Focus on South Africa

If you’re more concerned with what’s on the label than what’s in the bottle, I will probably never convince you to look into South African wine. After all, how many wine snob buddies will give you points when you bring over a bottle of Vergelegen’s estate red or estate white; a Bordeaux blend like Capaia, Morgenster or Rustenberg’s John X Merriman; a syrah-based wine from Boekenhoutskloof, Fairview or The Foundry; or a sauvignon blanc from the likes of Springfield Estate or Iona? But that would be their loss. Bottles like these give top European wines tough competition at a gentler price.

The number of cases of South African wine imported to the U.S. more than doubled between the end of 2003 and the end of 2005, and after a hiccup during the first half of last year sales have continued their uptrend. It’s no accident. South Africa should be one of the first places to look for excellent affordable wines, whether you’re seeking inexpensive sauvignon blanc, cabernet-based blends in a Bordeaux fashion, syrah in any style, or South African specialties like chenin blanc and, especially, pinotage, a uniquely South African variety created in the 1920s from a crossing of cinsaut and pinot noir. And if your preferences run to sweeter, riper, more fruit-driven New World reds, South Africa would also be near the top of my list of choices. South Africa is not a grape-growing nation on the verge of realizing its great potential: with a wine culture extending back more than three centuries, it’s already a source of world-class wines.

A word on wine geography. Virtually all of Africa's most important wine-producing zones are located in the extreme southwestern tip of the continent, close to Cape Town. A warm, dry Mediterranean climate, with moderating sea breezes and normally clement weather during the summer and harvest, provides favorable growing conditions for numerous traditional European varieties. The spectacularly beautiful Stellenbosch region, which lies just to the east of Cape Town and surrounds a lovely old university town, features South Africa's greatest concentration of serious wine estates and produces many of the country's best red wines. Just to the north of Stellenbosch, Paarl is home to a growing number of quality-minded producers and is currently positioning itself as a specialist in big, brawny syrahs (more often called shiraz in South Africa, and especially in this area). The cooler and wetter Constantia region, which was where South Africa's first vines were planted and which is now part of southern Cape Town, is best for white wines, thanks to cooling southeasterly breezes off False Bay. Other areas now making very good wines include Robertson, where the grapes are mostly white; Walker Bay, a maritime climate southeast of Cape Town that produces fresh chardonnays and pinot noirs in a Burgundian style; and Elgin, a coolish valley located between Stellenbosch and Walker Bay that features more cloud cover during the summer. And on my most recent trip, I sampled interesting new wines from emerging areas like Durbanville, Philadelphia and Darling, heading up the coast from Cape Town, and Cape Point, a very cool area situated south of Constantia.

I visited many of the top producers of the Cape wine region in late August, and followed up this winter by sampling hundreds more wines, also retasting the most impressive bottles I tried in South Africa. Having made similar tours in August of 2002 and August of 2004 I have witnessed firsthand the continued improvement of these wines and the emergence of numerous new producers of merit. Additional notes on wines from producers who do not yet export to the U.S. or whose distribution is very limited will appear on the IWC website shortly, as will tasting notes on a set of special bottlings done by numerous top winemakers for the Cape Winemakers Guild auction, some of which are, or will be, available in limited quantities in the U.S.

Recent vintages. South Africa has enjoyed a run of good to outstanding vintages since the country’s last difficult year, 2002. Vintage reports from estates I visited in August were predictably inconsistent, reflecting widely differing views on favored varieties in a given year, in large part owing to local conditions and picking dates, and differences in crop levels as well. So my brief comments on vintages are rather general in nature. Most winery principals agree that 2003 and 2005 were warmer growing seasons than 2004 and 2006, but it should be noted that this does not automatically translate into better wines in a warm region, especially in the case of whites.

Two thousand six was a very dry year with a late flowering and late harvest. Cooler than average temperatures lasted until well into the summer, when warmer periods in February and March stimulated the ripening. Some growers describe 2006 as a year of strong, concentrated reds; others single it out as a superb year for white wines. Vintage 2005 featured an early budding due to a warm spring; some rot pressures in late spring; and a very dry summer, with drought a factor in some areas, such as in Paarl. Much of the fruit ripened in a rush and the harvest was early. On the whole, the crop level was down from 2004 due to the effects of drought. The vintage produced big, concentrated reds with full alcohol levels; many growers rate the year outstanding for red wines. White wines were often quite tropical in character.

A cool spring with an uneven berry set, and a late veraison, set the stage for a late harvest in 2004. Ripening was further delayed by heat waves in early January and mid-February, and then by rain in early March. The ripening process went slowly, as growers waited and worried. Ultimately they brought in a record-size crop with mostly good sugar levels; but many of the late-ripening cabernets were high in pH and low in acidity, and required adjustments. The reds tend to be elegantly styled wines with moderate alcohol and tannin levels; the best of them should develop slowly in bottle. Finally, 2003 was one of South Africa's best recent vintages, especially for red varieties, producing concentrated, full-bodied wines with considerable aromatic interest and serious structure for aging. Slow ripening under coolish but dry conditions, with only a couple of short hot periods, widely resulted in full phenolic ripeness with sound but not extreme sugar levels and healthy acids. Rains in late March (there was actually flash flooding in certain spots, like Robertson) affected some late-ripening varieties, but a number of growers reported that the precipitation eventually provided more time for the grapes to ripen properly.