March 17, 2009

South African Wine

By Andrew Barrow In Articles

sunrise over the stellenbosch mountains from the kleine zalze estate

A cliché is a cliché for a reason. I don’t think you can view any report, article or commentary on South Africa without some mention of the amalgam of the old world and the new in the countries wines.

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.

chardonnay vines kleine zalze estate, stellenbosch, south africa

  1. TheWinesleuth March 17, 2009

    Hi Andrew,
    great post! Looking forward to your posts on SA wine because as you know, I’m not a big fan. I hope some of your recommendations will be available in the UK!

  2. Andrew March 17, 2009

    Thanks Sleuthy; a vast majority of the wines sampled were specifically selected because they ARE available in the UK. I am sure many of my selection will bring pleasure to your palate!

  3. Dylan March 17, 2009

    I was wondering what had caused the sudden pause to postings. If you do recreate some meals you had in SA I hope you will include them on the blog here. Based on your views of the country, it’s simply extraordinary how young the wine industry is there, and yet, how far they’ve already progressed since the start.

  4. Andrew March 17, 2009

    Sorry about the silence Dylan; I did keep twitter updated but thought the blog needed too much attention. Actually nice to have a rest from the blog once in a while though.

  5. Douglas March 18, 2009

    …but your fine words are a darn good start at capturing the country…

  6. Dylan March 18, 2009

    By all means. Writing is an outlet and we enjoy it for the very subject we write on, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is work. It demands time and the proper wording, so consider it a well-deserved break.

  7. John Davis August 17, 2009

    Hi Andrew, Nice post. Is it true that Pinotage and Steen (Chenin Blanc) were initially planted as a reacation to the SA high humidity and ensuing insect and fungus problems? Thanks again, John D.

  8. wine_scribbler August 17, 2009

    Thanks John; not sure of the answer to your question though. Perhaps Peter May’s new book holds the answer?


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