Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from heart bypass surgery we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is another from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Thank you Tom!
For some time I have been a big fan and proponent of South African wines. My previous career allowed me an opportunity to visit the country several times and I quickly realized that South Africa produces wines as good as anywhere in the world, at least in terms of the regular consumers’ experience. So maybe there isn’t yet a Chateau Margaux, a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a Penfolds Grange or a Harlan Estate, but there are many high-quality South African wines in what would be the $50 to $200 range for a U.S. or European wine…at a much lower cost.
With South African wines having had little exposure to the American market until recently, it surprises many to learn that wine has been made there since 1659. Vines were brought from Europe and planted by traders from The Dutch West Indies Trading Company for the production of wine for the ships sailing around the Cape of Good Hope on their way along the “spice route.” Eventually some of these Dutch sailors stayed and settled in this trader’s outpost and began expanding the production of grapes and other agriculture. A winemaker from France was hired by the company to begin commercial wine production on a company-owned farm called Rustenberg. We will talk some more about this winery later.
During the same period there was a migration to the area by the French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution at home. They brought additional winemaking skills and experience. The Cape Governor set aside an area called Franschhoek (French corner) for them. It still is one of the premier wine producing areas of the country today.
In the 19th century the territory fell under British rule which boosted the industry with access to the British market, both back home and in the colonies.
The South African wine industry suffered many setbacks in subsequent years, first with a British-French trade treaty that gave England cheaper access to French wines. Then the vineyards were decimated in the phylloxera epidemic (a pest that feeds on the roots of the vine) which affected many of the world’s wine regions in the late 19th century.
In the first half of the 20th century the vineyards were replanted with high yielding varieties and the focus was on quantity rather than quality. Most of the wine production was used for bulk wines and brandy. In the second half, the sanctions on and isolation of the apartheid government further stifled the industry with virtually no export markets available.
But the 1990s saw a huge resurgence in quality and a desire to show the world what South Africa could do. The transformation was dramatic. In 1990 only 30% of grapes were used for wine. The rest was either discarded or used for brandy production and grape juice. By 2003, this ratio had reversed and South Africa was on its way to a great era of progress.
South Africa is best known for two grape varieties. Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape. South African Chenin Blanc wines have been written about internationally since the 18th century. These wines rival those of the Loire Valley (France) and anywhere else they are crafted. Like in the Loire Valley, they are made in a variety of styles from sparkling to crisp, from dry/unoaked to sweet, to oaked versions similar to Chardonnay. Chenin Blanc produces floral, fruity, acidic wines that pair well with many foods.
For better or worse, South Africa’s other signature grape variety is Pinotage. This is a hybrid that was created in 1925 by a South African professor of viticulture by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known then in the area as Hermitage). His goal was to combine the earthy heartiness of Cinsault with the fruit and grace of Pinot Noir. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t make very good wine. I’ve had some Pinotage wines that were better than others and the last one that I tasted indicated that they are refining the style a bit in modern times. It is a dark, briary wine that smells like latex and acetone and sometimes, a certain substance even fouler.
Another notable South African gem is a sweet dessert wine with a great history, called “Vin de Constance.” This is made today by the winery Klein Constantia, a descendent winery of the original Constantia winery, founded in the 17th century. It is made from a grape called Muscat de Frontignan, also known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, one of several natural clones of the Muscat grape. It is one of the most rich, lush and delicious wines I have ever had and until recently was available here in Indiana. It is full of honey, dried fig and apricot and plenty of acid and mineral. It was first made in the late 17th century and in the 18th and 19th centuries was a preferred wine of the Russian Czars, Napoléon and the European aristocracy in general. It has been referenced in classic European literature by the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Baudelaire. It retails in the realm of $90 a bottle, but if you have a chance to try a glass, please do so…you won’t regret it.
Today virtually all the world’s major grape varieties are grown in South Africa and excellent wines are made from them, both varietal bottlings and in blends. Wines made using Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Cinsault, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and many more, are available and at very reasonable prices due to the relative value of the U.S. Dollar there.
For many years U.S. importers would only import the lowest cost wines because South African wine was so little known here. Thus, South African wines developed a reputation here for being cheap, low quality wines. But as the American public’s appreciation for wine and openness to try new things have increased over the past couple of decades, many more higher quality South African wines are now available to us. I, for one, am very glad. But like in California, the very best wines are made in small quantities and as such, don’t travel far from the region or are available only through mailing lists and restaurants. I hope you will have a chance to visit the wineries and tasting rooms yourself to see.
Now back to one of the first wine farms in the 17th century, the Rustenberg Winery. This winery is in the region known today as Stellenbosch, which is one of the major wine regions of the country (others include Paarl, Franschoek, Robertson, Walker Bay and more) and very near to the city of Cape Town. The Rustenberg winery was established in 1692.
Cape Town is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world and its surroundings are as well. It’s quite far from here and not an inexpensive flight, but once you’re there, the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in Europe, making for a very rewarding tourist experience. The wine growing areas are as beautiful or maybe more so than Napa, Tuscany, Burgundy, etc.
Tasting Rustenberg Wines
First up to taste is the Rustenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2015. This wine is a nice clear, light straw color with a floral, grassy, herbal nose with yellow apple, under-ripe pear and some green pepper. It is tart and acidic in the mouth with lemon peel, some slight tangerine and a metallic mineral finish. The wine contains 13.5% alcohol. This is a good quality wine which should retail in the neighborhood of $11.00 to $14.00 a bottle.
Next I tried the Rustenberg John X Merriman 2013. The cuvée name honors John Xavier Merriman, who bought the farm in 1892 to assist the farmers suffering from the phylloxera crisis. He played a major role in revitalizing the winery following the epidemic. This wine is a Bordeaux blend (meaning that some or all of the five Bordeaux grapes are used – in this case it is all five of them) comprised of 52% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. The predominance and volume of either Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon varies from year to year based on which of the two has a better outcome in a given year’s harvest. For example the 2011, another vintage that I have had, is based on 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Merlot. The other three grapes are also in the 2011 but are not always used in other vintages.
This wine has a bright ruby/black cherry color. It has a full, rich nose of stewed plum, black cherry, cigar wrapper and moist earth/moss. It is full bodied, slightly smoky with firm but balanced tannins, black fruit and a long, slightly astringent, mineral finish. The astringency mellows after being open for 20 to 30 minutes and it becomes a smooth, soft drinkable wine. It is listed at 14.5% alcohol and retails for between $22.00 and $30.00 a bottle according to winesearcher.com.
Thanks for taking time to read this. I hope your interest is piqued to go out and try some of the many delicious wines of South Africa. Ask your favorite wine retailer – hopefully they will have some in stock, but if not, with enough demand, they will surely supply them! They are also available through many out-of-state retailers online.
Thanks again to Carl for the opportunity to participate in his blog. I know he’s doing well and I know you join me in wishing him a full and quick recovery!
Calendar of Upcoming Events:
September 15 – International Grenache Day (3rd Friday in September)