What is a Cape blend?
Winemakers around South Africa have been experimenting and debating that question for at least ten years. It makes sense that there should be such a thing, given the time-honoured French tradition that regions should define themselves by producing a distinctive and recognisable blend. For example, Bordeaux and the Rhône have made a huge impact in this way.
In our favour, we have a unique grape in the form of Pinotage. This is the “Proudly South African” varietal, a crossing produced in 1925 by Abraham Perold, Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. The intention behind this experiment was to overcome the difficulty of growing Pinot Noir by adding the hardy genes of Cinsaut, at the same time adding the refined character of Pinot Noir to the more rustic Cinsaut. The result has been successful and Pinotage is now widely planted throughout the Cape.
Because Pinotage is our “signature” varietal and is hardly grown in the rest of the world, it makes a logical starting point for a distinctively South African style of red blend. Most winemakers agree that Pinotage is an essential component in a Cape blend, although there is a minority opinion that Shiraz-driven blends can qualify as Cape blends, whether or not they contain Pinotage.
This exemplifies the greatest problem with establishing and selling the idea of Cape blends. There is still wide and sometimes bitter disagreement about what a Cape blend is. Although there is broad consensus that Pinotage ought to be involved, opinions differ on the extent to which it should dominate the blend and whether there should be a minimum percentage.
For example, Seymour Pritchard of Clos Malverne was one of the first winemakers to market the concept of Cape blends assiduously. He began with a blend that was 40% Pinotage but soon reduced the percentage to 25% of a Cabernet-driven mix. He asserts that 25% is the perfect proportion of Pinotage in a Cape blend. By contrast, Danie Steytler of Kaapzicht feels that a wine should contain at least 30-40% Pinotage for it to be called a Cape blend, and that the Pinotage component should be the defining element in its character. His trophy-winning Vision is a Cape blend with 35% Pinotage. Others go still further ‚ Beyerskloof Synergy contains 62% Pinotage.
Although there are no hard rules, the most common components in Cape blends, besides Pinotage, are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. As with Bordeaux blends, the aim is to produce a many-layered, full-bodied, serious wine with ageing potential. However, the Pinotage component makes most Cape blends fruitier and more accessible than the heavier Bordeaux blends. Often they also do not age as well as Bordeaux blends, though that varies between individual wines.
Clearly, Cape wine producers have yet to settle on a defining style of red blend. Unlike Bordeaux or the Rhône, there is no traditional consensus on what the local red blend should include. Even the term “Cape blend” is controversial. Lately, fewer winemakers are displaying it on the label. John Platter’s wine guide avoids the term, referring to the category as “Red blends, with pinotage” instead.
This is one of those rare cases where we, as wine drinkers, get to decide what we think the ideal blend should be made of and what it ought to taste like. So go buy a few different bottles of South African Red Blends, try them out, and let us know what you think should constitiute a Cape Blend.
PS: Check out my blog at www.wildfrankwine.com for wine reviews and more of my thoughts about wine issues.
I am a wine lover and a writer, and this blog is my way of combining the two. As far as writing goes, I have been doing it since I learned how, and I’m currently freelancing as a journalist, editor and technical writer. I write a monthly column for winemag.co.za. My wine knowledge comes from tasting wines more or less non-stop for 20 years, as well as studying at the Cape Wine Academy, where I’m currently studying for a diploma. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, in a flat at the foot of Lion’s Head, surrounded by books and wine.