May and June saw me mad busy studying for my final WSET exam. To take time off, I popped in to a couple of tastings of South African wines. It was time well spent. We tend to associate South Africa with inexpensive supermarket gluggers but how far that is from the full truth!
First of all, there’s a lot of winemaking history here. Did you know about Constantia, for instance? One of the most prestigious dessert wines ever, with a spectacular history going back to the 17th century. Hardly known today but it’s on its way back. More about Constantia later.
The two flagship wines of South Africa are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. As most New World countries, South Africa also mainly produces varietal wines but this is of course a blanket statement and may not at all be true for certain producers or regions. Winemaking tendencies are changing, which means more restrained use of oak and allowing more room for vineyard expression, for example. But let’s look at the specifics.
One of the amazing things I learnt about Chenin Blanc is how multi-faceted this grape can be. Anything from light, fruity, easy-drinking refreshment to heavily oaked, aged, complex and rich. The styles are so varied no generalization can be made really. And even the most brilliant cost peanuts compared to Burgundy, although some of them easily compete with a rich and mature Chardonnay.
Rudera de Tradisie CB 2010
A fruit-driven example with sweet-and-sour freshness. Caramellized fruit, oak restrained, well-integrated alcohol. Great acidity and lots of flintiness, which I like. The wine rolls along your tongue as you enjoy a burst of apricot flavours. £16
Jean Daneel Signature CB 2003
One of my favourites at this tasting. First time round I found it way too oaky but as it aired it opened into something much more and the oak withdrew into the background. The wine shows much lees influence but this is well balanced by intense honeyed fruit and flinty minerality, plus fantastic acidity. This vintage is not available any longer so you’ll have to buy the 2011/2012 and wait a few years. £19-20
Beaumont Hope Marguerite CB 2012
A delightful, youthful, fresh wine, and the first in the tasting that I could easily identify as Chenin. Citrusy, green apple aromas on the nose, some oak and some sweet candy touch. The palate has more honeyed, apricot flavours and lovely acidity, paired with a lean body and medium alcohol – only 12.6%, very unusual for these warm-climate wines. £16-18
Pinotage is a modern grape. It was created in the 1920s in Stellenbosch by crossing the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut varieties. I guess the idea was to produce a hardy grape that would perform well (meaning high crops) in the warm South African vineyards. As we found out from Greg Sherwood MW, who introduced the wines to us, bush vines are not uncommon among the better producers, and some of them very old as well (meaning the vines, not the producers). Bush training is typically used in hot, dry areas where the grapes need protection from the heat of the sun. It’s a low-vigour training system, i.e. not very economical compared to other, higher-vigour systems, but with a high-yielding grape variety this may actually be good news for quality.
But to come back to the grape. Pinotage has a rather unseemly reputation for a pungent paint / solvent smell, but properly vinified examples do not display the unattractive aroma and can be rich, intense, interesting – and ageworthy. The wines listed below come from some of the top producers of Pinotage.
Kanonkop Pinotage 1999
A fruity and youthful wine, especially considering its age. The grapes came from bush-trained, 55-year-old vines. The fruit is a touch too jammy for my taste but some interesting leathery, smokey notes counterbalance the stewiness.
Simonsig Pinotage 2003
A wine of 14.8% ABV but well made enough for the alcohol not to show. Restrained with a smooth, soft palate. Coffee, smoke and red fruit dominate. Likeable.
Sumaridge Epitome 2009
A roughly 50-50 blend of Shiraz and Pinotage. A chewy, tannic wine with a savoury character. Coffee, mint, toast, and black cherrries. Loved this one.
Aaaaand the bonus: a 1966 Lanzerac Pinotage!
Light garnet, with quite a bit of sediment – understandably. It’s been sitting in that bottle for 48 years! Oxidized, medicinal nose, smokey. Lean body and acidity that is still great. Not much fruit to find here, but you get a strong herbal character and savoury mushroom notes instead. It surprises with an incredibly powerful, smoky (smoked ham, to be precise) finish.