Judging from most wine retail shelves, you wouldn’t think that there are literally thousands of different grape varieties from which to make wine, would you?
As far as locally available reds go, you can find bottle after bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and our very own homegrown Pinotage (a cross of everyone’s favourite ‘heartbreak grape’ Pinot Noir with ‘workhorse’ Cinsaut). And most wine drinkers understand that Bordeaux-style blends typically contain some Cab and/or Merlot (though some might be hard-pressed to identify Malbec, Petit Verdot or even Cabernet Franc) and that Rhône-style blends more or less mean Shiraz (with some Mourvèdre, Grenache and/or perhaps a smidgen of white Viognier thrown in).
But the irony of the ‘variety is in our nature’ slogan of Wines of South Africa in recent years – telling the world that that the conditions supporting the Cape’s remarkable biodiversity can in turn support a huge spectrum of cultivars and wine styles – is that we haven’t actually had much variety at all!
Our viticultural landscape remains indisputably French, for historic reasons including the arrival of the French Huguenots in the late 1600s. Yet this still doesn’t mean that we have much peppery Counoise or red-fleshed Alicante Bouschet (a parent of SA’s grassy Roobernet), let alone much Tannat (the southern French grape that is now Uruguay’s signature variety, made locally by Fairview, Glen Carlou, Lowerland and Mooi Bly) or Carignan, probably of Spanish origin but the single most common grape variety in France until the late 1900s when it was overtaken by Merlot (try the Hoopenberg Carignan 2013 in our Reserve Pack).
And some would argue that our (changing) climate is far better suited to the Mediterranean grapes of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain anyway.
So where are they?
Actually our proud tradition of making Port-style wines means Portugal is fairly well represented in South Africa by the likes of Souzão, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barocca, Touriga Francsca and Touriga Naçional (increasingly being used to produce dry table wines).
Meanwhile, there have been small pockets of Italian grapes growing in SA for decades, from A (for Altydgedacht with its popular Barbera, planted in 1928) to Z (for Zinfandel, known as Primitivo in Puglia, first planted at Blaauwklippen in 1977). Plantings of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo have also increased quite significantly over the past decade, with more recent introductions including Nero d’Avola (the soft, ripe, aromatic and approachable wine of Sicily).
There’s something of a Spanish Uprising happening, thanks to fashionable, jammy, chocolatey Grenache (Garnacha in its homeland, here getting royal treatment from David & Nadia Sadie, Neil Ellis and Vriesenhof, among others), while the Tempranillo of Rioja and Ribera del Douro fame has come to the fore courtesy of producers including Stony Brook (with its Ovidius) and Daniel de Waal (in his Super Single Vineyards Mount Sutherland range).
As for Greece, such grapes as Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro should thrive here, but selling them – with an Afrikaans accent nogal – might prove a challenge.
Ultimately, that’s why ‘unusual’ reds remain ‘unusual’. There is no single consumer product that is more diverse, more confusing and more unfathomable than wine, and that’s if we stick to the grapes that most of us are familiar with! If we venture outside our comfort zone from time to time, however, our wine-drinking experience is all the richer.
Joanne Gibson is a freelance wine writer with a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Winner of the Franschhoek Literary Festival’s Wine Writer of the Year award in 2009 and 2015, she also won the 2015 Du Toitskloof Wine Writer of the Year competition and has been shortlisted no fewer than four times in the UK’s Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards.