Monthly Archives: October 2013

Beyond Expectations (Buitenverwachting) in South African Wine Country

20131027-123801.jpg View of Table Mountain from Cape Grace Hotel Room

I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s one thing to read about history, culture, politics, food, wine, maps… It’s quite another to experience South Africa, and to be entirely enchanted by this beautiful place.

It’s springtime. The days are warm, even with intense cloud cover the first day, and the nights are cool. Cape Grace Hotel is situated right on the Victoria & Albert waterfront with a full-on view of Table Mountain and the harbor from my room. It is lush and green and tropical, best understood by touring Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens right on the edge of the Cape Town flats. The history of South Africa is actually revealed in the story of indigenous vs. imported plants and trees. The mix, on property donated by Cecil Rhodes upon his death, is breathtaking.

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There are no straight lines in Cape Town! The only way to know where in the city you might actually be situated is to keep a fix on your position relative to Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Because the core area is flat, low-rise, dense and compact, you can see them from nearly every vantage point. In a matter of minutes everything changes from concrete to green, from flat to hilly to mountainous, and one can drive from easily from city to suburb to vineyards.

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The Cape Quarter Neighborhood, District 6 Museum, Biscuit Mill Food/Craft Complex

How many wineries can you visit in one day? My previous record was seven in the densely packed and familiar Napa Valley. We visited six wineries on our first day of touring in Constantia. (It would have been seven, but one winery was closed. We learned when we visited the next day that it had been a private dinner party for a European royal.)

There are 10 significant wineries in the Constantia region (and a few garagiste options) just minutes outside Cape Town on the western peninsula. While the wineries aren’t exactly cheek to jowl, they are situated close enough to manage a marathon of visits in a single day — with a guide/driver, of course! Six of the wineries can trace their origins c. 1685 to the farm called Constantia which was assembled by charismatic Dutch Governor Simon van der Stel.

As you might expect, there have been many owners and transitions during the ensuing 325+ years. Although several of the wineries’ manor houses have been preserved (or rebuilt in cases of fire or neglect) in the Cape Dutch architectural style, just as many current owners have invested significantly in new, modern facilities for visitors as well as vines and wines.

Groot, Klein (pronounced “klane”), Uitsig (“view”) and Steenberg (“mountain of stone”) were each founded at about that same time. Buitenverwachting (which means “beyond expectation” and requires practice to master the pronunciation!) and Eagles’ Nest came along 110-150 years later, respectively. The others, including Beau Constantia which we also visited, are quite modern — less than 30 years old.

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Groot Manor House and Museum, Eagles’ Nest, Bar/Tasting Room at Steenberg (old manor house/new addition)

Misconception #1: South Africa’s main cultivar is Chenin Blanc. Once touted as the grape’s second spiritual home (after the Loire), and still representing 20% of all vines, it has significantly declined in popularity and production. This is perhaps due to the reputation of South African Chenin Blanc which showed poorly on the international market until recently.

Misconception #2: Pinotage, which is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, is an important indigenous grape (since discovery in 1925). In fact, very few winemakers in Constantia (or elsewhere) make Pinotage wine.

Almost universal adoption of familiar international varieties and New World winemaking styles have clearly taken hold here. Very few winemakers in Constantia are experimenting with other grape varieties. Since South Africa’s new era of democracy launched with Nelson Mandela’s election in April 1994, Constantia winemakers have found their style footing in Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeaux blends. With a couple of notable exceptions, the Sauvignon Blancs (SB) were acidic enough to tarnish the enamel on your teeth! After several tries, and hearing the “green grassy gooseberry” description perhaps one too many times, I found myself shifting to taste other things. I did not experience the (mostly) new releases of SBs as “refreshing” or “vibrant,” rather as too acidic. Only those winemakers who blended SB with Semillon (and perhaps a little Viognier), or permitted the varietal SB to spend a meaningful number of months on lees, continued to get my attention and vote of confidence in the category of white wines.

Red Bordeaux blends appear to have become the benchmark wine style. Every winemaker has one, some with significant portions of Petit Verdot, which is a fractional blending partner in most Bordeaux wines. Some were good, some not so much. Shiraz is a close second ubiquitous offering. Unless Pinot Noir made its way into Cap Classique, South Africa’s traditional method sparkling wine, it didn’t appear in Constantia wine offerings. In a few cases, the young wines showed promise for balance and complexity. But just as many did not, exhibiting chewy tannins whose future mellowing potential was quite difficult to judge.

Bottom line for me: love the blends!

