With more than three centuries of winemaking under its oh-so-rugged belt, South Africa is one of the oldest new wine regions on earth. Or should we say newest old wine regions?
Surveying the hundreds of wineries showing their wares at Cape Wine, a trade show held in lovely Cape Town every three years, is to gaze out over a strange hybrid of rebuilding and building for the first time. After all, most American wine lovers came of age during a period in which South African wines were embargoed by the international community, part of pressing for the end of racial apartheid. That end finally came, through the sacrifices of Nelson Mandela and others, in the early 1990s. The world was suddenly ready to taste South African wines.
Within the country itself, several regions have some tradition of winemaking, but the bulk of international distribution comes from the Western Cape—a dramatically beautiful region looking out over the meeting of Atlantic and Indian oceans. The Western Cape is divided into five producing districts, of which the so-called Coastal Region is best known. It is here that you find Stellenbosch, the wine name most likely to be familiar for lovely and classically made dry whites and reds, as well as Constantia, legendary for its sweet dessert wines.
Traditionally, people who knew South African wines seemed to speak a different language, one born of the Dutch-based Afrikaans. They spoke of steen among white wines (a local name for chenin blanc) or, even more often, of pinotage (a local cross between pinot noir and cinsaut). These days neither word is in ascendancy, falling behind more appreciated varietals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc among the whites, and among reds cabernet (both sauvignon and franc), merlot, pinot noir and a version of syrah/shiraz no doubt inspired by Australia’s game-changing success.
Stellenbosch, meaning both the region and the town, represents South African winemaking and wine tourism at its finest. The place is cultured to the point of feeling European by way of northern California, with tasting rooms, class-act hotels and significant restaurants. The recent visit also included side trips to diverse up-and-coming regions like Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth), Swartland and Slanghoek. In that last, an overnight visit with winemaker Attie Louw and his family at Opstal Estate made us believe in South Africa’s viticultural future.
The wines are great, but the people are greater. They deserve to have their wines enjoyed, whether it’s in our favorite fine dining restaurants or at our next backyard “braai” (rhymes with cry). After all, here in Texas, we simply call that a barbecue.