Cape of Good Wines
A feast of South Africa’s finest
By Angela Sanchez
South Africa is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, full of dichotomies, and singular in the world of wine. Whenever I mention its wines to people I get two types of responses — either they are excited to talk about South Africa and already love the wines; or they look confused and have no point of reference for either. But South Africa is near to my heart, and the wines are a great way to talk about the place, its people, its beauty and its history.
The Dutch brought vines to the Cape of South Africa in 1655, making it the oldest New World wine-growing region (North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa making up the New World). It’s a long history but not always a great one.
During apartheid, the country was shut off from exchanging ideas, vines and modern innovations with other wine-producing countries. During that time, not only did South African vintners and growers miss out on a time of intense modernization and progress in the industry, many of their vines were diseased. Unable to bring in new, healthy vines to graft from or plant they often produced wines from diseased vines, resulting in inferior quality and taste.
Once apartheid ended, producers were able to travel, host and network with other vintners and producers around the world to replant their vines and modernize their facilities and winemaking techniques. It brought them not only into the modern age but also, in many ways, into a leadership role in the industry. Today South African growers and vintners partner with the government to ensure that not only are the wines and vineyards managed properly, fitting designated quality standards, they ensure that workers in the vineyards and wineries are treated fairly, with equal pay and protection. It’s a higher ethical standard than any other wine-producing country.
People are often shocked to find out that the Cape growing region has almost 550 active wineries. Of those, about 200 are registered to produce estate bottled wines, meaning the winery will be producing wines that come solely from their own vineyards — nothing will be purchased from other producers for those bottlings marked “estate.” A much smaller percentage, closer to about 50 wineries, actually produce wine that is truly estate bottled.
This is not to say that only a handful of wineries are producing good, or even great, bottles of wine. Many wineries and co-ops in the Cape are today producing some of the best values in the wine world. Chenin blanc, or “steen” in the Cape, is the most widely planted white grape varietal, and cabernet sauvignon is the most highly planted red. If you’re looking for fresh, easy-drinking styles that retail under $15-20 a bottle, seek these out.
For something truly unique, try a bottle of pinotage. It is a hybrid cross of pinot noir and cinsault created in South Africa, and can be a wonderful representation of place — earthy, smoky and jammy. Spice route pinotage is a generous style of this varietal. Dry farmed (without irrigation) in an arid and tough terrain from old vines, it produces a wine with briar fruit and dusty, peppery notes.
Each Cape growing region, or ward, is vastly different, one to the other. Drastic changes in elevation and topography make the wines and their characteristics as diverse as the regions themselves. One of the largest and best-known growing regions is Stellenbosch. The wines of this “district” are marked by the wide diversity of styles, driven by the different of types of soil, ranging from sandstone to granite. Two of my favorite producers for quality and value in the region are Neil Ellis and Man Vintners. Neil Ellis Stellenbosch Cabernet and Man Coastal Chenin Blanc are two great examples of amazing wines, showing distinct characteristics true to Stellenbosch while balancing a world-class line of quality between old and new world.
Another one of my favorite growing areas is Walker Bay, located in the Cape Overbay Region. Running along the “whale coast,” where the Southern right whale comes to mate, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful region. With a higher elevation and cooler climate than Stellenbosch, Walker Bay produces world-class chardonnay and pinot noir, especially from the area of Hemel-en-Aarde, meaning Heaven and Earth in Afrikaans. There are a few small estate producers in this highly distinctive region that are unlike any others in the Cape or the world. Cool Atlantic breezes and a fog that lingers over the vineyards keep the heat away, and the moisture around the vines helps produce the beautiful grapes that become such remarkable wines like those of Hamilton Russell Vineyards.
There are more growing regions in the Cape than I can possibly mention here. It’s home to species of flora and fauna that are not found anywhere else in the world, some of the oldest soils on the planet, and people determined to treat their land and people with respect, making it a dynamic place for growing grapes and producing wines — truly the best (blend) of Old and New World styles.
Welcome South African wines into your life and enjoy the diversity. PS
Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.
Photograph by John Koob Gessner