“The first duty of wine is to be red” pronounced one of the UK wine trade’s grandees, Harry Waugh. It does seem that, when it comes to truly great or fine wine, red has more gravitas.
However, recently I find myself increasingly drawn to white wine – and particularly to the white wines of South Africa.
When I first came across South African wines in the mid-nineties the reds were a mixed bunch: easy drinking, soft reds, others with a bit of rusticity, some just downright tough – and often with a characteristic hint of rubber glove about them. Many whites, usually made from Chenin Blanc, were pretty dull; stripped of personality by high yields.
In the intervening twenty years, the pace of change in South Africa has been breathtaking. In the era of apartheid, grape growers were rewarded for volume rather than quality; the fact that in 1990, 70% of the grape harvest was destined either for brandy or fruit juice production tells its own story. And yet, by 2003, the proportions had reversed and 70% of the harvest went on to be made into wine.
Today South Africa is one of the world’s most exciting wine producing nations. It’s a place where natural and human influences meet. The Cape is at the confluence of two oceans – Atlantic and Indian. Historically it also played a vital role in bridging the divide between the Old and New worlds in the era of the Dutch East Indies company. The very first Cape grapes were pressed to make wine in 1659, when Jan van Riebeck was charged with developing a market garden to supply ships bound for the Indies with fresh produce in order to alleviate scurvy amongst the sailors and merchants.
While much of South Africa is far too hot and dry for wine grape growing, the area around Cape Town, where the winelands cluster, has a benign Mediterranean climate. Additionally the cold Benguela current flowing north from Antarctica and the so-called Cape Doctor southeasterly summer wind combine to ensure this part of the country is cooler than its latitude would suggest, and help to keep vines free of rot.
The most momentous change, however, is in the human sphere. After the isolation of apartheid there has been a new spirit of openness and an explosion of creativity. Stellenbosch, the heartland of quality wine is still the capital of wine production, but winemakers are spreading out to new, cooler areas, as well as reinventing old, poorly regarded areas such as Swartland and reinventing them as the home of sustainable, high quality winemaking.
Wines to look out for:
The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc 2103 - £12.49 from Noel Young Wines, £10.75 if you buy 6 from allaboutwine.co.uk
Here’s proof that Chenin Blanc is capable of making much more than dull, crisp wines. The Tea Leaf in question here is Rooisbos, South Africa’s indigenous herbal tea (an acquired taste). Auto-suggestion or not, but this Chenin does seem to have a distinct herbal edge alongside its tangy, ripe pineapple fruit, which may or may not be due to the nearby Rooibos plantation. Smart packaging too.
This very classy blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc from really very cool Elim, in South Africa’s most southerly district of Cape Agulhas, could be just the thing to refresh the palate of jaded Sauvignon Blanc fans. I find the ubiquitous Sauvignon a bit meh, but this made me stand up and take notice. The Semillon fills out the Sauvignon’s more vegetal flavour profile with lime fruit, and the barrel fermenting and ageing add texture and subtle lees character.
Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse White 2013 - £24.95 from Edgmond Wines
A new venture, established only in 2012, is responsible for this knockout wine made from parcels of vines from Western Cape – the catch-all name for all of South Africa’s wine lands. Care is evident in every facet of this rich but structured white, based on the Rhône’s Roussanne grape, along with Chardonnay, Semillon and a little Chenin Blanc. A wine to linger over, which shows you something new with every sip.
Reyneke are based in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s wine central. Reyneke, however, depart from tradition and are the country’s leading biodynamic estate. I was surprised to find that this is 100% Sauvignon Blanc: it has such layers and nuances of lush fruit, length and complexity I had assumed it must be a blend.
Mullineux White Blend 2012 - £17.95 from Berry Brothers, SA Wines Online
Mullineux Family wines was established only in 2007, but has enjoyed a meteoric rise, including being awarded Winery of the Year in the 2014 edition of the influential Platter’s Guide to South African Wines.
They are based in Swartland, arguably the most exciting region in the whole country for its combination of schist and granite soils and store of old, unirrigated Chenin Blanc bush vines. In the past Swartland was used as a source of bulk fruit for blending or distillation. Now smaller growers are moving in, making use of the old vine Chenin and planting Rhône varietals which thrive in the hot, dry climate. Many, including Mullineux, are also focused on quality and non intervention – so no irrigation of the vines or acidification of the wines.
To the wine – it’s a blend of predominantly Chenin Blanc, with a dash of Rhône varieties Clairette and Viognier. Fermentation relies on natural wild yeasts and takes place in (older) oak barrels, where the wine stays until bottled six months later. If you like to have a sense of where your wine comes from and don’t object to minerality in your wine, to the extent that it can feel like a bit of that schist must have been in the barrel with it, then this is for you.