Some Thoughts on South African Wine

I’ve now been in South Africa for about three full days, and I’ve tasted, by rough estimation, about 300 or more South African wines, ranging from some of the most common, to some of the smallest production, most sought after wines in the country.

I’ve got a ton of tasting notes and scores for all these wines that I’m working on, but in the meantime, I thought I’d ramble a bit about what I’m learning, thinking, and concluding about South Africa, their wine industry, and their wine.

This place is great. The people are warm, friendly, and very laid back. They remind me a lot of New Zealanders with their enthusiasm, generosity, and sense of humor. The place itself, which is to say The Cape and its surrounding wine country is stunningly (pictures to come) beautiful and very accessible to the traveler. The country is a breeze to travel in, so far. All the interesting bits of being in a foreign country but where everyone speaks English.

There is no escaping the fact that there are great economic inequalities that still exist in this country. There are a lot of very, very poor people here.

Once out of the major urban areas areas one quickly finds oneself in an interesting mix of well-to-do farming enclaves and the indigent townships that were part and parcel of the apartheid era. These townships, though now more than 80% have electricity and running water, compared to about 30% under apartheid, are only barely and excruciatingly slowly beginning to be converted to more modern affordable housing. Apparently the wait list for this housing at the nearest township to Cape Town is something like 500,000 people long.

This landscape of gorgeous wine wealth contrasted with utter poverty is not unlike Mendoza, Argentina, for those who may have visited that wine country, where one minute the roadside is littered with trash and has barefoot kids poking through it with sticks, and another minute it passes by a gated estate.

Interestingly, and quite disarmingly, the locals speak with great candor about how far the country has to go in order to get things right, and while I’m sure my experience has been quite narrow in scope, everyone I’ve met has been quite passionate about moving forward socially to continue righting the wrongs of the past.

Before coming on this trip, I had tasted perhaps several dozen South African wines, usually at large trade tastings in San Francisco. The majority of them were Sauvignon Blancs, though I had made a special effort to taste Pinotage, as I was interested in this “indigenous” grape that was pioneered in the country.

In short, I had tasted more South African wine than most Americans, but I was essentially ignorant about it. So this trip was a big educational opportunity for me, and the last few days have been what you might call a “total immersion” course in South African wine.

And here’s what I’ve learned.

About Quality
There seems to be a large amount of variability in the quality of the region’s wines. At the bottom end of the spectrum (say, under $3) there is a lot of crap, just as there is in most wine producing countries. The middle tiers of wine are broad and also largely mediocre, except as the price climbs above roughly $10. At this “premium” price level there is a lot of not so good wine, but there is also a lot of excellent wine, including some excellent, excellent bargains, especially when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and red blends. As the price of the wine climbs upwards towards $20, this variability continues, with some $20 wines being absolute knockouts, while others are quite disappointing (for reasons I’ll describe below).

I feel like while in certain countries, spending $20 on a bottle of wine somewhat guarantees a level of quality, this is not yet true in South Africa.

But before anyone gets the idea that this whole country is a crapshoot, I need to say that there is a whole lot of great wine being made here for absolutely silly prices (i.e. $12 to $25). I can’t tell you how many truly excellent wines I’ve had this week that never broke the $25 price level — wines that, if produced in Napa, would cost two or three times as much.

So despite the variability, there are some stunning, stunning values to be had here.

About Varieties
I can say without qualification that South Africa can make Sauvignon Blanc as good as any New World country. The best stuff I’ve tasted here can hold its own against Chile, New Zealand, and California without any effort. There is a LOT of Sav Blanc made here, and while you can’t exactly just pick one at random and know it will be good, any winery that has a “flagship” or single vineyard Sav Blanc will likely be good, and a value at $15 or so.

When I was in New Zealand a couple of years ago, Pinot Gris was the Next Big Thing. Everyone was making it and everyone locally was drinking it and raving about it. Well South Africa has it’s own local white phenomenon, and it happens to be Chenin Blanc. And just like in New Zealand, it’s not quite worth the hype. I’ve actually had a number of quite pleasurable, crisp, racy Chenins this week, that I’d love to substitute for Sauvignon Blanc with any meal on a hot day. But I’ve yet to have a single Chenin that really turns my head, and of course none that approach the distinctiveness and profundity of how the variety is treated in the Loire.

I did have a botrytized dessert wine from Ken Forrester made from Chenin that was mind-blowingly good, however, so there’s clearly no reason to rip out the vines quite yet, but the hype could certainly do with a little airing out.

The Syrah seems to be all over the map in terms of style, and quite variable in quality. There seems to be a certain movement where folks who are trying to style theirs like Europe are calling their wines Syrah, while those looking for a bigger style call theirs Shiraz, though thinking this was a good rule, my expectations were thwarted more than once this week.

Even the biggest Syrahs tend to be a little cooler climate in quality than the huge fruit bombs of Australia. There’s a restraint to South African Syrah that is admirable and appealing when done right. Having said that however, I found a lot of Syrah that I most definitely did not like — wines that were lean (without compensation of complexity), angular, sometimes vegetal, sometimes rubbery, and sometimes even harsh. There were a few winners, however, which I’ll write about later.

