An intense week spent touring the vineyards of Stellenbosch, Franschoek, Elgin, Walker Bay and beyond affirms the belief – South Africa is a cross roads striving to take the vibrancy, drinkability and fruit of the New World and combine it with the structure, elegance and food-friendliness of the old. And from what I sampled they are doing it beautifully.
It is staggering to realise that the wine industry in South Africa is, in effect, just 14 years old. The apartheid years were not good – bad grape clones, poor rootstocks, lack of interaction with other wine growing regions (and thus not sharing in the techniques and advances in production and viticulture) led inevitably to a general malaise. The quality of wines became, by international standards, sub-standard. The ‘legendary’ Pinotage being a case in point – rubber, pencil led, rusty nails are not really something you want in a red wine.
Great improvements have revitalised the wine industry. Vineyards are more than welcoming to day-trippers and tourists with many offering rooms, restaurants, picnic areas, pools and other activities in addition to vineyard tours and wine tastings. Quality of the wine has improved immensely of course. Evangelists for Pinotage and Chenin – South Africa’s near unique grapes touted as the countries local treasures – and those experimentng with biodynamics, white blends and obscure red grapes are thrusting the industry though an exciting period of experimentation.
Problems of course exist. The disparity of living standards (although there is a rising black middle class – the black diamonds) and the redistribution of wealth are most noticable while water issues and bush fires are familiar to wine regions across the world. The picture above illustrates this. A beautiful sunrise over the Stellenbosch Mountains from the Kleine Kalze Estate – only the low lying cloud is smoke from the fires that swept over and around the mountains for several days – leaving a smattering of ash over Klein Kalze’s award winning Terroir Restaurant and hotel where I both stayed and dined.
As with all tours the time goes all to quickly; you realise you haven’t recorded all the wines tasted, wish you had taken more photos (I came back with 649!) and have to adjust to ‘normal’ ‘plain’ food again. But the trip has led to a greater appreciation of South Africa’s wines and culture – I’m keen to follow several producers as they develop their ranges, plantings and techniques over the coming years – and I have more than enough tasting notes to fill Spittoon for many weeks let alone tying to replicate the delicious foods I enjoyed over the week and play with various wine and food matches.
The problem with clichés is their narrowness; South Africa offers such an exciting, vibrant and beautiful country and people that a few simple words can’t possibly encapsulate it all.
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