Tuesday, June 01, 2010

South Africa - Know Your Cultivars

With the start of the World Cup next week (June 11) in South Africa, let’s take a moment to review some notes on the wine industry in this country.

With one of the oldest wine industries in the “New World” (wine has been produced commercially here since the mid-1600s), South Africa has certain advantages (climate, geology, attitude) which has allowed them to develop a powerful value based wine economy which is now turning its attention to competing globally with more premium productions. Some important factors to consider about the South African wine regions include afore mentioned geography and climate, as well as politics and the list of grape varieties that make up the wine selections.
This week, let’s begin with the grapes that form the foundation o f the industry.
In South Africa, grape varietals are generally referred to as cultivars. The majority of vineyards, and subsequently the wines from them, which are destined for quality production, have been re-envisioned over the past 15 years, so that we now will generally find the nine cultivars listed below making up a good portion of the mix. Most of these cultivars are the typical international varieties, but several (Chenin Blanc and Pinotage) are less common and contribute to the unique style from this country’s wine production.

The nine top quality cultivars from South Africa in detail:
White-wine cultivars grown in South Africa include:
• Chardonnay - A native of Burgundy, this variety is widely planted throughout the New World. Locally, much experimentation has been taking place with barrel fermentation and oak ageing of Chardonnay, and excellent wines in a number of styles are being produced. It is also used in some of the base wines from which Cap Classique sparkling wines are made as well as in white blends, an increasingly successful category.
o For a great unoaked, fresh style of Chardonnay try Excelsior Chardonnay ($7.99)
o For a fuller, barrel ferment style of Chardonnay try Thelema Chardonnay ($19.99)

• Chenin Blanc (Steen) - The most widely cultivated variety in the Cape, growers are raising the standard to new levels. Characterized by its versatility, Chenin Blanc produces good natural wines covering the whole spectrum from sweet to dry, as well as sherry and sparkling wine. Its fruitiness finds flavor with a wide range of palates. It is also used for distilling brandy and spirits.
o For a clean, fresh and dry style look to Kanu Chenin Blanc ($8.99)
o For the full-throttle-as-good-as-it-gets Chenin, there is no better than Ken Forrester FMC ($60.00)

• Muscat (either Alexandria or Frontignan) - One of the world's most widely planted and versatile group of varieties, locally it was probably developed from 'Spaanse Dryven' (Spanish Grape) cuttings introduced to South Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in the 1650s. Nowhere else does it form such a high percentage of a country's total grape harvest as in South Africa, where it is used especially for dessert wine, as well as natural wine and raisins. Hanepoot (Muscat Alexander) delivers a strong, flowery bouquet and intense honey flavor.
o One of the premier examples of Muscat dessert wines from S.A. is the Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (100% Muscat de Frontignan), once one of the most expensive wines in the world – ($44.99, 500ml)

• Sauvignon Blanc - In combination with Semillon and Muscadel these grapes produce some of the most exceptional white wines of Bordeaux, including the sweetest Sauternes and driest Graves. These wines have a distinctive green peppery or grassy character, and are often aged in wood (sometimes labeled Blanc Fumé). Extensively planted in the 18th century, Sauvignon Blanc has now regained popularity and considerably increased its share of plantings. There are some leading local examples which have garnered international attention.
o Great Value – Indaba SB ($7.99)
o More refined – Neil Ellis Sauv Blanc Groenekloof ($16.99)

Red-wine cultivars grown in South Africa include:
• Cabernet Sauvignon - An increasingly significant variety at the Cape, it's the foremost variety of the Bordeaux region of France. Cabernet Sauvignon produces top-class wines that develop well with age into spicy, full, complex wines. As in Bordeaux, it may be blended with Merlot or its relative, Cabernet Franc.
o Everyday value – MAN Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99)
o The Best of the Best Cap Blend – De Toren Fusion V ($39.99)

• Merlot - An early ripening variety, traditionally used as a blending partner to add softness and breadth to Cabernet Sauvignon but now increasingly being bottled as a varietal wine, with some superb results locally. Planted in increasing quantities, particularly in the Stellenbosch and Paarl regions.
o Value – Guardian Peak ($11.99)
o Top Wine would include the Meinert Devon Crest from Stellenbosch which is from 3 vineyards – two composed of Merlot ($32.99)

• Pinot Noir - The king of Burgundy but notoriously difficult to grow elsewhere. Although not yet widely planted, this variety is now producing excellent wines in the cooler viticultural areas of South Africa. Wines tend to be lighter in color with distinct vegetal flavors and aromas. A large proportion is used in Cap Classique sparkling wines.
o Really only one choice here, be smart and treat yourself – Hamilton-Russell from cool climate Walker Bay area – since the 1970s producing some of the finest PN not only in SA, but in the New World ($39.99, 6pk)

• Pinotage - A local cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Hermitage), created by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925, this variety combines the noble characteristics of the former with the reliability of the latter. Unique to South Africa, it can produce complex and fruity wines with age but is also often very drinkable when young. With great strides made in the making of Pinotage, South Africa’s own variety is rapidly gaining increasing acceptance and finding flavor worldwide both as a varietal bottling and in blends. The ‘Cape blend’ is an evolving term which generally denotes a red blend with Pinotage as a component making up 30 to 70 percent of the wine.
o Wet Donkey on Fire, you say? Not a chance! Again and again this Pinotage surprises people by its juicy, well balanced fruit that has not even the slightest whiff of burnt tires – Wilderkrans (Bot River) Pinotage ($12.99) – great with the Braai (the Bar-B-Q).

• Shiraz - A noble variety of French origin. Better known as Syrah elsewhere, the largest production of Shiraz is now found in Australia but local plantings have increased strongly. Made in several different styles here, it yields deep purple smoky and spicy wines which develop a complex character with age. This is the cultivar that many people are banking will really dominate the quality wines from SA in the near future – unique, concentrated expressions that fit somewhere between fatten-up OZ Shiraz and peppery Cotes du Rhone.
o Value of the day – Porcupine Ridge by Boekenhoutskloof ($8.99)
o Just plain killer wine – de Trafford Shiraz Blueprint (yeh, Baby!) ($29.99)

Cultivar Description from WOSA,
Other text by Brian Mitchell - Empowering the Consumer through Better Wine Education

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