I’m not going to lie, one of the reasons that I jumped into the Loire Valley (Pays Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine, Central Vineyards) was because I’ve experienced a recent fascination with Chenin Blanc. I’ve come across a few great expressions from here at home in California. I dare say it is Clarksburg’s heritage grape. (Read Yolo County: Little grape-growing region that could page 1 and page 2). But that love for local got me thinking—where are the actual benchmark regions for Chenin Blanc? Well, the Loire Valley obviously. But I also always hear about it in reference to South Africa. So that is where my studies are taking me next.
Now, just so you know the game plan for these posts (in case you’re an avid follower and are reading these “live” or if you’re a “read it later” kind of human and need to know how to navigate these articles), this first piece is merely an introduction to the region, including some key terms and pieces of information I think will be integral to following along with subsequent articles.
I am then going to break up the South Africa regional deep-dive into a three-part series. As “small” as the wine region(s) of the country may seem, I’ve been finding a lot of notable details that I’m going to want to explore. Following that three-part regional series, I will then have an article dedicated to my South African wine tasting experience(s).
Last but not least, I will cover the history and current status of the South African wine industry and market. I was going to attempt to squeeze that bit into the introductory material, but the country has a very, to me, interesting wine producing history—and how it’s navigated the twist and turns given its political, social, and environmental impacts, I couldn’t help but link up a bunch of stuff I’m learning in my D2 studies. So, I’m going to take a serious deep dive into that and, thus, it deserves its own post.
Alright, let’s get a bit of an overview. Welcome to South Africa…
For a simplified look at South African wine information, please see Wine Region Overview: South Africa. (More appropriate for those studying for their Level 3 exams.)
To get us going and motivated, I want to share this beautiful quote about the South African wine region(s) from The World Atlas of Wine: “The finalists in the world’s Vineyard Beauty Contest include the Douro, the Mosel, a Greek island—and the Cape. It is the white Dutch-gabled farmsteads in a sea of vineyard green under the Simonsberg; blue-shadowed stacks of granite against the azure sky that tips the scales; an irresistible image of timelessness.”
Again, I’m not going to deep-dive into South Africa’s wine history here (will provide a link to the article when it is complete). But there are a few key terms you should know if you plan on following along…
KWV—The Afrikans acronym for Ko-operatiewe Wijnbowers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika or South African Cooperative Wine Growers’ Association. This is/was a giant cooperative originally established for distilling brandy from surplus wine, which at the time in history totally made sense because that’s what the majority of folks were doing. However, it (became) more than what we would typically describe or define as a cooperative (D2 vocabulary word, that), as the South African government gave the KWV the power to set and enforce production quotas and as well as yields and prices for grapes.
Unfortunately, these guys valued quantity over quality. They encouraged increased planting of highly productive varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, Colombard, and Cinsault. If you were a bulk wine or brandy producer, this worked in your favor. However, if you were a smaller, more quality-focused producer, there was very little space for your product on the market. And many critics believe (it’s kind of hard not to) that it was the KWV‘s policies surrounding high yields and high productions that gave South Africa a kind of negative reputation in the wine industry.
The KWV was in power for about a century, and it wasn’t until the mid to late 1990s that the KWV was restructured out of a co-op (and somewhat of a wine-industry-branch, if you will, of the South African government) and into a private corporation. They’re still around, and actually The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that it is “producing increasingly impressive wines in its premium ranges, as well as aged brandies which enjoy international renown.”
GENERAL SOUTH AFRICAN ENVIRONMENTAL NOTES
Most of the South African wine industry is based in the Western Cape. It’s where most of the wines, if you’re lucky enough to find some available near you, will be from. The Western Cape is just one of five Geographical Units (GUs, similar to your standard GI). The others include Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo. For our purposes, we will be focusing on the Western Cape.
The Oxford notes that, “It has been suggested that if South Africa jutted another 200km/124miles south into the Atlantic, the cooler climate would slow grape ripening in line with European expectations. Interestingly, my text notes that being situated between 33° and 55° latitude, it is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent to California.
Broadly stated, we can say that South Africa‘s wine producing region has a Mediterranean climate. That being said, there are various mountain ranges, slopes, and aspects, as well as cooling influences from the ocean(s) that create a bunch of microclimates within the various wine producing regions—and many of those regions are, in fact, cooler than latitude may suggest. We’ll see more of this as we dive into specific wine regions in subsequent articles.
Being in close proximity to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, a huge climactic factor in South Africa are the many ocean currents that blow through. So many, I felt the need to break them down and define them as key terms. South African Winds to Know:
1) Benguela current: flows from the South Pole up through the western coast of South; it also mixes with the
2) Mozambique current from the Indian Ocean, which lowers water temperatures between Cape Town and Cape Agulhas. NOTE: The large difference in coastal and inland temperatures results in coastal fog and cooling breezes.
3) Cape Doctor: a south-easterly wind that extends the impact of the Benguela current and also helps inhibit disease and brings occasional rain to the South Coast. The good news is that this helps mitigate fungal disease; the bad news is that this wind can get so strong, it’s been known to to damage leaves (thus photosynthesis) and can also affect flowering and fruit set (reducing yields).
