Sunday, February 6, 2011

SOUTH AFRICA in a DAY; Literally

White wine dominated South Africa seems to be represented on our retailers shelves more than ever before.  Tall green bottles of Steen (Chenin Blanc) and Sauvignon Blanc, WO white banderole topped bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage (Pinot Noir and Cinsault cross) seem to be popping up everywhere.  With just weeks to prepare for the upcoming Wine Educators exam,  I thought that I would read everything that I could about the wines of the Southernmost tip of a very old continent in just one day. Not surprisingly, I read early on that Wines of SA, a national trade organization, reported that sales to the U.S. have increased five fold in just the last 10 years!

With winemaking traditions going back more than 350 years, South Africa is defined by five main Regions in the Southwest, divided into 21 Districts, which are compartmentalized by 64 smaller Wards. Important Coastal Region districts of Swartland and Darling lie to the North, Paarl to the East, Stellenbosch and Constantia to the South, surrounding Cape Town. Most of the countries quality wines are produced here. Circling further North are the Olifant's River Region, the Breen River Valley and the Klein Karoo, and their inland districts which are dominated by bulk, sweet and fortified wines. Cape South Region, with it's cool growing districts, is today notable for Overberg, where crisp Sauvignon Blanc is leading the way, and Walker Bay's,  Hemel-en-Aarde,  a promising ward for Pinot Noir.

Since the dawn of the 20th century, South Africa has been dominated by cooperatives, as it remains today.  Surprisingly,  there are more producers today than 20 years ago, but more than three times as many cellars that crush grapes.  There were lots of co-op's, dominated by the KWV, now there are wine producing estates and privatized cooperatives(thank you for the correction, Mr. May!). Wholesalers too have grown, with four times as many as there were in 1991.  Vineyard acreage in South Africa has grown by almost 30% in the last decade following the repeal of apartheid, and with the growth of export markets.  And, this old world producer with a foot firmly planted in the contemporary world is exporting today more than 400 million litres of quality wine, four times greater than it did in just 1996!
 Tastings of South Africa:
  • Although a cooler climate than its latitude might suggest due to the cold Benguela Current, the industry has survived persistent vine threats, including the seasonal gale force winds know as the Cape Doctor. Irrigation is necessary in most Regions(particularly inland), and growers also battle fruit eating birds and even baboons!
  • Certified Wines of Origin(WO) have an absolute guarantee that the wine has been evaluated, what is claimed on the bottle is true, and contains 100% of stated cultivar & a minimum 85% of vintage.

  • Once the prized wine of 18th century kings and emperors, traditional Vin de Constance, typically from Muscat of Frontignan grapes, is a sweet dessert wine, and is still produces today south of Cape Town at several wine estates.

  • Cap Classique, traditional method sparkling wines, continue to be produced, typically from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc grapes.
 As impressive as the contemporary South Africa wine industry has become over the last generation, I am very impressed that I was able to gather, digest and report all of this in just one day!  A glass of Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc, please! Perhaps it will be  a quality offering  from the estate of Saxenburg, or going further inland, Boschendal of Paarl.  With tonight's Big Game dinner, maybe we'll search out a glorious red blend from Stellenbosch's Chateau Libertas or one from Kanonkop.  Then there's a terrific Cabernet Sauvignon from Paarl's Nederburg. With so many choices on my wine retailers shelves, it may be hard to choose, but I am guaranteed of it's South African quality.


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