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When You Read James Laube’s Wine Spectator Editorial on South Africa, Also Consider This

Vineyards with Simonsberg (4)When you pick up the latest issue of the Wine Spectator, you’ll find an editorial piece regarding the state of the South African wine industry, on page 31 by James Laube.  We’ve been covering some of the farms in the Stellenbosch District of the Coastal Region, near Cape Town, for several weeks and have two more wine producers to go.  So this is timely from our personal perspective.  During the past few months we have studied the South African wine landscape, talked with some wine makers and distributors of the wine, and dived deep into one specific area.  In general we agree with Mr. Laube’s assessment that the wine industry is on the rise and doing good things.  We would also agree that there has been much change and momentum built since the fall of apartheid.  That took some time, and most of the farms we studied really got going just before or after the millenium.  You should attribute the timing of the rise of the wine quality and diversity to the fall of the KWV (we’ll spare you the actual name), a cooperative which kept the wine industry on life support through difficult times, but which regulated it into mediocrity from a quality perspective.  It was finally phased out between 1998 and 2002, and that seems to be the real impetus, enabled by the opening of international trade that the end of apartheid ushered in.

There are a few additional points we think you should consider as well.

The wine landscape is large and growing there, although it predominantly lies within one area, that being the Western Cape.  The variety of grapes is growing as well.  While the traditional Pinotage, the cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault developed atIMG_0995Stellenbosch University a century ago, is dwindling, there is still a lot of it.  Much of it produces somewhat muddled wine in our experience, Mr. Laube uses the word “rustic”, but it can be pretty spectacular.  Try the 2010 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage, a beautifully pure wine that leaves you with a whole different perspective on the grape. (read about it here)  Don’t dismiss it out of hand.  Another red to consider is Cabernet Franc, this time inspired IMG_1055by the Loire Valley as the traditional red counterpart to Chenin Blanc.  There are farms focusing on that Loire model, and some of the Cab Franc is pretty great.  Try the Raats Family Wines Cabernet Franc, a fruit driven and fresh wine with everything going for it.  (read the review here) We love great Cabernet Franc, and it is not easy to find.   Cabernet Franc is not among the largest red wine grape crops in South Africa, but it has ardent supporters.  We’re among them after trying this wine.

Certainly the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are rising as the industry looks to match consumer preferences, and you can find Bordeaux style blends everywhere.  These can be excellent, and frequently much better values than their Bordeaux counterparts.  In general we’ve found the fruit a little riper, more like the better years in Bordeaux.  There tends to be a crisper acid balance to the wines as well.  Mr. Laube certainly was correct in highlighting the South African tendency toward higher acid and firm tannins, and several wines we have tried have pushed the acid beyond our personal tastes.  Still they were obviously well made wines, with beautiful fruit.

Lastly, while Chenin Blanc has ceded ground to other whites such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, do not discount its importance to the South African wine industry.  It is still the largest volume grape grown, accounting for about 20% of the annual crop.  It is fiercely defended by many, and considered the traditional white of the region.  We think this is good, because Chenin Blanc can be wonderful, even as it wears many hats and takes many forms. From bone dry to sweet wines, this grape lends itself to the wine makers touch.  We’ve enjoyed many Chenins (or Steen as it is known locally) from South Africa, some light and fresh and others oaked and serious.  It is a great wine grape, a core of their history, and something that should not be going anywhere anytime soon.

And there will always be room for the others.  We pulled a bottle of South African wine off a shelf not too long ago, turned it around to read the grapes, and found Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet listed.  These are about as traditional Portuguese as you can get.  Someone in Swartland was growing them, located a bit north of the immediate Cape Town area.

So there are a few additional things to consider as you discover this beautiful and diverse wine area.  We haven’t had the privilege of visiting yet, but have had to make do with pictures, video, interviews and personal description.  It’s on our list.  We strongly hope that they continue to experiment, but not lose what they already do well.

And while it is unknown where the South African wine industry goes, what varietals take the lead, or what styles become their new trademark, we can assure you that there are wine makers there right now who know exactly what they are and where they are going.  Their wines are worth looking for.

You can see our articles on some of the farms of Stellenbosch in our Winery category by clicking here.  The first in the series has some historical background, and that is here.

A votre sante!

3 comments to When You Read James Laube’s Wine Spectator Editorial on South Africa, Also Consider This

  • Dorothy Philipps

    I recently enjoyed a glass of Chenin Blanc from South Africa. I could kick myself because I didn’t note the vineyard, location and year. The wine was crisp and refreshing with just the right amount of dryness. I intend to buy a South African Chenin Blanc as soon as I can.

    Until now I had not considered buying or trying Cabernet Franc because the last time I did, I was not impressed. It was too light for me and did not develop in the mouth. I am going to see what South African Cabernet Franc my favorite wine shops offer.

    • admin

      We love Chenin Blanc, and will generally have some in the cellar. It’s an under appreciated varietal in the USA. The Cabernet Francs we have had from South Africa tend to be bigger and more substantial than many, but we agree the grape on its own can be uninspiring far too often. Excellent Cab Franc remains one of my favorites though. The Raats Cab Franc was a truly outstanding wine.

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