focus in on a couple, but that should give you an idea of what is available, and also what we think of the relative quality and value.

Why Stellenbosch?  There are a few reasons.  One is the history, as old as any in the country from a wine making perspective.  Then there is the sheer volume of producers there, which gives us lots to choose from, and practicality dictates we can actually get and taste the wines we talk about (something we absolutely insist on).  There’s also the fact that over the past few years we have had many excellent South African wines, and they always seem to come from Stellenbosch.  Probably an artifact of that region’s active promotion of themselves internationally to be sure, but it works, and it leaves us with a good impression and really a clear idea of where we wanted to dive in.  Add in the fact that Stellenbosch wins more international awards for their wine than any district and it seems like a good decision.  Hopefully we’ll branch out to some of the others in the near future, but for now we stay put.

Through the course of this journey we’ll look at producers with traditions going back hundreds of years and new, smaller farms, what we would call boutique wineries in the US.  In between are a few others.  They’ll range geographically, with two prospects from the area around Simonsberg Mountain, one with a western side aspect and the other on the south.  We’ll head further south for a third.  Since this is a blog and not a textbook we’ll also break this into pieces.  With a little history and background behind us let’s go right into the first of our highlighted producers, Simonsig.

SIMONSIG: A LEGACY OF PIONEERING WINE MAKING

Situated in the world-renowned Stellenbosch region of the Cape Winelands, the legacy of this landmark family winery dates back to 1688 when the first Malan arrived in South Africa. As a French Huguenot, Jacques Malan was given land at the Cape of Good Hope by the ruling Dutch, where he first planted vineyards. In time, he settled near Stellenbosch, which quickly became famous for the quality of the wines from the region.

Simonsig Winery - west of Simonsberg Mountain

Simonsig Winery – west of Simonsberg Mountain

Vineyards with Simonsberg (4)In 1953, one of his descendants, Frans Malan, planted vineyards on De Hoop, in the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountains outside Stellenbosch.  The farm subsequently became the nucleus of the Simonsig Wine Estate.   1968 saw the introduction of his first wines, sold under the Simonsig Estate label Simonisg Vineyard– literally translated meaning Simon’s View – named after the spectacular views of the Simonsberg Mountain.   The late Frans Malan introduced numerous Simonsig ‘firsts’ leaving an indelible legacy in the Cape Winelands. His groundbreaking innovations include the country’s first Chardonnay and Rhine Riesling, meticulously bottled by hand and personally labeled by his wife Liza.  Simonsig’s first red wine followed in 1970.

Frans also produced South Africa’s first Méthode Cap Classique, Kaapse Vonkel (Cape Sparkle)  – bottle-fermented sparkling wine made in the style of French champagne, more than 30 years ago.  Many other varieties, such as Shiraz/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, were planted in a quest to find the optimum grape and soil compositions on this prime estate comprising more than 200 hectares of vineyards.

Simonsig produces an extensive range of red, white and sparkling wines.  Their  wines imported to the United States include a Chenin Blanc, the Merindol Syrah, their flagship Tiara Bordeaux Blend as well as Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz blend, a Shiraz, a Pinotage, the Red Hill Pinotage and the Frans Malan Reserve, a red Cape Blend named after the founder of the modern Simonsig Family Winery.

IMG_0989

Frans Malan was also instrumental in starting the previously mentioned Stellenbosch Wine Route which Wines_6has,  since 1971, introduced numerous local cellars to wine lovers from all over the world.  Acknowledging his innovation and inspiration, Frans was named South African Winemaker of the Year in 1977.

In 1983, Frans’ three sons – Pieter, Francois and Johan – formed a unique partnership to manage the fast-growing Simonsig Wine Estate, with 60 percent of the production exported to more than 35 countries. Equipped with progressive winemaking skills and a proud heritage, producing superior wine is still a family tradition as the new generation competes in the global wine market.

While they aren’t available in Rhode Island, they are in the stores in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.  The Simonsig Family Wines are imported in the U.S. by Quintessential, at  www.quintessentialwines.com.

We have six of the Simonsig line to evaluate, so let’s take a look under the cork and see what we’ve got.

2012 Simonsig Chenin Blancthis is 100% Chenin Blanc, and the winery’s 44th vintage of this grape.  A very dry growing season led to an early harvest and lower alcohol, although this still checks in at 13.8%.  The juice was cold settled and the wine was left on the lees for some time.  Here are the notes:

Light golden color, this is crystal clear and brilliant.  There is a nose of melon, pear and some tropical IMG_0992fruit as well.  Ripe fruit strikes the palate. It’s dry, and you can tell it spent some time on the lees as there is a nice creaminess to the wine, and an excellent mouth feel.  It’s not a light, pleasant quaffer, but a serious wine.  There is a nice clear acid ridge through it that keeps it clean and refreshes.  The finish is very long.  Overall it struck us as a quality, delicious wine that drinks very well, and probably could demand a significantly higher price than the suggested retail of $13.99.  Chenin Blanc can take many faces, and this is a good one.  We’ll be adding this to the value list.

