South Africa's winemakers have unlocked their expertise and let loose their distinctive expressions on the world market since the nation shook off its colonial past and abandoned apartheid in 1994. So much so that South Africa today has more than 102,000ha of land under vine - up from 92,601ha in 1999 - and makes as much as three per cent of the world's wine.
Although it has been reported that sales have suffered in the key UK market over the past
18 months or so, particularly for some big South African brands such as Kumala, South African producers feel they are sitting on a gold mine. According to Philip Costandius, chairman of the Cape Winemakers Guild and cellar master at Stellenbosch producer Lourensford, they feel they are in a position to go head-to-head with the Australians in certain sectors of the world market, and are already competing well with Chile in the medium-price bracket.
"The best export market for South African wine is still in the UK," says Costandius, "but Holland and Germany are fairly close behind, as well as some other European countries. The most difficult market for us, though, is the US. This is a market we really want to penetrate, considering the volumes of wine we want to sell."
But the attraction of South Africa, he says, is not necessarily in the big-volume market. "We're certainly not going to try to imitate the Australians in this regard. Still, Australia is our main competitor in the world market - we're competing with them head on, especially because we've got lots of Shiraz and Chardonnay planted." And the future, adds Costandius, could lie in South Africa's mid-market and niche offering.
"I think it's our wines in the medium-price range of around £5.99 that will help move our higher-end wines," he says. "We are putting a great deal of hope in these being able to encourage sales of especially those wines in and around our £8 price range.
White wine in South Africa still dominates production. Roughly a quarter of all plantings are Chenin Blanc; but Sauvignon Blanc is still being aggressively planted and there's certainly plenty of Chardonnay around. However, following a couple of years of surplus supply, there is a discernable upswing in the popularity of South African red wine on the world markets.
"The product we are supplying as bulk wine to Germany, for instance, is wine that we would normally put into our entry-level brands," says Costandius. "But the market is just not there for us right now, so we've got to move them somehow; therefore we're putting these pretty good wines into our bulk wines. And yes, that is probably hurting some of our competitors in this completely different market".
The Pinotage quandary
The Michelangelo International Wine Awards 2007, held in September, once again unashamedly highlighted much of the best South Africa has to offer. Judging at this competition and visiting some of the more quality-driven estates in the Cape afforded the judges the opportunity to sample a raft of the best wines from vintages that are either just hitting the shelves now or are on the verge of release - plus, of course, a few interesting older ones.
It was the Cape and other red blends that most impressed most of the judges at the MIWA, but Shiraz also did very well on many scoresheets compared with other varietals. Much of the Cabernet Sauvignon on offer also drew favourable comments, and there were some fabulous examples of Pinotage.
The subject of Pinotage produces very mixed responses from producers, but those Pinotage wines that were tasted on various visits to wineries impressed hugely, particularly those from the 2003 vintage.
"Pinotage planted in the right area is important - you've either got the right location to grow it or you haven't," says Costandius. "But I can say to you that we here at Lourensford haven't had much success with this variety because we are in an area [Somerset West] that is too cool. It works well in the Swartland and one or two other areas. But I think producers are saying less and less that Pinotage is 'the' South African variety, the one which South Africa should put it's money on. It certainly provides a point of difference; but whether it provides the South African wine industry with a flag to fly, I would seriously question."
Pinotage does seem to be getting a rough ride in the press at the moment. But according to Danie Steytler of Kaapzicht, just up the road from Lourensford, if Pinotage is handled correctly it can make great wine. "Pinotage is a very difficult variety to make wine with," he admits. "I have to manipulate it more in the cellar than any other red variety.
"In the old days, during the 1970s, it used to be picked with lower sugar levels in the fruit, which gave the wines some bad characteristics [like acetone or spray paint]. But we now pick the grapes when they are much riper, giving us lovely sweeter cherry and sweet banana aromas, and on the whole much better results.
Revealing some technical secrets, Steytler adds that harvesting riper gives juice with lower acid and higher pH, which is a favourable medium for bacterial growth. These bacteria, if not controlled by filtering out, can form a byproduct - acrolein - that gives the wine a bitter finish on the roof of your mouth. "The bitterness in some Pinotage is not a characteristic of this variety, but a result of bacterial spoilage in a badly made wine," he says.
"We add tartaric acid for the amount of malic that is going to be lost during malolactic fermentation. This lowers the pH, which is then a less favourable medium for bacterial growth. We filter the wine clean if necessary, before putting it in the barrel. It is far less likely that I do this with Cabernet or Merlot, but this is the trick to not making a bad Pinotage."
