One of the exciting things about the wine business is the reliable way in which it mirrors social and political change. The image of mixed races of the South African population patiently lining up in the hot sun to vote together for the very first time may well be the most moving sight in our lifetimes. As soon as Nelson Mandela was voted in to power and apartheid reliably a thing of the past, wine lovers the world over had to revise the habits of a lifetime and begin to take a positive interest in once-reviled exports from South Africa, of which wine, with its labelling for all to see, is the most obvious.
For South African wine producers the transformations of 1993 and 1994 heralded an era of potential prosperity, with previously forbidden export markets opened up almost overnight, but also created the challenge of seeing their wines exposed to international competition. One result of South Africa's prolonged isolation was that wine consumers, commentators and producers seemed to be almost unhealthily obsessed by the detailed results of comparative tastings.
Thanks to the country's surplus of clean, well-made, bargain-basement dry white (and to systematic export subsidies), South Africa saw her wine exports to the UK grow rapidly from the mid 1990s on, although the US is still to take a serious interest in wines from an exporter which had previously been scorned. One would expect the fact that South Africa's wine country is the most dramatically beautiful in the world to help the fortunes of its produce abroad.
Within South Africa's vineyards and cellars themselves, producers have shown how rapidly they can absorb and adapt new techniques and fashions in wine styles. The current objectives are to continue to maximise the quality of their raw material – most obviously systematically replacing the vines whose output has been seriously affected by viruses, but also continuing to understand better which clones are best suited to local conditions (and getting them through national plant quarantines). A second imperative is to raise the image of South African wines abroad so that they get beyond the cheap and cheerful slot filled by brands such as Kumala, Arniston Bay and First Cape.
Wine has been made on the Cape of Good Hope since the mid 17th century, which means that South Africa has a much longer, unbroken history of winemaking than either Australia or California. Even today the influence of the Cape Dutch, the original settlers, is strong, as witness the scalloped white gables of many a winery and the Afrikaans names, which many potential wine importers find so difficult to pronounce.
Only the south-western limit of the country (and continent), lapped by the Indian Ocean but cooled to a varied extent by winds off the Atlantic and currents from the Antarctic, is suitable for vine-growing. The climate of the wine regions is in very general terms slightly hotter than California's best known (few coastal fogs here) but ever cooler areas are being sought, found and planted, especially near the coast.
Most table wines are labelled varietally, making them easily accessible to worldwide consumers. The Wine of Origin system (similar to appellation contrôlée in France, see below) has been in existence for more than 30 years but regions and subregions are not widely recognised outside South Africa and regional characteristics are still only partially defined. The chief grape variety (almost invariably called 'cultivar' in South Africa) by far is Chenin Blanc, which can easily be persuaded to produce large volumes of clean, refreshing, very keenly priced dry and medium-dry white, occasionally still called Steen within South Africa. Chenin is capable of much greater concentration and sophistication, especially from older bush vines, but such wines are harder to find outside South Africa. Other important white varieties include Colombar(d) (a significant ingredient in South Africa's cheap dry whites), Cape Riesling (Crouchen), Semillon, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, various Muscats and, of course, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, which are now the country’s third and fourth most planted white varieties respectively. It took South African nurseries time to offer any seriously good Chardonnay cuttings, which may help to explain South Africa's unusual fondness for Chardonnay blends. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, has been planted here for a century and can make some wonderfully self-confident, fruity wines – as well as some very inexpensive, less concentrated ones. Old vine Semillon can also make really complex, ageworthy wines.
Plantings of red varieties have increased dramatically of late and now represent more than 40% of the vineyard area destined for wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is now the dominant variety, followed by Shiraz, then Pinotage and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is regarded as the aristocrat of the Cape's vineyards, but it needs careful treatment in the cellar to yield a deep-coloured, well-balanced, seriously long-lived wine. Tannins can be obtrusive. Merlot is increasingly made as a varietal wine as well as being used to blend with Cabernet, and fashionable Shiraz is made in both New World and Rhône styles, the latter often indicated by the use of Syrah rather than Shiraz on the label.
Pinotage, a 1920s Cape crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, is the national speciality and the main ingredient in what have become known as ‘Cape blends’, but it can have a very distinctive, sometimes slightly burnt flavour, and producers and consumers alike are divided on its potential to make great wine. Made in an approachable, Beaujolais style it can be lively and aromatic while more heavyweight, oaked examples demonstrate increasing finesse. Some see this grape as South Africa's answer to California's Zinfandel and Australia's Shiraz. Pinot Noir is grown only in the coolest spots with any success and even here growers have been hampered by a lack of Burgundian (as opposed to Swiss) clones. The Cape's excellent ‘port’-making heritage has also resulted in significant plantings of Portuguese vines such as Tinta Barroca, which may also be made into substantial dry reds.
The structure of the South African wine business has also changed dramatically in the last 10 years. While the 60 or so co-ops are still important, providing grapes for cheap wines on the domestic market and some of the big export brands, there are now nearly 500 private wineries. It is hard to believe that only recently have individual wine estates been even allowed to buy in grapes, although a separate name must be used for the wine they produce – quite a contrast with most New World wine producing countries!
South Africa is firmly hanging its hat on a programme encouraging wine farmers to adopt sustainable farming techniques and to retain the country’s exceptional biodiversity.
Understanding South African labels
Estate Wine, this may appear only on wines bottled on the farm on which all the grapes were grown and vinified.
Méthode Cap Classique, South Africa's own term for the traditional champagne method of making wine sparkle.
Noble Late Harvest, sweet wine made from botrytised grapes.
Wine of Origin, South Africa's answer to France's appellation contrôlée system, authenticates the grape variety specified on the label, the vintage and the wine's provenance. Geographical unit, region, district and ward are the official terms for the areas of origin, in descending order of size.