The vines were beautiful in January. Shaded by deep green leaves, healthy bunches of grapes ripened under clear skies. It's summer in South Africa and the wine farmers of the Cape of Good Hope will be picking their 1982 harvest by now.
The tip of Africa must be one of the world's prettiest wine areas. It has mountains and beaches, vineyards and sea, and in the winelands, where avenues of oaks and flowering gums lead to white gabled houses, the Cape Dutch architecture is at its best.
The Cape, whose winter rains and generally dry summers are unique in southern Africa, is the only quality wine-growing area south of the Sahara. There's been a wine industry there since the first Dutch governor, Jan van Riebeeck, planted vines in 1652. It was famous in 18th- and 19th-century Europe for the sweet red wines of Constantia. Today the wine estate of Groot Constantia is national property, holding out against Cape Town's encroaching suburbs.
Vineyard land has always been limited on the Cape peninsula and farmers moved into the hinterland 300 years ago. The centers for better quality wines have been the coastal region towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl and the inland town of Tulbagh, which is in a pocket of good rainfall. Other areas, such as Robertson, are catching up, thanks to modern irrigation.
South Africa's wine industry may be three centuries old, but the tradition of quality winemaking, unfortunately, is not. The South Africans can blame themselves for this. Except in the Cape, they were not wine drinkers, preferring brandy and beer. No longer. In the past 10 years there's been a swing to table wines that parallels trends here and in Australia. This, in turn, has encouraged and stimulated producers.
Nicky Krone is a young pace-setter. His father, N. C., was the pioneer of cold fermentation in the '50s and Nicky has taken over most of the responsibilities at Twee Jongegezellen, near Tulbagh, an estate that has been in his family since 1710.
A proponent of the back-to-the-vineyard school of winemaking, he has been planting new and better grape varieties. "We have to start with the right genetic material. The South African industry has modernized in the cellar, but has ignored the vines."
To be fair, in the past, imported cuttings had been flawed or diseased and attempts to produce classical varieties such as chardonnay and pinot noir failed. To ensure that the material was virus-free, the government imposed an overly lengthy quarantine, which in turn has hampered progress.
With a little smuggling here and a blind eye from officialdom there, a few determined growers ignored the quarantine regulations. Now, Krone says, the regulations are being relaxed.
His own results with sauvignon blanc, rhine or white riesling and gewurztraminer contrast markedly with the uniformity and one-dimensional character of most of the dry whites. And at South African retail prices of under $3, well, it's hard to think of better value anywhere.
Twee Jongegezellen, like many estates, is bottled and marketed by a large producer-distributor, in this case, Gilbey's. We can't buy its wines here, but there are two well-known South African lines already in the Washington area, the Bergkelder and KWV, on which there'll be some notes next week.
As I sat on Nicky Krone's stoep on a summer morning, sipping his '71 dessert wine, a delicious apricot-scented blend of semillon and steen, I thought that the future for the wines of the Cape looked as healthy as the vines.