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A look at the wines of South Africa.

A look at the wines of South Africa.I have to admit that my wine palate is so often bias towards the southern hemisphere, I could probably qualify for a call up from the Springboks, Wallabies or All Blacks rugby teams. (Okay, in my dreams, although I’m certainly heavy enough!) But I've always had a soft spot for South Africa. Partly, because I'm eager for the country to move beyond its tortured history, and the memorable Rugby World Cup victories in 1995 and 2007 were a great catalyst. I also lean towards South Africa because of what I can taste in some Cape wines - a depth of character that makes them more than just standard-issue, sun-splashed, friendly-labelled new world bottles. And a flourishing and respected wine industry would be a potent symbol of the new, more civilized, post-apartheid era.

Surrounded by two vast oceans, with a felicitous Mediterranean-style climate and a rich array of soils and microclimates, South Africa has enormous winemaking potential. Despite all this, no South African wine has ever profoundly impressed me. I've yet to experience that one orgasmic-like

moment. And I had started to wonder if it would ever happen. But I do believe I’ve detected the whiff of satisfaction, in the form of the aromas emitting from some dynamic wines made by new generation winemakers, who look poised to deliver on South Africa's seductive promise. Not to say that South Africa hasn't already turned out its share of commendable wines. Its winemaking tradition dates back to the 1600s. Indeed at one time, a South African dessert wine called Constantia (now Vin de Constance) was among the world's most prized. Napoleon had cases of it shipped to the island of St. Helena, where he was in exile. No doubt, to sip whilst gazing upon the Mona Lisa, which hung on his bedroom wall!

More recently, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a winery in Walker Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean, has produced impressive Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In the Stellenbosch region, South Africa's answer to Napa Valley (complete with swanky hotels, fancy boutiques and hordes of free-spending, perpetually-buzzed Asian wine tourists), De Toren makes first-rate Bordeaux blends. Rudi Schultz creates fine Rhône-style Syrahs, and Raats Family Wines (granted, not the most auspicious of names) offers something hard to find in the new world - a good Cabernet Franc. Then there is Chenin Blanc, which many people believe was one of the original grape varieties introduced to South Africa. Certainly, it's the country's most widely planted grape variety, with an abundance of old vineyards.

And of all the South African white wines I've tasted over the years, the Chenins have most impressed. The finest are richly textured white wines that, with their brisk acidity and slight tropical character, seem like a perfect marriage of old world and new.

Of course, Pinotage is South Africa's signature red grape variety. It’s grown almost exclusively there, making everything from low-quality table wines to complex, concentrated wines with flavours of black and red fruits, spice, leather and chocolate. Although many (less conventional) wine buffs laud the merits of, the often gorgeous, Pinotage, it has suffered from a bad reputation for much of its short life, possibly because it's an acquired taste. But determined South African producers are currently seeking to reverse this trend with some thoughtful winemaking. Pinotage, a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, was first developed by scientist Abraham Perold, in 1925. The few seeds yielded were planted in his garden, and consequently forgotten. Some years later, another researcher found the vines, grafted them onto disease-resistant rootstocks, and the first commercial plantings were finally made in the 1940s.

The heart of South Africa’s fine-wine area is just east of Cape Town, and traditionally around the wine towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl. These ‘Cape’ regions are home to most of the countries famous wine estates, several of its best and most successful cooperatives, and its three biggest wine companies. And Paarl has long history as a centre for sherry and fortified wines. For most of the last century, South African sherry and port-style wines had been the best imitations of the Spanish originals, to most people virtually indistinguishable. However today, the demand for table-style wines is so great, that more and more Chardonnay, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc are being planted in the fertile Paarl vineyards. And in a marked contrast to a generation ago, contemporary innovative South African winemakers have roamed the world in search of inspiration and technique. Steadily, the quality of the wines has been rising.

Nevertheless, South African wine producers must still look longingly at the sales figures of Australia. And the column inches devoted to New Zealand and South America. The prevailing sentiment in the Cape is that their own wines, however deserved, have yet to truly make their mark internationally. They have not been helped by seesawing exchange rates, and other region’s geographical free trade agreements, to which they are not party.

Another factor is South Africa's shortage of well-known brands to do the footwork of, say, Yellow Tail and Jacob's Creek for Australia, and Montana for New Zealand. Kumala is the biggest South African wine brand, in the biggest export market, the UK, but has the disadvantage of not actually being South African. Indeed, Kumala is quite difficult to find in the country for which it was designed as a spearhead. It was conceived in Shropshire, England. And now, having been British owned, Kumala has suffered the indignity of falling, almost accidentally, into American hands through a series of takeovers.

Coincidentally, another American wine giant, Gallo, has recently been sniffing around the Cape wines, and is set to launch their Sebeka range, in conjunction with one of South Africa's still important co-ops, Swartland. (Although it's unlikely that this rediscovered region would feature heavily on the label.)

Here in Thailand, the South African brand Goiya is readily available and reasonably priced. The Shiraz Pinotage is a good example of South African wine style. It’s a unique masculine red, with plenty of dark fruits and tannins. And if this wine were to play rugby, it would be a menacing prop-forward, in a Springbok shirt!


Peter James


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