Around the World of Wine - South Africa

Our third 'Around the World of Wine' blog focuses on South Africa, a country that's seen many changes in the past 30 years or so.

Most who have visited South Africa's Cape region will have ventured out into the vineyards that surround Cape Town, if not to try the wines then to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings. I hope that all do try the wines because at the moment the top producers of South Africa are producing some seriously good wines. They have had a lot to contend with though, from political disruption to severe drought to fluctuating currency. None of which help when you're trying to produce a product of a consistently high quality at a competitive price.

But let's focus on the great wines and how they got to where they are. South Africa may be classed as a New World wine region, but in reality it has a winemaking tradition going back centuries. European traders heading east by boat used South Africa as an important stop off when navigating the treacherous Southern Oceans, and many chose to settle there, bringing their European traditions and culture with them. By the mid 17th Century vineyards were being planted all around the Cape, and many of the original areas planted are still going strong today, most notably Stellenbosch and Constantia.

What makes the region suitable for wine production is the all-important combination of soil and climate. It is only really in the very north and very south of the African continent that we find vines, and that's because it's simply too hot or too humid throughout most the continent. Vines don't need a lot of rain, but with too much heat comes grapes lacking in acidity and balance. Vines also benefit from a period of dormancy in the winter months, triggered by lower temperatures. It's the cooling influence of the Southern Oceans, therefore, that give the Cape region such good conditions. Winters can be cold, and even in the middle of summer, nighttime temperatures can drop considerably allowing the grapes to recover from the daytime heat. Add into the mix a rugged landscape dominated by relatively infertile granite and sandstone outcrops and you have conditions more suited to vine growing than any other crop. Vines don't need rich fertile soil, instead, vines that are forced to hunt for their water and nutrition produce better grapes, albeit fewer of them.

With favourable conditions and strong European influences the wine regions have spread over time, and it is of no surprise that the Europeans brought their familiar grape varieties with them, particularly the French. Today it is the Bordeaux varieties that dominate red and white wine production at the fine wine end, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The Rhone Valley variety, Syrah, is also increasingly growing in popularity, and in the cooler more coastal areas the Burgundy varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both of which benefit from the greater cooling effect of the ocean.

However, perhaps the two varieties that you'll be most familiar with from South Africa are Pinotage (red) and Chenin Blanc (white). Chenin blanc, as the name suggests, is another grape variety from France, but Pinotage is something very South African, in fact it has hardly even been tried outside of South Africa. Pinotage was developed in the early 20th Century by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault (then better known as Hermitage). The result was a variety considered more at home in the South African climate than its two parent varieties, but not everyone was convinced by the wine it produced, which often had quite an earthy and burnt wood flavour. It's fair to say that wine production methods have come on a long way in the last century and slowly Pinotage is coming back into favour, with producers now able to coax out more fruit concentration. 

In general all the French varieties above are produced using methods common in their respective French regions. Many reds are aged in barrique, just like in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and there are some exquisite sweet wines produced from late harvest grapes, or by fortification, two classic French styles. A lot of producers are also now experimenting with sparkling wine production, and it's of no surprise that generally they're going down the methode tradionale route, like most the best French sparkling wine producers.

This may be the situation in some of the more rugged Cape regions, but continue the journey in land and you'll find regions such as Worcester and Robertson, where the more fertile soils are better suited to higher volume production. It's here where production is cranked up somewhat that we find a modern South African success story, but one currently teetering on the brink. There is a lot of decent wine produced here, and in such volumes that it is of serious interest to global markets wanting an ongoing supply of quality wine. The problem for the wine producers, however, is the fluctuating nature of the currency. When the Rand is down it benefits exports as it is cheaper for foreign countries to buy, but as the Rand rises the export markets don't like to pay more. At the same time when the Rand is low the costs of all imported equipment go up for the producers. A stable currency however strong is manageable, but when it is always on the move it becomes hard for producers to plan and invest. Add to this three years of severe drought and suddenly there are reports of large areas of vines being pulled up.

2018 has seen a slight break in the weather, and with it, hopefully, a turning point for producers struggling to survive. For all this negative talk, however, in general the South African wine industry is still heading in the right direction, and with new regions receiving investment, especially up the western side of the Cape, we are seeing increasing numbers of interesting and good value South African wines reaching the UK, and long may it continue.