It was also surprising that most wineries offer an extensive range of wines — too many, I would argue, to be really excellent at them all. I suspect this is a hazard of climbing up the global production ladder, which South Africa has done successfully with nearly 600 wineries and 8th position in world rankings.

My personal favorites (ranked):

1. Steenberg Nebbiolo
2. Klein Vin de Constance (Muscat, dessert wine)
3. Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
4. Buitenverwachting Loose Canon (Chenin Blanc/Semillon blend)
5. Eagles’ Nest Shiraz
6. Beau Constantia Pas de Nom White (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon/Viognier blend)

The lineup of 25 wines from seven wineries in order of winery visit (grapes listed in order of predominance in the blend):

Beau Constantia: Pas de Nom (“without a name”) 2013 blend of SB, Semillon and Viognier; Pas de Nom 2013 Blanc de Noir (still Rose) of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Shiraz; Pas de Nom 2011 Red blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot; 2013 Viognier; Lucca 2011 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc; Aidan 2011 blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Eagle’s Nest: 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; Little Eagle (non-vintage!) Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot; 2010 Shiraz

Constantia Uitsig: 2012 White Blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon

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La Colombe Restaurant at Constantia Uitsig

Klein Constantia: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc; Marlbrook Red 2008 of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Shiraz; Vin de Constance 2008

Groot Constantia: 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Chardonnay, 2013 Blanc de Noir (still Rose), 2012 Pinotage, 2011 Shiraz, Gouverneurs Reserve 2011 blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Steenberg: 2011 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; Magna Carta Iconic 2010 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; 2011 Nebbiolo

Buitenverwachting: Cap Classique NV Brut; Loose Cannon 2010 blend of Chenin Blanc and Semillon; Christine 2009 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec

(Re)forming Global Wine Markets: The “New” South Africa

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What’s red and white, costs millions of dollars to produce, and takes 20 years to mature? The rebirth of a New World player in the global wine market.

South Africa’s wine renaissance during the 1990s coincides with three other New World market leaders: Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. Their successes were built on Australia’s previous 20 years’ experience branding wines, which launched in the early 1970s, and the surprising victory of the United States in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.”

These countries’ back stories provide interesting context for my journey to South Africa, though of course past is not always prologue. There are a few important and striking similarities.

In oddly regular 100-year cycles, four centuries of European explorers, missionaries and entrepreneurs planted the first grapes in each New World country: Argentina and Chile in the 1550s, South Africa in 1655, California and Australia in the mid- to late-1700s, and finally New Zealand in the mid-1800s. (It’s also worth noting that a wave of Bordelaise expats decided to invest in Chile after they were locked out of vineyard ownership when the 1855 Classification system fundamentally transformed the industry in Bordeaux.) Only Chile and Argentina escaped the curse of Phylloxera in the late 1800s. The early to mid-1900s was a cornucopia of tumultuous economic and political circumstances, and over-production of low quality wines, which certainly stalled the momentum of New World wine industries – and in some cases nearly killed them!

South Africa (SA) is one of those near-death stories. In many ways, it is miraculous that the industry has been resuscitated, albeit with very little resemblance to its colonial past. Wine gurus Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson write this telling note in their just-released 7th edition Wine Atlas of the World: “To the casual observer the Cape winelands may look just as they did in the decades leading up to 1994, but in reality the people, the vineyards, the cellars, the wine map, and the wines have changed out of all recognition.” BTW, I highly recommend this resource. In iBooks for iPad, it is highly interactive with great maps and photos with recommendations of Jancis Robinson’s favorite winemakers around the world.

Revisiting quickly what was happening in SA in 1994, which author Tim James notes in his book The New South Africa, the end of the white majority regime in 1994 allowed for tremendous changes in the wine industry. Other industry changes included the collapse of quota and minimum pricing systems.

The next key pivot point came in 1995 when SA was soundly defeated in an international wine competition against Australia. It was obvious to all that SA wines were of inferior quality. In a dramatic turnaround, and with significant investment in technology as well as improved vineyard and cellar management practices, SA became a late entrant in the flight-to-quality movement. Wine writer John Plattner described this change as a “swivel on its plinth.” (I had to look that one up! A plinth is a heavy base, typically supporting a statue or vase, in this metaphor the historic base of the wine industry.)

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SA winemakers got to work with international varieties developing a style of wine that aimed to strike a balance between familiar Old World styles and the juicy, fruit-forward high-alcohol New World wines of Australia and the US. Happily they were getting ahead of the curve by backing off the latter “Parker points” style. Most of the wineries producing wines in what is now called SA’s “authentic” style were established after 2000. SA’s premier wines are blends, primarily from Bordeaux grapes including Savignon Blanc/Semillon. Sadly, traditional varieties such as Chenin Blanc, and SA’s own Pinotage, have taken a far back seat.