2011 Simonsig Cabernet Shirazthis is a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  It was a windy, dry and hot season, but the younger shiraz vines yielded a larger than normal crop.  The cabernet had to wait a little longer on the vine while the Shiraz went through fermentation, which should add some weight  to this.  It’s 14.7% alcohol, so not shy at all here.  Here are the notes:

This wine is a beautiful, deep ruby red color.  Right on opening the nose was reductive, with a little IMG_0993cabbage odor.  It is a screw cap, so maybe that has something to do with it.  Anyway a little time generally cures all with a reductive wine, and given some time this wine opened and spread its wings.  There is lots of dark fruit on the nose with some spice in the background.  The oak is noticeable and pleasant.  On the palate the wine is very smooth, with full body, integrated tannins and just enough acid to keep it fresh.  A very long finish rounded out the experience.  As we let this sit in the bottle is just kept getting better.  Very good and also value list material at a suggested retail of $11.99.  Open it and let it sit for a while, you will be rewarded.

2011 Simonsig Pinotag Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, was developed in Stellenbosch back in the 1920s.  It is a grape singularly known as South African, and actually doesn’t carry the greatest reputation, as I have heard it disparaged on multiple occasions by very knowledgeable wine people.  Is that justified or just bull?  Let’s see:

This is really going to come down to the answer to one question: do you like Pinotage?  The wine is IMG_0994different.  Frequently you’ll hear Mulberry used as a descriptor, and we’re not familiar enough with Mulberry to say (which means we need to get some Mulberries).  It’s a very dark red with aromas of plum.  There’s a definitive meaty, smoky or gamey quality that runs throughout.  Very much a savory note to this.  There is no oak however.  Soft tannins make it smooth, and it is long and full bodied, checking in at 14.5% alcohol.  I thought it was OK, Cheri not so much.  This will depend on your personal taste, but I can tell you it is a well made wine.  You’ll need to decide.  Suggested retail of $17.99.  Try this and see if you like what a pretty typical Pinotage can do.  The next wine is from the same grape, but a higher end bottling

2010 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage the first red wine released by Simonsig in 1970 was a Pinotage.  The Redhill Pinotage is selected from the best new oak matured wine sourced from, you guessed it, the red hills of the Simonsig Estate.  The red soil is comprised of decomposed shale and granite, and provides excellent growing conditions with good drainage but also good moisture retention.  This spent six days on the skins and was gently pressed, then saw 18 months in 57% French and 43% American white oak, all new as previously mentioned.  Here’s what we think:

After tasting this wine, we can definitively say that there is Pinotage, and then there is Pinotage.  This IMG_0995wine is fabulous.  Where the previous, regular bottling muddled the fruit into the gamey notes, this wine has a purity of fruit that is just beautiful.  It is very dark and purply red out of the bottle.  The nose brings waves of blackberries and plum, and that profile caries into the palate.  The tannins are rich and well integrated, and the oak is not a major factor.  Everything works in harmony and leaves you with one word to sum it up: delicious.  The second day it was even deeper, and some mint and vanilla notes had appeared.  It’s complex.  This is worlds better than the previous one, albeit at twice the price.  $35.99 recommended retail, maybe available for less, and worth it.  Don’t write off Pintage until you try this wine.

2010 Simonsig Merindol Syrahthis is a single vineyard Syrah, from vines planted on specially selected sites ideal for growing this grape.  In this case that means deep, red, decomposed granite with excellent water retention, facilitating deep root systems.  The vineyards were planted in 1996 from French clones.  This is the most expensive of the Simonsig wines, but still fairly moderate at $40 or so.  The notes:

As the most expensive of the wines we have from this producer we expected a lot, especially when you

The wines of Simonsig

The wines of Simonsig

consider the excellent quality of the above wines.  We were not disappointed.  This is like a good French Syrah, think northern Rhone.  Dark purple and opaque it leaves huge legs on the glass as it delivers a big nose of dark fruit with oak, leather, tobacco and spice.  It’s full bodied with firm tannins.  The flavors coat your mouth, and the oak brings you into the very long finish.  We both got a crazy, and excellent, note of strawberry at the very end.  This is an outstanding wine, a bit pricey but well worth it.  If you doubt that South Africa produces world class wines, try this one and the previous Redhill Pinotage and turn your belief system a bit inside out.

2012 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose a traditional method sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle, made from a blend of Pinotage as well as the two traditional red grapes of Champagne, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  There’s only 2% of the Pinot Meunier in here, but it is there.  Here are the notes:

This has a beautiful golden pink color, like a pinky peach.  Very fine bubble structure lets you know it is IMG_0997a well made classic method sparkler.  The nose is complex, with fruit of many kinds, including berries, a hint of peach and tangerine.  It’s got a great texture, and is smooth and clean.  The acid is very nice, and keeps it fresh.  This is a quality sparkling wine, and would make a great holiday wine.  At $24 it’s good value as well.  The bubbles never end.

So in summary, clearly we are dealing with an important area for wine, both from an historical perspective as well as from a contemporary producer’s viewpoint.  With just Simonsig to evaluate thus far the reviews are none the less pretty stellar.  Ahead are more examples, and we’ll pass the results along in the relatively near future.  Until then, try some wines from Stellenbosch and Simonsig.  You can read about some of our earlier experiences with some Stellenbosch wines here and here.  You can read more about Simonsig, their wines and their tradition at www.simonsig.co.za.

You can read the next installment on the wines of Stellenbosch, focusing on Ken Forrester, by clicking this link.

What a start.

A votre santé!

6 comments to A Look at the Wines of Stellenbosch, South Africa : Some History and the Wines of Simonsig

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