Malu Lambert: SA Riesling – is it going anywhere?

By , 1 December 2023



What is white, aromatic and has a characteristically high acidity? Likely, you would have answered sauvignon blanc, South Africa’s most popular white wine by a country mile. Riesling not being the obvious answer is no surprise, the one dominates the national vineyard, the other is dwindling. (Sauvignon growing from 9 482ha in 2012 to 9 987 in 2022 and Riesling dropping from 183ha to 119ha over the same time period).

Anecdotally, the late wine legend Duimpie Bailey was reported to have said that the ‘most suitable sites for Riesling in SA are planted to sauvignon blanc’. Given that Riesling is typically associated with cool-climate growing conditions, one can presume what he meant was areas such as Elgin, Constantia and parts of Durbanville, all three dominated by sauvignon blanc. In total there are 119ha of riesling in SA with the majority rooted in the Cape South Coast 35ha (Elgin alone has 26ha). Compare this to Sauvignon Blanc plantings at 9 987ha at the end of 2022…

Perhaps part of this lacklustre appetite for plantings is that it was a victim of mistaken identity, as the inferior crouchen blanc. According to Kristina Beuthner’s Cape Wine Master dissertation The future of Riesling in South Africa, it was in the 1950s that Professor Orffer identified that there were two grapes involved, though it was only in the 1980s some of the plantings were unmasked as ‘crouchen blanc’. The confusion Beuthner writes possibly occurred in the Van Riebeek and Van der Stel eras, around 1656 when ‘Cape riesling’ was brought to South Africa and cultivated as groenblaarsteen (green leaf steen), while true riesling is thought to have been planted here since 1664.

Regardless, the first recording of ‘Rhine riesling’ being made was in 1978, ‘as a young trendy wine, off-dry’, details Beuthner. It was powerhouse Nederburg that planted riesling at Paul Cluver (Elgin), and she says then a percentage of botrytis was encouraged ‘for more mouthfeel and better quality’.

Since then, a purported lack of commercial interest has seen riesling become more, and more rarified. So, I jumped at the chance to taste some of the Cape’s finest examples with our Deep South tasting group, a collective of wine personalities that all call the Cape Peninsula home. The tasting was put together by CWM Harry Melck and winemaker Trizanne Barnard of Trizanne Signature Wines.

At Barnard’s beautiful, beachy home in Kommetjie we set out our glasses and gathered around a long table on her deck. To benchmark we kicked off with a flight featuring three international wines from regions arguably doing the grape the most justice: Trimbach 2020 (Alsace, France), Clemenbusch 2020 (Mosel, Germany), and Martin Muthenthaler 2013 (Austria, Wachau). The wines demonstrated stunning complexity and variety of styles, which spanned the spectrum from mineral to floral (jasmine in the Clemenbusch) and gingery spice.

We also tasted the Moya Meaker 2022, a label of Damascene in Elgin, from a vineyard planted on Bokkeveld shale. This presented lighter than the international counterparts with flint, lime and green apple freshness.

“I don’t think there’s a golden thread of style for South African riesling,” admits its winemaker, Jean Smit. “I come away from tastings of the grape even more confused. There are of course stand outs, such as Koen Roose’s Spioenkop.”  (Also in Elgin.)

“What I look out for is the kerosene quality, a lot of producers link that aromatic to quality. I think that’s completely to the contrary. Those flavours can come with time, but shouldn’t be in a younger wine.”

The key to the freshness in his wine, says Smit, is a combination of working with the canopy to allow air-flow as well as the south-west position of the slope, which allows the grapes to ripen before the autumn rains (avoiding disease pressure)

Also not a proponent of the kerosene profile in young wines, Catherine Marshall of the eponymous wine brand terms it that ‘lamp oil’ character. “It’s a smell I like in an old house when you go on holiday, but not in my wine.”

