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A small sampling of South African wines

A small sampling of South African wines

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-06-08

How about getting together for a "South African" wine-tasting evening? Along with a barbecue, a lamb tagine or a chicken curry we can sample some of what South Africa does best by tasting its Solar wines, with their extraordinary texture and freshness.

In the 1990s, after Nelson Mandela was freed, the South African wine industry began to wake up from a long period of inertia. Rather than follow the hyper-technical Australian model, South African vintners travelled widely and looked closely at what was being done elsewhere, especially in France. They brought back the idea of ‘terroir’ - that untranslatable French word that refers to environments, methods and grapes. Then they divided their best wine-growing zones into ‘wards’ according to soil, climate and traditional agricultural practices.
The world’s most beautiful vineyards
Anyone who has been to South Africa at least once in their life has most likely been stunned by the beauty of the vineyard landscapes of the Cape and Stellenbosch, where two hundred-year-old white colonial villas are now neighbours to the most futuristic of wineries.
Concentrated in the south-west quarter of the country, halfway between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, most of the grapes prosper under a Mediterranean-type climate which favours varieties which originate in the Rhone Valley, such as Syrah (Shiraz), Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier. The wines made from these grapes have an impressively velvety texture and an oceanic freshness. Quite diverse, some South African vineyards have also been planted with more northerly grapes, including Chenin, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, but in our opinion the results are not yet convincing.
Constantia: a legendary wine
Although ‘New World’ vineyards generally designate those of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, California, Argentina and Chile, wine grapes have been cultivated in South Africa since the 17C. When Dutch colonists set up a trading station of the Dutch East India Company in the Cape in 1652, they planted the first European vines in the shelter of Table Mountain, famous for its magnificent bluish sandstone and granite cliffs rising above fertile prairies. Assisted by French Huguenots in exile and their precious savoir-faire, they produced a fabulous dessert wine served in all of the courts of Europe: Constantia, Le Vin de Constance, as famous in the 18C as the finest French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokajis. According to the Comte de Las Cases, Napoleon’s secretary and wine supplier, this ambrosia was one of the last pleasures the jailers of St. Helena allowed their famous prisoner.
With the British occupation of the Cape, Constantia wine was subject to the capriciousness of British commerce before being ravaged by phylloxera. A century would go by before this historic vintage could begin to reclaim its original prestige. In the 1980s the grape variety called ‘Muscat à petits grains de Frontignan,’ locally called Muskadel, was judiciously planted on the estate in place of the Muscat of Alexandria. Dried (passerillé) on the vine and harvested late in the season, Muskadel gives an excellent amber-coloured sweet wine, with aromas of candied fruit and hints of pine, orange, spice and dried rose. Yet today, the rare Vin de Constance fascinates enthusiasts - if only for the shape of the bottle, unchanged since the 17th century.
Our recommendation: serve with orange tart or bitter chocolate cake.
Eben Sadie, South Africa’s outstanding wine-maker
I discovered this exceptional wine-maker thanks to the venerable Parisian wine shop Les Caves Legrand on Rue de la Banque (founded in 1880 and which is worth a detour next time you are in Paris, if only for the lovely, timeless facade). I asked Kristeven M’Boungou, their knowledgeable and charming New World wine specialist, which South African wines I should try first. ‘Eden Sadie’s vintages!’ was her unequivocal answer.
A colourful character who is the only South African vintner to practice biodynamic farming methods, Sadie has earned himself an international reputation by producing excellent boutique wines in the very arid plains of Swartland, 50 km north of the Cape. His most exciting white is an assemblage of different French grapes: Viognier (40%), Chenin (20%), Chardonnay (20%) and white Grenache (20%). This ‘fruit salad’ may seem a bit peculiar at first glance, but the result has an unquestionable identity and integrity. The wine is powerful and sensual, with aromas of peach and white flowers and a smooth, rich texture balanced by a healthy level of acidity.