Steytler prefers using new French oak to give the wine a better tannin structure and a "nice dry finish". Other producers use American oak to give the wine more fruitiness and sweet vanilla aromas. This might be why the red wines enjoyed most by the MIWA judges, outside the environment of the competition, were the Pinotages tasted at both the Kaapzicht and Beyerskloof estates in Stellenbosch. And although a double-gold gong was awarded to the impressive Rijk's Private Cellar Bravado Red Blend, the estate owners assert that they feel far more pride in their Private Cellar Pinotage (winner of the Pinotage Trophy 2007) than anything else in their range.
One problem highlighted at the competition was a general greenness within the tannins in Merlot wines, which managed to transcend even the good qualities of the other varieties within some Merlot blends. It's a generalisation, of course, but it is a worrying trend that caught the eye of just about every judge at the competition.
"Merlot does have a problem with green tannins here in South Africa," admits Johan Joubert, winemaker at the excellent Kleine Zalze estate in Stellenbosch. "Some of the biggest problems we have are uneven budding, and Merlot vines in particular becoming over-stressed. Also, overcropping of Merlot vines that are 10 years or younger encourages these unwanted [green] characteristics within a wine.
"I think if you get it right with your vineyard management, clone selection and irrigation, these are the three main factors which help produce better Merlot in our region. But in all honesty, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are doing much better here - their sweeter tannins and naturally ripe pluminess make them, for me, more successful here in South Africa."
Conversely, among the biggest surprises to come out of the competition were four varietal reds made from Petit Verdot. Although winemakers in Stellenbosch are somewhat reticent with their opinions about this variety, one believing it to be "only a minor player from Bordeaux", the glorious fruit, tight sweet tannins and delicious concentration from these wines really impressed. It could be that Anura Vineyards, Franschhoek Vineyards, Zorgvliet Wines and Du Preez Estate have stumbled upon something that might prove very special for South Africa in the long term.
These days, it's the cooler regions within the country that are having the most success with Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, and the sheer quality and mind-boggling diversity of terroir evident in some of the MIWA entrants this year really stood out. Producers are constantly seeking out land at higher altitude towards the southernmost tip of Africa in a continuing search for cooler meso-climates, with the aim of retaining "fruit predominance" in their wines in the face of global warming.
The area's best Chenins and Sauvignons are now displaying a complex, mineral/saline elegance of the sort commonly found in fine manzanilla sherry. "We [at Kleine Zalze] are very terroir conscious with our wines," says Joubert. "We use grapes grown in various locations, in different soils and vineyard orientations to make wines to suit a variety of international and home markets. We are particularly proud of our white Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc variety vineyards, which lie close to the sea and enjoy the benefits this has to offer. The exposure of the grapes to the sea air gives them typically fresh green fig, asparagus and green pea characteristics on the nose, and the sandy Westleigh sea soils advance the palate of the wine and leave a salty, earthy, long mineral finish."
It has been said that South Africa - in terms of wine - has put one foot in the New World, while keeping the other foot firmly in the Old World. Other regions in both these camps would be extremely wise to keep a careful watch over their shoulder for the new wave of skilful terroir/quality-driven producers of the Cape.
Judging regularly at wine competitions around the globe, Geoff Adams is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and author of Greek Wine, A Comprehensive Guide ?
=== Michelangelo Awards 2007: Double Gold medal winners ===
- Bellevue Estate, Morkel Pinotage 2005
- Bon Courage Estate, Red Muscadel 2002
- Dasbosch Wine Cellar, Nectar de Provision Colombar 2006
- DGB, Bellingham The Maverick Syrah 2005
- Durbanville Hills, Caapmans Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2003
- Finlayson Family Wines, Edgebaston Shiraz 2004
- Groot Eiland Wine Cellar, Pinotage 2006
- Hartenberg Estate, The Stork Shiraz 2003
- Kleine Zalze, Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc Barrel Fermented 2006
- Kloovenburg Vineyards, Shiraz 2005
- KWV, Muskadel Jerepiko 1953
- KWV 20 Year Old Brandy
- Longridge Winery, Merlot 2004
- Lourensford, Semillon NLH 2005
- Nederburg Wines, Private Bin Edelkeur 2005
- Nederburg Wines, Eminence 2003
- Nitida, Semillon 2006
- Nuy Wynkelder, Rooi Muskadel 1998
- Raka, Biography Shiraz 2004
- Rijk's Private Cellar, Pinotage 2003
- Rijk's Private Cellar, Bravado Red Blend 2002
- Southern Cape Vineyards, Barry Nephews Potstill Brandy 2003
- Stellenbosch Hills, Sauvignon Blanc 2007
- Stellenzicht, Cellarmaster Release Pinotage 2005
- Swartland Winery, Indalo Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
- Uva Mira, Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2007
- Waterford Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
- Wellington Koorperatiewe Wynkelder, Wellington Shiraz Reserve 2003;
- Wellington Koorperatiewe Wynkelder, Wellington Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
- Zorgvliet Wines, Sauvignon Blanc 2007