Smooth and elegant with a medley of tastes as diverse as the terroir which yields it, South Africa’s wine industry has proved it ages well 350 years after grapes were first pressed in the Cape.
On the cusp of the old and new world of winemaking, South Africa has kept the traditions of viticulture while maintaining a pioneering edge that has earned it growing respect on the international market.
Cut off from global markets due to apartheid sanctions, 15 years of democracy have boosted the industry through exposure and new dedication to quality.
In the heart of Cape Town, the blue, white and red of the French flag flaps under the full gaze of Table Mountain, bearing the image of a proud cockerel atop a slogan declaring Vive la Différence.
Here, in a small square of suburbia, winemaker Jean-Vincent Ridon has recreated a patch of history in his Clos d’Oranje vineyard, by growing vines in the centre of the city where they were first planted in 1655.
Those first vines from France, the Rhineland and Spain were planted a few blocks away in the centre of the city which was founded by Dutch commander Jan van Riebeek as a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company.
On February 2 1659, Van Riebeek noted in his diary that “today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes”.
Ridon, who realised the newly-democratic country’s potential, has achieved success through his passion for the old-school tradition of winemaking.
“We are planting like we were planting 350 years ago,” Ridon says of the high density, organic vineyard which he resisted grafting on to resistant rootstock to protect it from the deadly phylloxera virus which laid waste to vineyards around the world in the 1800s.
“It will die eventually … but I wanted this pure tradition to be respected,” he says.
Handpicked and sorted, the grapes are still crushed by foot, which Ridon maintains is “still the best way”.
While the Clos d’Oranje Syrah 2006 received five stars in the local Platters wine guide, Ridon’s Signal Hill Winery also produced South Africa’s highest rated wine in the United States, the Eszencia 2002 Furmint and Sauvignon Blanc blend.
“We are very proud of what we can produce in Cape Town,” he says, adding the city was drawing many old-world French investors who were attracted to the country’s proven track record and history.
The oldest winemaking district of Constantia, just outside the city, has produced the country’s most famous sweet wines, demanded by Napoleon exiled in St Helena while King Louis Philippe of France once bought an entire vintage.
At Groot Constantia, established in 1685, Bennie Howard, who heads the steering committee of the 350-year celebrations, says South Africa’s wine industry has come a full circle.
“We are again as internationally known as we were in the 1700s,” he said.
As wine trades drop amid a global economic crisis, South Africa exported a record 400-million litres in 2008 and is scooping international awards for its winemaking finesse.
With 100 000 hectares of vineyards the country produces 56% of white grape varietals and 44% red, and ranks ninth in overall volume production of wine in the world, according to Wine Industry South Africa statistics.
Despite battling huge competition and a fall in demand, the country’s wine vats are empty and excited whispers abound over a harvest which is already later than last year’s two week lag.
The cooler summer bodes well for the 2009 harvest.
“If it carries on like this it is going to be phenomenal,” says Karl Lambour, winemaker at Constantia Glen which specialises in a Bordeaux-styled Sauvignon Blanc, the 2007 vintage of which got 91 points in the highly respected Wine Spectator magazine.
The valley, with award winning Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Semillon and sweet Riesling, is a prime example of what winemakers say makes the country great.
“If you want to have a great meal, you’ve got a red wine, you’ve got a white wine you’ve got a sweet wine. It shows our ability to diversify and still produce the very best of South Africa,” said Lambour.
This is the beauty of the Cape terroir: that impossible-to-translate French phrase encompassing the effects of soils, climate, wind and water on the ripening grapes and its influence on the final product.
“The reason that pushed me to come here was that I could find potential to make top wines, top terroir,” said Ridon, dismissing the notion held by more new world countries who “believe the winemaker is doing the job”.
Even sparkling wine, seen as the preserve of France’s Champagne district, has found a place in South Africa.
At tiny sister farm High Constantia, barrels are piled high in the cellar as labels are rolled on to David van Niekerk’s Clos André Method Cap Classique, which has beaten out traditional French champagnes in several blind tastings.
Despite the positive growth, South African producers are faced with the challenge of improving marketing to capture the massive US market while dealing with the effects of climate change and a global economic crisis.
While the economic crisis impacts the top end of the market, changing weather patterns are influencing vineyards, which employ over 250 000 people.
Adapting to climate change will be key if South Africa’s success is to leave a pleasant lingering aftertaste in years to come. – AFP