The diversity of South African wine has come a long way over the past few decades. You may remember the 1970s and 1980s, when our wine market was dominated by co-operatives and a handful of well-known estates like Nederburg, Delheim and Kanonkop. The 1990s brought a flowering of smaller estates and new producers driven by the inflow of investment from overseas as our international isolation came to an end. The past decade has seen spectacular growth. The number of wine producers has doubled, and over 6000 wines were reviewed for the latest edition of Platter’s Wine Guide.
With all this growth there has also been increasing diversity in terms of the cultivars grown in South Africa. Until the late 1990s we could choose from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinotage, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc (“Steen”), Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, plus perhaps a few little-grown varietals here and there – almost all of them classic French cultivars. The so-called Mediterranean varietals such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese were extremely rare or completely unrepresented. It was through the experimentation of winemakers at Fairview and Raka, among others, that we were introduced to these wines.
This is rather strange, since the climate in the Cape winelands is closer to that of Spain and Italy than that of France. One would think that our Mediterranean climate would encourage a focus on Mediterranean varietals. But since it was the French who brought most of our vines to the Cape, our choice of cultivars was based on the French pattern.
Patterns can change, though, and there has been a burst of interest in the Mediterranean cultivars in the past few years. Many estates have planted Italian, Spanish and Portuguese grapes and these are now bearing fruit in the form of an ever-increasing variety of Sangioveses, Nebbiolos, Tinta Baroccas, Barberas and Languedoc-style blends. As one might expect, the Mediterranean varietals do well here and some of these wines are delightful.
Good examples to look out for include Fairview Carignan, Hidden Valley Barbera, De Krans Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barocca, Raka Mourvèdre, Steenberg Nebbiolo, Anura Sangiovese, Mischa Roussanne and Beaumont Mourvèdre.
The wines made from these Mediterranean cultivars tend to be lighter-bodied than the familiar Cabernet and Bordeaux style, and they generally have less ageing potential. They’re good for drinking young, with a meal or during the day. They make a great accompaniment to Mediterranean food, from Provençale cuisine to Moroccan dishes or traditional Italian pastas. They tend to stand up to spicy food better than fruitier wines such as Pinotage. Now that spring is just around the bend, it’s not a bad idea to stock up on them.
Of course we’ll never abandon the time-honoured classic French cultivars in favour of their Mediterranean counterparts, but the number and range of Mediterranean-style wines available on the South African market is growing dramatically and this can only be for the good. As Zelma Long of Vilafonté said when describing the position of our wine industry: “Wait another 15 years. Yesterday was promising; today is rich indeed; tomorrow can be spectacular, as long as quality is pursued and is the foundation of the South African wine industry.”
I’ll drink to that!
PS: You can read more about wine in general and SA wine in particular on my blog at www.wildfrankwine.com.
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.