As a Mediterranean climate, frost isn’t really an issue. However, the exception to this rule, as my text notes is in the Breedekloof ward, where spring frost is an “occasional” vineyard issue. Though the Oxford notes that winters can be cold, wet, and windy, my text notes is that the lack of winter freeze can impede vines from entering dormancy over winter.
Drought is another major issue. While many vineyards have installed drip irrigation (a more recent improvement to the previously popular overhead sprinkler system), there are several others that are able to successfully dry-farm.
When rain does fall, it is, as mentioned, during their winter months of May and August. However, due to the Benguela current and the protection of the mountain ranges that follow the coastline, there’s less and less rain as you move inland and north within the Western Cape. In these areas, irrigation is essential and/or the promotion of old vines.
With the varied topography, so too do we see a variance in soil types throughout South Africa’s wine regions. There are three main soil types in the Western Cape:
- Table Mountain Sandstone: sandy with low nutrient and water-retention properties; soils need irrigation and fertilization
- Granite: found on the foothill slopes of the mountains and in hilly areas; have good water retention properties, thus good for dry-farming
- Shale: have good nutrient levels and good water retention properties thus good for dry-farming
These will be explored and mentioned in the associated regions.
One thing to note is that most Western Cape soils are extremely acidic thus require adjustments with lime to achieve a suitable soil pH.
IN THE VINEYARD
As mentioned, the previous goal of South African winemaking was all about high yields in the vineyard and high volumes of wine production. Though bulk wine is still certainly a primary business of the South African wine industry, so too, increasingly, is quality wine production. The Oxford gives this great description of the country’s vineyard scene: “The stark contrast between the traditional and the progressive in South African viticulture, often visible on adjoining farms, reflects the disparate objective of growers.”
The “traditional” vineyard will show low density of vines, but those vines are carrying a large amount of fruit. Conversely, the “progressive” vineyard will have a higher density of plantings (creating competition for the vines) and practicing canopy management techniques that limit vine vigor, and thus limit yields.
Most canopies are trained with cordon with VSP and short spur pruning is the most common, as this set up is easier to mechanize. But FUN FACT: most harvest by hand because of the availability of labor.
The main vineyard disease threats are leafroll, fanleaf (viruses) and powdery mildew (fungal disease). Botrytis, the Oxford notes, is not a particular problem, but can be a welcome addition for producers of sweet wines. (Pop Quiz: Which South African region is known for its sweet wine production?) Traditionally, pests and diseases are/were mitigated utilizing chemical pest and weed control. Today, however, more and more growers are practicing restrained organic and biological control methods. NOTE: Few producers are certified organic or biodynamic BUT many adhere to the philosophy of Integrated Pest Management. Additionally, the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) system was introduced in 1998. This is a governing body that oversees all aspects of growing and winemaking (including carbon emissions, staff training, conservation efforts, etc.). My text notes that about 90% of all South African export producers adhere to the system, representing 95% of all grapes harvested.
Chenin Blanc: Alright, as I mentioned in the intro, my motivation for studying South Africa next was to dive into Chenin Blanc. So, no surprise here, in South Africa, white wine grapes win the planting race and captain of the team is Chenin Blanc with the absolute most plantings, comprising of FUN FACT: nearly 20% of total South African vineyard acreage which is nearly double that of plantings in the Loire.
For a deep-dive into the grape and all its attributes, please see Taste and Learn: Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur.
The great thing about Chenin Blanc for the South African wine regions is its naturally high acidity. Whereas in the Loire Valley the level of acidity can be too intense and may need to be adjusted for (either by chapitlization and/or by including R.S. in the final wine), here that high acidity helps cut through the riper fruit flavors and, in some cases, natural inclusion of R.S. (due to those riper grapes with higher Brix at harvest compared to Loire) that develop due to the warmer climate.
“On the Cape, Chenin is prized for its acidity, productivity, and good resistance to disease and wind,” states the Oxford. Indeed, for those focused on bulk production, the wine’s vigor is a desirable feature; its high acidity a great blending component with cheap, high volume, neutral grape varieties, such as Colombard, in an effort to create greater volumes of inexpensive wines. However, the Oxford continues, “A dedicated band of Chenin Blanc specialists has emerged in South Africa, focusing on the best sites and on restoring to high-quality production of old vine blocks.” Something we’ll certainly see as we explore the individual regions.
My text lists out the difference in winemaking techniques for high volume, inexpensive Chenin versus those techniques utilized for premium production. A lot of the bullet points are the usual winemaking suspects you’d expect to see on such lists (i.e. Cheap wine: fruit grown at high yields, chemical sprays used to mitigate disease pressure; Premium wine: fruit grown at low yields, often from old vines and often using dry-farming etc.) And since I suspect that if your’e reading my Diploma-level posts you’re familiar with such procedures, I’m not going to detail those lists here. (But if you’re studying for your Diploma, definitely review those lists inside the text—prime material for a short answer questions if ever I saw one.)