Our recommendation: to bring out the best of this wine, do not hesitate to serve it with robust, flavourful dishes such as lobster salad, spaghetti à la boutargue (‘Mediterranean caviar,’ or dried mullet roe) or even a spicy paella.
As for reds, Eben Sadie’s speciality is wine made from Rhone Valley grapes, as he knows the region quite well. His Columella wine, a blend of Syrah (85%) and Mourvèdre (15%) vinified over a period of 24 months in new casks, is brilliant - it bears comparison with the greatest French Côtes-Rôties! With its complex nose of leather, tobacco, olive and blackcurrant and intense palate, gourmand and fresh, this is a very pure, sleek wine with integrity and just the right touch of woodiness.
Our recommendation: serve with a rib steak of Boeuf de Coutancie (raised in south-west France), or with African game marinated in oil and lemon: ostrich, kudu, impala or nyala antelope!
Pinotage: the great South African grape
Pinotage is a South African Pinot Noir-Cinsault hybrid obtained in 1925. Very disease-resistant, Pinotage grapes were first used in high-yield premium wines, but they have a distinctive personality and can also be used to make excellent vintages if crops are strictly controlled and harvests take place early enough to forestall excessive levels of alcohol.
In the region of Stellenbosch, renowned for its Bordeaux-like reds, the Warwick Estate winery, founded in 1902 by Anglo-Boer War hero Colonel William Alexander Gordon, bottles a fine Pinotage aged in French barrels. On the nose, there are surprising aromas of bananas, liquorice and red berries; on the palate, the wine appeals through its balanced feel and silky tannins. 
Our recommendation: this is a unique vin de plaisir to enjoy simply in summer, with lightly seared grilled meat and a fine tomato salad.
South Africa meets Bordeaux
The other interesting wine I recommend is Anwilka, especially the 2005 and 2007 vintages which are particularly fresh and have plenty of finesse. This wine results from the improbable encounter between two famous vintners from Bordeaux, Hubert de Bouard (from Château l’Angélus in St. Emilion) and Bruno Prats (from Château Cos d’Estournel in St. Estèphe), and Lowel Jooste, the owner of the prestigious Klein Constantia Winery; Jooste played a starring role in giving Constantia a new lease of life.
A few years ago, these three passionate winemakers created a 42-hectare South African vineyard located on the eastern side of Table Mountain and kissed by the maritime breezes of False Bay. Entirely dedicated to red wines, it applies the savoir-faire of Bordeaux to one of the most complex wine-growing environments of South Africa, resulting in wine with a surprising balance of energy and finesse. Anwilka is made from a combination of Syrah (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (46%) and Petit Verdot (4%). Singular though it may seem, this blend was already used in the 19C by Louis d’Estournel in St. Estèphe!  
The 2005 vintage is a lovely dark vermilion colour with inky highlights. The discreet bouquet is reminiscent of crushed blackberry. On the palate, the wine pleases through its elegance, supple tannins, fruit and freshness. It is even better when decanted 24 hours before serving. World-famous wine critic Robert Parker said of Anwilka that it was the finest red wine he had ever had from South Africa, which naturally gave international sales a great boost. In any case, this wine is excellent value for money.
Our recommendation: try it with a tuna steak lightly sautéed with citrus fruit and lemongrass; or ‘Dutch-style’ brochettes cooked with bell pepper, ham and bananas.
To discover the best South African wines, the most accessible and reliable source is your friendly neighbourhood wine merchant. One such is Handford Wines in London; they carry a good selection of South African vintages.
Handford Wines
105 Old Brompton Road,
London SW7 3LE
Tel 020 7589 6113
The internet is also an endless source of information. Here are few of our finds:
Wines of South Africa are a not-for-profit organisation which provides information about the different wine-making regions, history, maps, etc.
Rainbow Nation gives a list of shops and websites in the UK carrying South African products. www.rainbownation.com/uk/shops/
S.A. Wines Online specializes in just that: South African wines.
Stone, Vine & Sun Wine Merchants do their best to buy wine from small-scale producers. They carry a small selection of South African wines.
www.fideliswines.com/ is the Anwilka Vineyard portal.

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