If someone asks you to predict the next trendy wine region, think back 20 years or so and look for political change. Economic benefits of democratization might come quickly, but wine takes time. Vineyards need to be replanted, viticulture and winemaking techniques updated, wineries modernized. Because the product is made only once a year, modernization translates slowly into improved quality. Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina each experienced a wine renaissance about two decades after democratic change.
Now it’s South Africa’s turn. After the end of apartheid in the 1990s, South Africa’s wines reentered the world market, and its winemakers traveled to work harvests in Europe, the Americas and Australia. They brought modern winemaking techniques home with them. Their efforts are bearing fruit in exciting wines now reaching our market.
“There was undoubtedly a qualitative leap in [South African] wine in the late 1990s, but another, more profound change — precisely, the emergence of increasing numbers of authentic wines — seems to have happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century,” writes Tim James in his comprehensive book “Wines of the New South Africa” (University of California, 2013). “A significant proportion of the best South African wines today were not being made in 2000, and many of what are now recognized as the finest wineries were not yet established.”
Such a metamorphosis could easily move toward an international style that mimics wine from other countries, and a lot of South African wine is fine, yet indistinguishable from cabernet or chardonnay from anywhere else. But James describes a wine revolution that achieves modernity while respecting the Cape region’s 350 years of viticultural tradition. Just as in California, some of the younger winemakers setting new standards are working with older vineyards that have been forgotten by larger wineries.
Eben Sadie is one such winemaker, working in the Swartland region in western South Africa, north of Cape Town. His Sadie Family wines are compelling blends based on Rhone varieties grown on old bush-trained vines rather than the neatly trellised vine rows we are used to seeing. Sadie is such a stickler for expressing South African terroir that he avoids using French barrels because he doesn’t want foreign flavors in his wines. Rather, he ages them in cement vats or clay amphorae made from local soils. The wines are expensive and available primarily in restaurants (though MacArthur Beverages in the District carries them).
In Western Cape, Duncan Savage crafts racy, intense sauvignon blanc at Cape Point Vineyards, as well as a deep, complex Rhone-style red blend under his own Savage label. Located on the Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town, the vineyards are cooled by sea winds, lending a saline character to the wines, especially the whites.
South Africa’s renaissance also attracted foreign winemakers. California winery magnate Charles Banks bought Mulderbosch and Fable Mountain Vineyards. Vilafonté winery is a joint venture involving California wine pioneers Zelma Long and Phil Freese and South Africa’s Mike Ratcliffe, proprietor of Warwick Estate winery. Vilafonté produces exceptional Bordeaux-style red blends.
The last time I wrote about South African wines, I praised the whites, especially the sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc (sometimes still called by the local name, steen). The country’s red wines often seemed afflicted by a strange, off-putting flavor that became controversial in the wine media a few years ago. My recent tastings have been much more pleasant, with delicious reds at all price points.
South Africa’s time to shine on the wine stage has come. It’s our time to enjoy exploring these delicious and fascinating wines. Pretty soon, Eastern Europe might catch our attention.