South Africa’s ongoing Wine Revolution

The moon rises over the Swartland's vineyards.

When South Africa emerged from nearly half a century of apartheid in the early 1990s, its wine producers stepped up to the international plate with two strikes against them, writes Stephen Tanzer. Twenty-plus years later, they have dug themselves out of their early hole and prospered.

Depending on how you look at it, South Africa is either the oldest New World wine region or the newest Old World area. The Cape region’s first wines were produced by the Dutch East India Company in 1659 and many of the area’s most famous wine estates were making wine by the early 1700s. But following the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century, many of the Cape’s vineyards were replanted with high-yielding varieties like cinsault. A huge wine glut ensued.

Then, during the decades of apartheid, the wine industry suffered from sanctions that kept their wines out of the U.S. and many other important export markets. South Africa’s wine farms had little incentive to produce wines that could compete in a global setting. In fact, most of the country's grape growers simply sold their fruit to co-ops, who turned it into either distilled alcohol or sherry and port. Its winemakers, who rarely travelled internationally, were out of touch with new developments in the world of wine.

Moreover, the Cape’s producers had trouble even getting the raw materials needed to bottle real wine - basic materials such as high-quality farming equipment, corks and even bottles. More important, the country’s vines were generally beset with viruses, and local nurseries were in no position to remedy the situation because they did not have easy access to clean stock from abroad. Vineyards literally had to be replanted every 15 to 20 years, so the stock of old vines in the most commercially important regions like Stellenbosch and Constantia was very low.

South Africa, despite its great head-start at making wine, had virtually fallen off the world’s wine map. And with the end of apartheid and the lifting of sanctions in 1991, the U.S. market was suddenly flooded with mostly low-end and decidedly mediocre wine from South Africa.

That was Then, and Now?

I previously toured the Cape’s most important wine-producing regions in 2002, 2004 and 2006. And since ’06, I have regularly tasted and reported on new releases in depth. But there’s no substitute for being on the ground, in the dirt, in a wine region, and I was overdue for a visit. In an action-packed week in April of this year, I learned first-hand how quickly and profoundly the local wine landscape has changed. If, for whatever reason, you haven’t dipped into South African wines lately, I urge you to reconsider this very rich and varied wine culture, where prices are extremely reasonable.

ABOVE: The Elgin Wine valley.

For starters, widespread replanting of virused wines and grafting over new vines onto virus-free rootstock have made a huge difference in wine quality since the turn of this century. Growers are now able to produce more consistently ripe fruit that’s less likely to show the intensely herbaceous or tea-like flavours, not to mention the off-putting notes of creosote and burnt rubber that previously marred many of the Cape’s wines. A new and much younger generation of winemakers has travelled the world and understands what it takes to compete in international markets. And they are far less restrained by tradition than their parents and grandparents were.

Whereas historically the most important producing regions dating back centuries were Stellenbosch and Constantia, many of the most exciting wines in recent years have come from “new” regions. In most cases these new regions are in cooler areas - closer to the influence of the sea, at higher altitude, more open to cooling breezes. Nowadays, even wealthy, long-established vineyard owners in Stellenbosch seeking to expand their production, are increasingly looking to cooler regions like Elgin, Walker Bay and Elim to the south, and to Darling to the north, for growth, with the specific objective of making fresher, more energetic wines with lower alcohol than their original home vineyards could provide.

The Swartland Revolution

And then there is the exciting Swartland, which has introduced a whole new dimension to Cape wines. This vast hot, dry region north of Cape Town was traditionally the Cape’s breadbasket, with wheat and other grains extensively planted. As far as wine was concerned, the Swartland was long known for producing rustic, high-alcohol wines suitable only for blending - if that. The region was dominated by co-ops that survived by making outsized reds, off-dry whites and base wine for brandy. But visionaries like Charles Back (Spice Route) and Eben Sadie, and more recently others like Adi Badenhorst, Andrea and Chris Mullineux, Marc Kent, Callie Louw, Donovan Rall and David Sadie quickly saw the potential in this area - particularly its extensive stock of old hillside vines - to make great wine. Best of all, land was cheap, offering an obvious avenue to success for talented young winemakers who wanted to strike out on their own.

By the way, all of the above producers, plus others, are members of the Swartland Independent Producers (SIP) association, which requires that their wines be “naturally produced” and aged in no more than 25% new European oak. I think of the SIP as the vinous equivalent of Denmark’s Dogma film movement, only less dogmatic and more accepting of winemakers’ personal tastes.

