Wednesday, 7 March 2012

South Africa: where Old and New Worlds meet

At the top of my list of wine regions that I haven't visited yet, but am desperate to see, is South Africa. Dramatically sited vineyards surrounded by boundless natural beauty; the cosmopolitan restaurant scene of Cape Town, sandwiched between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean; whale-watching at Hermanus; endless sunny days under African skies. Doesn't sound too shabby does it?

For a New World country, South Africa has been at this winemaking game for a long time. The first vines, planted by pioneering settler Jan van Riebeck, produced grapes that were made into wine back in 1652. To put this in perspective, this was some years before Benedictine monk Dom Perignon became cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers and so helped to begin the story of Champagne as we know it.

However, as the saying goes, “always something new out of Africa” and South Africa's latest generation of winemakers have overcome the insularity that characterised the lost years of Apartheid and have some great wines to show the world. They are building on the long-standing traditions of their country and, often, working hard to develop sustainable growing practices which support the globally important bio-diversity hotspot of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

Here are some of my current favourites from the dark continent.

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2010 - £10.44 from online, £12.49 down to £9.99 if you buy 2 bottles at Majestic
The ubiquitous charms of Sauvignon Blanc can pall with over-exposure. Iona is a new venture set the coolest vineyard site in the whole of South Africa in the Elgin region, exposed to the chilly ocean winds, which are known as the Cape Doctor, for their role in keeping the vines cool and dry and thereby avoiding problems with damp and rot. Here they have managed to produce a wine that is neither a copy of New Zealand, nor the original models of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

Generally Sauvignon Blanc is viewed as a DYA wine – drink youngest available. Its youthful vibrant, racy fruit can quickly turn to less appealing flavours of tinned peas (remember those?). Iona, however, seems to be able to age with some grace and the 2010 vintage has plenty of citrus zip and a lingering minerality.

Mullineux White Blend 2009 - £17.76 from Hand Picked Burgundy (, Berry Brothers have the 2010 vintage for £15.75
It seems that the posher a wine is, the less it tells you about itself on the label. Do persevere though, as this blend of predominantly Chenin Blanc from the schist and shale soils of Swartland (try and say that after a couple of glasses) is a stunner.

Some wines are great for glugging while you concentrate on something else; others are more demanding of your attention, and drinking them can be an intellectual exercise – this wine is definitely the latter. Not overtly fruity, it's the kind of wine that you are drawn back to again and again, as new flavours and aromas unfold in the glass. Honey, pumice stone, blossom, baked apple and a myriad of other flavours mingle on the palate, held in place by a wall of tangy minerality. At nearly three years old this wine is just getting into its stride and still has a future ahead of it. Mullineux is surely one of the names to watch in South African wine.

Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block 2009 - £19.49 for the 2010 vintage from SA Wines Online
Syrah is the other variety that seems to thrive in the warmer climate of Swartland and winemaker Marc Kent is a specialist in the variety. Boekenhoutskloof has just been voted winery of the year in the highly-regarded Platter Wine Guide 2012 – so expectations are high when you taste this wine. The Chocolate Block blend is slightly tweaked each year but is predominantly Syrah, with Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and white variety Viognier making up the balance.

Dense, almost completely opaque in colour, this is no shrinking violet, but it does have surprisingly nuanced and perfumed blackberry fruit allied to more savoury flavours (partly thanks to all those varieties) and great balance. While undoubtedly a heavyweight, its a “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” Muhammad Ali.

Meerlust Rubicon 2004 - £23 from The Wine Society
Rubicon is a bone fide icon of the South African wine scene and has quite a pedigree. Made by Meerlust, who proudly proclaim “since 1693” on their labels, it hails from Stellenbosch, a region long synonymous with quality and classic grape varieties.

Bordeaux is clearly the model for this blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc – but claret would never have quite the level of ripeness and softness that you find here. It's like Bordeaux but with the edges knocked off it. Eight years into its life, the fruit is maturing with leather, tobacco leaf, coffee bean and spiced fruit along with a lovely rose-petal scent on the palate. A treat for the mind and the senses.

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