Generally speaking, South African Chenin Blanc will have medium to pronounced intensity, ripe yellow apple or peach fruit with tropical fruit notes, balanced with high acidity, medium alcohol and medium body—all indicators of the warmer growing environment.
NOTE: Chenin Blanc was for, a very long time, the most planted variety in South Africa full stop. But it’s worth mentioning that starting in the 1980s, significant plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay took root, comprising about 10% and 8% of the country’s total acreage under vine respectively, according to the Oxford.
PINOTAGE: Oh poor mis-understood Pinotage. South Africa‘s true heritage grape, this crossing was bred at the University of Stellenbosch in 1925 by viticulturist A.I. Perold. Pinotage is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. FUN FACT: It’s called Pinotage because Cinsault used to be referred to as Hermitage—a nod to the cultivar’s native Rhone region (Pinot + Hermitage = Pinotage).
This is an early budding variety (and, remember, spring frost is not really an issue here) and only “moderately” susceptible to fungal disease. The grapes themselves are quite small, but can reach very high levels of sugar, thus wines tend to be high in alcohol and can achieve a deep color without extended maceration. (Post fermentation maceration can last anywhere from zero to three days to five days, depending on the desired level of extraction and wine style.)
Time for an INTERESTING ANECDOTE: Pinotage also has a natural tendency toward low acidity and, as you can imagine, this is exacerbated by the warm weather. We also know that red wine (almost) always goes through ML, another process that decreases total acidity in the wine. Well, as a remedy, I heard one South African maker who acidifies his Pinotage with lactic acid, so when the wine goes through the ML process, it doesn’t take away any of the ‘stronger-on-the-palate’ acids. (I’m sure there’s a word for that, sorry.) Anyway, I thought that was interesting.
Despite its continued poor reputation, more high-quality Pinotage is being made. Growers are practicing more mindful vineyard techniques (such as avoiding water stress). According to the Oxford “the best of them come from mature bush vine vineyards with restricted yields and have a perfume recalling the grape’s parentage.”
In the cellar, those producing premium Pinotage tend to cold soak before crush to improve color extraction but avoid excessive tannin extraction. Pumpovers and punchdowns will take place at start of ferment, again for less tannin extraction (due to the lower level of alcohol in the liquid solution). And wines will typically age for an extended time (12-15 months) in French oak (50% new), and released about two years after vintage. My text does note, however, that less and less new oak is being used due to constraints on time and price (and also, I would add, the evolved taste of the modern consumer).
Premium Pinotage producers also have a choice, nowadays, about what style of wine they want to put to market: 1) the so-called “traditional style:” full bodied, high tannin, high alcohol wines with deep ruby color, and aromas and flavors of red plum and blackberry fruit. These are the wines that will be kept on skins for 3-5 days post ferment. 2) the “lighter style:” these wines are typically created from grapes grown on cooler sites, picked at lower Brix, and produce wines with medium tannins, medium ruby color, with aromas and flavors of red fruits. These wines are typically not macerated on skins post ferment at all.
For those producing the cheap stuff, the Pinotage is usually aged in stainless or used barrels (oak alternatives may be used for flavor) and the wines released super early—6 to 12 months after vintage.
NOTE: For all that song and dance about Pinotage, it is actually Cabernet Sauvignon that is South Africa’s most planted red wine variety, making up 10% of all plantings, but the Oxford notes that both Shiraz/Syrah and Merlot are catching up. Pinotage, on the other hand, is at 7%.
With that in mind, I want to call out other grapes important in South African wine production: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Colombard, white and red Rhone varieties (see below)
Other Wine Styles to Know:
- White Cape Blend: Chenin-dominant with white Rhone varieties, Chardonnay, Semillon and/or Sauvignon Blanc
- Red Bordeaux Blends: blends made from, well, Bordeaux varieties
- Red Cape Blends: specific category for red blends that include a significant percentage of Pinotage (usually blended with Rhone varieties)
- ALSO: Cape Classique (AKA South African sparkling wine), botrytis sweet wines, and fortified wines
Last but not least, let’s familiarize ourselves with the South African production areas as defined by the Wines of Origin Scheme:
- Geographical unit: as mentioned above, these are very large areas and, according to my text, GU Western Cape accounts for nearly all South African wines by volume
- Region: large areas defined by and named after major features (ie: Coastal Region)
- District: typically defined by a major center or mountain range; if I understand correctly, districts are more defined by the former, relating more closely with political boundaries than any kind of terroir attribute
- Ward: defined area based on common soils, climate, and ecological factors NOTE: not all districts have wards and not all wards are in a district (but would, instead, relate directly to a region)
When it comes to labeling—THESE BE THE RULES:
If stating place of ORIGIN: grapes must be 100% from that place
If stating VARIETY: wine must be comprised of 85% of that variety
If stating VINTAGE: wine must be 85% from that year
Registered estate wines must be grown, made, and bottled on the estate
Single vineyard wines must be registered. The vineyards are planted with a single variety, and cannot be larger than 6 hectares. (LABEL FACT: If you don’t meet the single-vineyard brief, the loophole is to bottle wine under a brand name.)
LABEL FACT: a certification seal with its identification number appears on the packaging.
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