In vino veritas, part VIII: South African wines

Staying with our Southern Hemisphere theme, in addition to Australia, another prominent exporter is another former crown colony, South Africa. And as with its Commonwealth counterpart, the nation’s winemaking heritage goes hand-in-hand with European colonization.

For starters, sneak a glance at a world map, or recall the nation’s location from memory — specifically, the region around the Cape of Good Hope at the southwestern corner of the nation. This area encompasses the Cape Peninsula and, more broadly, the Western Cape, including the first Dutch colony — and later the first British colony — that would become the city of Cape Town. Special to the Cape Peninsula is the intersection of weather systems from the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean currents with a more-than-generous contribution from the Antarctic that acts to drastically temper humidity.

All this — in addition to some very extraneous mountains, valleys and flatlands — amounts to hot, dry, sunlight-heavy summer seasons lasting from November to April, similar to the Mediterranean. However, certain appellations — “wards,” as they are locally termed — experience considerably milder and wetter year-round conditions, especially those closest to the coast. This unique terroir has created many sundry microclimates and, thus, many diverse cultivars.

One part climate, another part topography and a third part colonization, to this day the Western Cape is where the vast majority of South Africa’s viticultural activity transpires. The Dutch East India Co. was the first to instigate this development, importing grapevines and harvesting the fruit for sailors to fend off scurvy during the passage from Europe to India and Southeast Asia. As you know, wherever there are fecund grapevines, there will soon be winemaking. Indeed, by 1659, a vineyard was established at Constantia just north of Cape Town.

Once the colony was folded into the British Empire, production sharply increased throughout the 19th century as a means to countervail the dominant French product on the international market. With the bulk of South African wines exported to Great Britain, the nation’s industry declined towards the end of the century following the dissolution of the preferential tariffs that precluded French vintages. For most of the 20th century, vintners suffered tremendously under Apartheid as worldwide boycotts thwarted overseas commerce and knowledge exchange.

But with the collapse of this system of racial segregation in 1994, South Africa’s winemaking quickly rebounded and is now the eighth-largest worldwide producer and exporter. Adhering to the purview of the internal Wine of Origin administration, there are now roughly 60 active wards with most of the harvest controlled by several large cooperatives. Alongside this resurgence has come a renewed focus on international prospects as many vineyards shift towards the noble varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz.

However, the reopening of trade routes has also allowed for a revival of South Africa’s own cultivars and styles. Most pronounced are the fortified wines designed under the “Cape Port” marker. Heavily influenced by Portuguese seafarers migrating through the Cape Colony, these spirits cover a wide range of varietals, both white and red, as well as winemaking techniques, comprising a narrow assortment of strict vintage classifications.

Three more atypical grape pedigrees nearing the top of South Africa’s production list are Chenin Blanc, Colombard and Pinotage. Chenin Blanc, also called Steen, is originally from the Loire Valley in northwestern France and has been adapted mainly for dry dessert wines and sparkling whites as well as those in the Cape Port vein. Colombard, an offspring of Chenin Blanc, is a sweeter white used mainly for the Cape Port wines. Lastly, Pinotage, a deep red cross of Pinot Noir, was first crafted in the Western Cape and is now a required constituent in blends produced in the region.

My first morsel of advice is to consider these three varietals popular to South Africa, if only to offer the surface allure of something more exotic. Imagine your wine list already boasting a premier stable of the usual suspects; a label with an unfamiliar base ingredient may be enough to pique the more adventurous patron and encourage extra sales.

As for dabbling in the Cape Port-style wines, consider getting in touch with a Cape Wine Master, the highest formal qualification within the South African wine industry, to canvass their knowledge and stamp of authenticity. Due to their strengthened nature at or above 16% alcohol content, the Cape Port vintages may be more suitable as aperitifs or dessert accompaniments. Save for their extensive local appeal, these fortified wines remain comparatively unknown elsewhere. Hence, conspicuous labeling or their inclusion in pairing suggestions may be required to point customers in the right direction.

Whether you stock some of the more conventional fare or try your hand with fortified wines, South African bottles offer a good break from the ordinary. Just one more nation to consider for diversifying your wine list.