South African wines are profoundly international

  • Aug. 9, 2018 2:30 p.m.

The earliest indigenous peoples who inhabited what is now South Africa – San and Khoikhoi, later Bantu – were hunters and gatherers. There were no wine grapes, there, then.

The Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to explore the coastline of South Africa in 1488, while attempting to discover a trade route to the Far East.

The Dutch East India Company brought in Dutch farmers to establish farms to supply their ships as well as to supply their burgeoning settlement. In 1652 the initial group of ‘free burghers’ as these farmers were known, arrived and began to move inland into the territory of the Khoikhoi.

It is unlikely that these early Dutch settlers deliberately planted Pinot Grigio. They may have brought Fromenteau from France or Szürkebarát from Hungary (…two of Pinot Grigio’s many aliases!).

But wine grapes were originally planted in what would eventually become the Western Cape in 1655. With its bright, zingy, fruity apple, apricot and peach aromas and flavours, Flat Roof Manor Pinot Grigio (90936) $12.29 would have pleased those early settlers.

The first bottles of wine produced in Cape Town by in 1659 by founder Jan van Riebeeck. Today, South African wines are profoundly international, no longer limited to Chenin Blanc (… which they call ‘Steen’) whites or Pinotage – a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir developed in South Africa in 1925 – reds.

Although much of South Africa can be scorchingly hot, in the Western Cape cool ocean breezes moderate vineyard temperatures and help the grapes retain the bright acidity that keeps wines refreshing.

A tribute to the legendary first manager of South Africa’s KWV wine company, Bill Millar. Big Bill White (71241) $12.29 blends Chenin Blanc with Sauvignon Blanc and Grenache Blanc. Proclaiming itself ‘Ridiculously Big’ it tantalizes the taste buds with a medley of fruit flavours including apple, pear, lemon, lime, melon, mango and even hints of pineapple.

Miss Molly is the name of the vineyard dog in the Moreson Family Winery in South Africa’s Franschhoek region. She is renowned for sneaking food off the kitchen counter and sharing it with her friends. Moreson’s Miss Molly ‘Kitchen Thief’ Sauvignon Blanc (522045) $17.95 has more in common with a French white from the Loire Valley than it does with any sassy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. More dry than fruity, it opens with green apple over traces of tropical fruits – lime and pineapple.

As refreshing as many South African white wines can be, in the summer, the red wines are particularly well-suited to barbeque season. This is, after all, the land of the ‘braai’ – Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “roast”.

Made in the Western Cape – and taking wine marketing to new levels in its 500ml crown-capped bottle -Craft & Origin Organic Shiraz (134186) $10.99 is a blend of 60 per cent organically grown Shiraz and 40 per cent organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon. Lush black raspberry and blackcurrant aromas and flavours lead the parade in this jammy red.

As well as making the popular Spier Signature Chenin Blanc, Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch also makes Stormy Bay Cabernet Sauvignon (6809) $13.15. Jammy blackberry flavours slide through blackcurrant into cola, dark chocolate, liquorice and chocolate cherries.

A blend of 53 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 per cent Cabernet Franc, 17 per cent Petit Verdot, 4 per cent Merlot and 4 per cent Malbec, KWV ‘The Mentors’ Orchestra (43141) $32.99 is an outrageously tasty Bordeaux-styled blend. Rich ripe flavours of dark chocolate, sage, thyme, eucalyptus and red berries with hints of violets, cedar – cigar box – with undernotes of new leather.

According to DrinkStuff South Africa: “Three years of drought in the Western Cape is going to severely impact yields in 2018 as water quotas are slashed and the vines struggle to keep up production. This will not only decrease volumes but also push up costs in years to come. Expect entry-level wines to become more expensive as stocks are diminished and the drought continues…”

Here, across the Atlantic, there have been minor increases in the most popular inexpensive South African wines we already enjoy. Investigate these wines, now, while the quality to price ratio – bang-for-the-buck – is still remarkable!

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