It worked! SA exports increased seven-fold between 1993 and 2011. When the government cooperative KWV was privatized, a sum of about USD47 million was set aside in a trust to fuel research and development. Today, with over 600 wineries and many new vineyards planted on virgin land in emerging wine regions, SA ranks 8th in worldwide wine production. Italy and France dance for first and second places, Spain is third, and the US is fourth followed by Argentina, Australia and Germany.

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I’m looking forward to sharing my journey to South Africa, and meeting some elephants, starting Wednesday.

Previous posts:

Lost and Found?: 20th Century Wine Games in South Africa

Lost: The Wine Industry in South Africa

T-23 to South Africa

Image credits: vineyards theaustinwinemerchant.com; map ameliawine.com; elephant crushing grapes dailymail.co.uk

Lost and Found?: 20th Century Wine Games in South Africa

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It was the longest imaginable game of ping pong with no declared winner. 80 years.

Make wine freely, then control it, then free it up again. Make bad bulk wine, push briefly for quality, and then set policies that all but guaranteed more bad wine. Fortify the wine and jack up the alcohol level (brandy), kick it down a notch to produce a marketable semi-quality still wine, then kick it back up a notch to make bad brandy again. This dizzying process makes you wonder how on earth the captains of this particular universe pulled South Africa out of this tailspin.

But they did, eventually. Here's how the story goes from 1910-1994.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created by the political unification of two boer republics (Transvaal and Free State) with two British colonies (Cape and Natal). Almost immediately the wine industry became just another struggling agribusiness starved for capital. A solution was crafted in 1917 by a new Viticultural Union: the Cooperative Winegrowers' Association of South Africa Ltd. (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt or KWV for short) was approved as a "mutual society" in 1923. Its job was to control the sale and disposal of wine for its members to secure an adequate return for the product. (Notice there was no mention of vineyard or production quality control, which was at that very point was being developed as the modern system of appellations in Europe.)

Liquor control powers granted to the KWV the next year shifted producers' attention to pot-stilled Brandy and then Sherry. South Africa became one of the world's largest brandy producers. Quality still wine production took a back seat. Even though the Pinotage grape (Pinot Noir x Cinsault) was created at the University of Stellenbosch at about the same time, interest in fortified wines ruled the day. The most symbolic example is that government had all but abandoned the famous vineyards at Groot Constantia (from the 1600s), and its historic manor house burned down in 1925. Skipping ahead in my story, all is well in modern times. I will be visiting Groot Constantia on October 26th!

The next chapter of this story is particularly bleak. Quality was discouraged by a minimum pricing scheme, but in a perverse twist, production increased dramatically. This went on until about 1940 when the KWV was granted additional power to control transactions for the whole wine industry, including production limits. But even so, vineyard owners were farmers, not winemakers. They were paid for overproduction, so the practice continued. The wine industry expanded slowly to inland parts of the country where warmer climate and irrigation promoted high yields. There were no incentives to produce quality grapes for quality wine.

Things began to shift in 1959. The Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (government cooperative) was acquired by a private owner who infused the property with capital and new technologies, and launched a revolution in Cape wine with a semi-sweet Chenin Blanc called Lieberstein. It created a huge new domestic market, and thus "imitators" got to work within the constraints imposed by the KWV. More Chenin Blanc was planted. Cellars were modernized. The Cape tradition of emphasizing white wines was reinforced.

In a move that must be viewed as both terrible (political and economic motives) and terrific (equity), a piece of legislation in 1962 permitted the unrestricted sale of liquor to all races, but continued to restrict by race the locations where wine could be purchased. Overproduction was still a problem until KWV was further empowered to set production limits, and quality remained a problem because the regulations made no distinction between bulk and quality wines. Until 1992, when the quota system of production was abolished, the development of new wine regions was effectively vetoed by the KWV.

A series of events from 1970-90 began to reveal that South Africa's conservative and complacent approach threatened to leave it behind on the world stage forever. Among the defiant pokes at KWV were innovative private owners finding loopholes in the regulations, importing vines of the noble varieties (e.g., Chardonnay, Cabernet), and the competitive juices that started flowing on many continents after Americans prevailed in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Although the French appellation system was created in 1935, South Africa's "Wine of Origin" scheme was not developed until 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community, affecting the rules of production, quality and labeling for any country selling wine to European nations. Extensive research was conducted by the Enological and Viticultural Research Institute (Nietvoorbij) which had been established in 1969. New technical developments fueled a decade of innovation and experimentation during the 1970s, leading to a full-scale consolidation of these gains into regular winegrowing practices in the 1980s. Things were evolving to the point that a South African wine guide was created in 1980 by John and Erica Platter. (I am looking at the 33rd edition on my desk — thanks Mary Horn!)