My favorite Syrahs, however, haven’t been Syrahs at all, but rather blends that incorporated a good amount of Syrah.

So let’s talk about red blends, which I think are the real promise of South Africa. I’ve had a large number of truly exceptional red blends this week. From Bordeaux style to Rhone style, these red blends are becoming more common in several main wine regions, and are often startlingly good.

The Stellenbosch region is pumping out a great number of these (usually small production) wines, though they are made in many other regions as well. The Bordeaux blend is the most common variety, and a number of them are very classically styled, with all the major Bordeaux varieties represented.

This group of wines does not escape from the variability problem, however, which means that for every good blend I had, I tried another that was heavy with green bell pepper or other “green” vegetal qualities that I assume comes from poorly ripened fruit. Those that manage to get well ripened fruit can do wonders, however.

There also seems to be a lot of straight Merlot produced here, with a lot of pride, which unfortunately I believe to be misplaced. I have tasted a lot of Merlot over the last week, and much of it tasted unripe to me (with a few notable exceptions).

I’ve had some pretty competent Chardonnays this week as well. Nothing profound, mind you, but some very good ones that I’d be more than happy to drink instead of your average California Chardonnay.

About Pinotage
Pinotage, the local cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (or Hermitage, as it’s called here) deserves its own chapter, which it will get tomorrow. However I believe I have “figured it out” so to speak. There seem to be two directions to go with this grape variety. Until I came here I only had wines that treated the grape like Pinot Noir. But there’s another school of winemaking here that treats the grape more like Cinsault — which is to say, like a Southern Rhone grape, and these I believe to be the most successful.

However, the main Pinotage revelation that I have achieved while here is that Pinotage makes an incredible rosé. So much so that (in jest) I’d be liable to suggest that everyone stop bothering with the red wine and just focused on making pink ones. It’s that good. Really.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with the logistics and presentation of this wine convention. It is simply the best public/trade wine tasting event I have ever experienced, and the folks that put it on deserve the highest compliments for what they’ve pulled off.

So what’s so great? Let me paint a picture for you of how this show works.

OK, so it’s in a big convention center, which isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but where else are you going to fit 400 producers and 4000 wines for three days. Once you get over the fact that if you’re serious about the trade show you won’t see much of the sun or of the beautiful city, it’s an absolute joy.

The place is incredibly clean and well lit, and the temperature is perfect — not too hot, not too cold. The acoustics are great — no huge echo hall. You can have conversations, you can hear yourself think, and all with several thousand people milling around.

Each winery gets its own swanky little booth. These are all the same size (unless the winery is part of a huge drinks conglomerate, and then they get a massive custom booth). These booths are essentially a standing height (which is important) 3′ by 5′ white podium which stands in front of an impeccably lit “wall display” which is a custom banner with the winery’s branding on it (photos, logo, etc.) and a set of lighted glass shelves for decanters, glasses, and any display the winery wants to do (bottles, medals, etc.).

These booths are the same for big and small wineries alike, and are usually staffed by the winery owner or winemaker or both.

Every booth also has a refrigerator, and every couple of booths (which are nicely spaced out so there’s no sense of crowding) there are round tables with chairs, where you could (theoretically) sit down and make a deal to buy, import, or distribute some wine.

So not only does every booth have a shelf full of fresh, clean (and properly shaped, I might add) glassware, there’s a whole crew of people at the show that makes sure its always stocked. Instead of endlessly rinsing your glass, which invariably gets caked with wine residue, if you wanted to, you could literally get a fresh glass at each station. While not the most environmentally friendly (I can only imagine how much dishwasher detergent they must use at this pace) clean glasses whenever you wanted was a huge luxury.

Did I mention that every booth had at least 2 spittoons? And that the same crew was constantly emptying these, as well as bringing ice for those who wanted to ice their wines in buckets.

Additionally, wineries had back stocks of wine that were clearly in storage somewhere behind the scenes, and whenever they wanted a bottle, they waved down girls in red shirts with baskets over their arms, and in 2 minutes, the girl would be back with a bottle or two in the basket.

Over the course of three days, I think I might have waited to taste a wine perhaps three times, and then only because there were four or five people at the tasting booth ahead of me (not 30 like at some tastings in San Francisco).

The booths were laid out in a perfectly logical manner, prominently numbered, and every winery was listed in a huge book with their correct booth number. Not only was their booth number available, but this booklet had their full contact info, URL, a list of all the wines they were pouring at the event, the technical details of each of those wines (alcohol, pH, residual sugar) the production levels of the wine, the price range of the wine, and more. While this wine listing was not always 100% accurate, it was totally comprehensive. The booklet not only had the wineries indexed by name and by location in the hall, it also indexed all the wines by region and varietal, so if you wanted to taste all the Mourvedre produced in South Africa (about 12 wines, in case you were wondering) you would know exactly which booths and producers to go to. It was truly awesome.

That’s about enough for now. Here’s a teaser for the posts to come: This morning I (and about 40 others) had the chance to taste the very first Pinotage ever bottled in the world — the 1959 vintage — along with about 10 other Pinotages ranging from 12 to 35 years of age. I’ll have tasting notes for all of them, as well as my current “verdict” on Pinotage shortly.