To mitigate this she says they work ‘very cleanly’, and that sorting is paramount in order to get rid of any grapes with sour rot or botrytis, which can cause this aroma to evolve from the grape’s abundant terpenes.

Also integral to the structure of riesling is the acidity. “It can’t be like a limp handshake,” says Marshall.

“You’ve got to get the harmony right. To borrow a term from Boela Gerber – it’s all about getting ‘balagance’, balance and elegance,” she says laughing. Marshall is showing a vertical today of her Elgin riesling (‘17, ‘19, ‘20, ‘21, ‘22 and ‘23).

“With riesling you have to get the pitch just right: texture and tension. You have to follow the rules, and I am not very good at that,” she admits. “I like to do my own thing.”

Marshall came to make riesling by chance. An American company approached her with a proposition, and at first it was a ‘categorical no’. I didn’t believe we could make riesling in this country. It’s an eskimo variety, it needs the cold.”

Intrigued – and a little nervous – she embarked on a year-long tasting of the great rieslings of the world. Through her research she landed on the conclusion that Elgin was the glove that fitted.

“We have slate soils as well as decomposed granite in Elgin, where these grapes are grown.” She calls it Elgin’s ‘left bank’, the side which you’ll also find Paul Cluver and Oak Valley, both estates also making premium examples.

“Along with the soils, I looked at the climate. Of course, it is not the same as say the Mosel, but from a South African paradigm Elgin has cooler temperatures overall. Elevated by roughly 400m above sea-level, the Atlantic Ocean 12 kilometres away carries cold air up and over the mountain and then dumps into the valley. In the afternoon temperatures drop significantly, with very cool nighttime temperatures, which is significant for preserving acidity. Elgin has 500 cold units, which is why apples grow so well.”

Her first bottling was in 2017. She said it sold well in export markets. Now Marshall says she now can’t keep up with the demand. “The world market is looking for these kinds of wines, basically anything that doesn’t taste like sauvignon blanc.”

We were also treated to a Klein Constantia vertical by assistant winemaker, Sebastian Worthington-Fitnum, the ‘87, ‘97, ‘07 and ‘17, which showed the grape’s potential to age gracefully. The remarkable balance, beauty and freshness of the older wines silenced an otherwise very chatty table. Worthington-Fitnum also pointed out how the wines demonstrated the nuances between the different winemakers who have been at the helm at Klein Constantia.

“There are some very exciting pockets in Constantia,” he admits. “There is huge potential for growing high quality fruit. But whether riesling is the best grape to grow in those areas is very much a debate we are having.”

Plantings are currently low, and appropriate sites may be limited – but to answer the question as to where local riesling is going, export demand might just lead to an upsurge.

  • Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert


4 comment(s)

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    Ashley Westaway | 5 December 2023

    The Hartenberg Riesling is not to be overlooked, imo. After 10 years, it sings, vintage after vintage…

    Kwispedoor | 4 December 2023

    It’s ironic that you quote Boela Gerber – he uprooted the vines that arguably made the finest Riesling in the country at the time (Groot Constantia’s) to plant Sauvignon. Sure, the 80’s and 90’s Rieslings from the Constantia valley often had some residual sugar and sometimes botrytis, but they stood the test of time. There’s something special about drinking really old Riesling, but I have my doubts about the ability of today’s (mostly dryer) Rieslings to mature as beneficially for as long.

      Christian Eedes | 4 December 2023

      Hi Kwispedoor, Had a Spioenkop 2012 at the weekend – it wasn’t earth shattering but it certainly hadn’t fallen over. The best producer of the variety in the country, I would suggest.

        Kwispedoor | 4 December 2023

        I had a 2011 Spioenkop that was significantly better than a 2016, Christian. Of course one can’t go on single bottles tasted for a definitive opinion, but it would be fascinating to taste some of the better SA rieslings that was made in the last eight years or so when they are 20-odd years old. The time it takes for wine to reveal its secrets is both frustrating and alluring.

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