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As author Tim James notes in Wines of the New South Africa, “(t)he end of the white majority regime in 1994 allowed for the remarkable changes in the South African wine industry that followed…political liberation at home opened the wine industry to the world.” The KWV was privatized in 1997.

Image credits: southafrica.net; online.wsj.com

Next installment: 25 years of the “new” South Africa

Lost: The Wine Industry in 19th century South Africa

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In my last post describing the early history of the South African wine industry (1655-1890), I lamented that very little has been written – or at least not easily found – explaining what happened between the late 1700s and the devastating phylloxera epidemic in 1886. Thanks to International Wine Review (iwinereview.com) and a recent comprehensive report on the wines of SA, I learned of a new book published in June called “Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution” by Tim James.

So before turning to the story of modern times, our lifetimes, I want to fill in the gap of what was a very tumultuous but important time in the country’s history that clearly shaped the modern world of wine we have experienced today. I can boil the essence of the lost century down to two factors: (1) considered a “European outpost” at the turn of the 19th century, the Colony of South Africa changed hands three times in 20 years, and (2) wine quality was – well – NOT! Problems existed all along the production chain from viticultural practices to winemaking techniques. It was frankly a mess.

An abbreviated recap of the key political and economic timeline during this period, with a sharp lens toward effects on the wine industry, provides context:
• Over a century of rule by the Dutch East India Company ended in 1795 with the first British occupation of South Africa.
• The Netherlands fought back to rule from 1803-1806.
• In 1806, the British answered this ping-pong match by re-occupying the colony which led to the ultimate cession of the Cape Colony to Britain in 1814.
• The population exploded to more than 40,000 Europeans living in SA by 1820.
• Preferential tariffs for European exports, so important in the early years to propel South Africa’s export market, began to wane in 1825. Prices plummeted.

There were periodic resurgences of profitable wine export trade from 1825 until 1885 depending on local crop conditions and British taxation policies. But no period of growth was ever enough to steady the trade industry or combat the problems of quality production that plagued the industry for decades. South African still wine and fortified Cape Brandy were primarily domestic products. Lacking a quality product for export, despite significant growth in local demand, the wine industry “boom” essentially fell apart by about 1835.

This erratic economic era snapped shut in 1885 when the once-prestigious Constantia farm on the Cape Town peninsula could no longer operate privately and was purchased by the government. The final “nail in the coffin” occurred in 1886 when the deadly phylloxera louse killed most grapevines in a global wave of misery that spread from the United States to Europe and to South Africa.

War and population growth had clearly been good for the wine trade. Plantings and production increased dramatically for nearly 100 years. Although problems with wine quality were well known, efforts to establish an export market were dashed when SA wines were rejected in European markets. It was a bust.

Yet, unbelievably, production continued unbridled. Wine farming, particularly in the southwest area around Cape Town, remained the prime agribusiness sector for years. Most farms were heavily mortgaged small producers growing high yielding vines. (It wasn’t until the 20th century that a global understanding emerged: low-yielding vineyards produce high-quality, complex and concentrated, wines.). Production surpluses in SA were reportedly dumped into rivers as waste product.

Author James gently tackles the history of the connections between slavery and the wine industry throughout these topsy-turvy years. Between 1770 and 1820, the slave population of SA increased four-fold to about 32,000. Owners of wine farms owned on average sixteen slaves. Although Britain officially ceased trading slaves in 1807, and further abolished slavery in 1834, the practices of slavery continued on.

Cape Colony farmers were faced with what history books describe as “a paradoxical situation”: they were encouraged by the British government to increase productivity with a declining labor pool. The incentives to uphold a terrible system of slave labor were embedded. But one example is needed to explain the paradox. The “Tot System”, also known as the Dop (Afrikaans for “alcoholic drink”) System, was a commodity exchange device that paid farm workers in a daily measure of cheap wine instead of cash. Workers were held captive, not so much at that point by physical force, but by addiction which destroyed many communities in South Africa. [This practice continued until it was banned in 1960, but carried on until the 1990s when Nelson Mandela’s democratic government enforced the ban.]

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This is an admittedly brief summary of a long period of time and many socio-economic and political issues. I encourage further reading and research for more in-depth understanding of this period of time.

Photo credits: iaminamsterdam.com; thedrakevine.weebly.com.