Revealingly, four important international grapes that had previously been widely planted in the Swartland - cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc - are now virtually banned from the region’s new wines: technically they can constitute no more than 10% of a blend. Meanwhile, the permitted grapes are mostly Mediterranean and Rhône varieties that are much better suited to the region’s climate and soils. Red varieties like carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre, pinotage, syrah and tinta barocca and whites like chenin blanc, marsanne, roussanne and viognier must represent at least 90% of all blends.

Some of the most exciting wines I tasted in South Africa in April were made in the Swartland, or were vinified elsewhere from Swartland fruit. And they are a far cry from what you might expect from a hot, parched area. Thanks to dry-farming, very old low-yielding vines and earlier harvesting to retain aromatic freshness, growers are able to make remarkably complex and scented wines at surprisingly moderate alcohol levels. Temperatures during the summer here average a full 5 degrees Centigrade higher than those in Paarl, for example, and yet the best wines I tasted from the Swartland are remarkable for their aromatic perfume, complexity, flavor definition and elegance. I happened to look at a printout of technical information on the 60 or so wines I tasted from the top producers during a day in the Swartland in April and was shocked to see that only one of them reached as high as 14% alcohol. Among the other regions whose wines I tasted extensively, only Elgin showed alcohol levels as moderate as the Swartland’s.

No Superstar, But A Well-Rounded Team

South Africa has long been penalized in the international wine market for not having a signature brand - like malbec in Argentina, or sauvignon blanc in New Zealand or pinot noir in Oregon. If the Cape region can be said to have one or two signature grapes, they would probably be chenin blanc (often called steen here), which is still the most heavily planted variety in the Cape and was historically a base wine for brandy production, and the distinctive red variety called pinotage, a love-it-or-hate it hybrid of cinsault and pinot noir that was developed in the 1920s by the University of Stellenbosch. (Before that time, cinsault was the dominant red grape in the Cape.) Neither has attracted an international following, although the vibrant, racy, food-friendly versions of chenin blanc being made today deserve broader attention.

ABOVE: Two chenin blancs, one from the Stellenbosch wine region in South Africa on the left and the other from France's Loire Valley.

If the Cape wine industry does not benefit from a transcendent superstar grape, it fields a deep team of varieties, with a talented bench waiting to come into play. On my recent tour, I tasted outstanding wines from varieties like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, roussanne, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah (often called shiraz in South Africa), grenache and pinot noir for starters - plus a few more I rarely encountered eight years ago. But perhaps even more exciting were the dozens of new and often creative blends, not just the old standby red and white Bordeaux blends, but complex combinations of red and white Rhône Valley and Mediterranean varieties. Many of the best of these wines, needless to say, are coming from the Swartland where the region’s producers are given to experimentation, not to mention planting off-beat varieties like Portuguese red grapes, tannat, barbera, durif, assyrtiko, palomino and others.

So the Cape wine scene is remarkably dynamic and constantly evolving. A lot of South Africa’s most exciting wineries did not exist before the mid-1990s. Although countless talented young winemakers cut their teeth with established wineries, in South Africa or abroad, they embark on their own projects with little baggage, thanks in part to the relatively low cost of grapes and, in some areas, vineyards.

White Wines Cannot Be Denied

I should point out that about half of South Africa’s wine production is white - not unlike production in Washington State’s high desert. But where upwards of 80% of Washington’s finest bottles are red, in South Africa good white wines are ubiquitous. After all, this is a Mediterranean climate, not a desert, and conditions are conducive, especially in cooler regions and microclimates, to producing whites with energy and personality, beginning but not ending with many fine chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs. In fact, white wines represent a sizable percentage of the highest-scoring wines in this article. For consumers who, like me, have concluded that it’s harder to find seriously good white wines at a moderate price than reds, South Africa offers a wealth of choices.

Eno-Tourism On The Rise

There’s no better way to discover South Africa’s wines than to discover them in South Africa. Eno-tourism has surged in recent years, led mostly by the region’s beautiful wine farms. The Cape area - and of course Cape Town itself - is a gorgeous place to visit (Stellenbosch is especially spectacular), with a moderate climate conducive to touring as most of its rain falls during the winter months. Thanks to the weak South African currency, hotel prices are usually moderate and eating and drinking at restaurants can be remarkably cheap. Many of the Cape region’s finest restaurants are located at wine estates like Jordan, Klein Constantia, Tokara and Delaire Graff. They tend to offer outstanding selections of the local wines, and wine prices generally offer amazing value for visitors with strong currencies.