WINETALK – Wines that South Africa hangs its hat on.
Think French wine and it might be Bordeaux (Cab and Merlot et al) or Burgundy (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) or Champagne or another regional speciality that springs to mind. Argentina is associated with Malbec, Australia with Shiraz, New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc, and so on – not exclusively so, but still. Think South Africa, however? What do wine lovers locally or overseas think of when it comes to the Cape? What should the SA wine industry position as its strong suit or trump card?
One school of thought is to trumpet the wonders of Chenin Blanc, being widely planted, versatile and successful in various parts of this country as well as in the Loire Valley of France but not much place else. Another is to punt Pinotage, South Africa’s most successful cross (of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) that is more unique to the RSA than Chenin and which to a large degree has recovered from the controversies that dogged the variety some years ago. There are also associations and focus groups lobbying in favour of Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cap Classique sparkling wine.
Many a wine aficionado will tell you that the future of Cape Wine is tied to its red blends – to Cab-led Bordeaux-style combo’s but increasingly also (if not more so) to Shiraz-led Rhône-style blends. Yet there are also a number of wine critics adamant that generally speaking, South Africa’s whites are better than its reds – inclusive of blended whites of which several categories have been established, especially those comprising or dominated by Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
No matter how good the country’s sweet dessert wines of various kinds, people want to know what’s on the menu for the main course. Pudding and Port-style wines will always be niche. And bubbly wise, while the number of respectable SA sparklers made according to the traditional method has become a very long list, suffice to say that competing head on with the Champagne people of France is an enormous challenge – particularly with EU trade regulations frustrating matters, to say the least.
If you look to the top performers in blind tastings around the world over the past 10 years, the SA reds that have excelled most often and in largest numbers are Cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends, followed by Shiraz and Rhône-style blends, followed by Pinotage… Whereas the white varieties leading the way in this regard are Chardonnay, followed by Chenin and Sauvignon.
And serving to complicate matters, as it were, are the increasing number of good SA wines coming onto the market that have been made from varieties previously confined to blends or virtually non-existent on the Cape Wine landscape until recently – a number of them from areas where vineyards were nowhere to be seen a generation ago. It’s interesting, for example, to witness the growing number of leading winemakers who are doing more than dabble with Grenache, red and white.
Of course, what we’re touching on here is one of the things that make the winelands of South Africa so exciting relative to other wine-producing countries. There’s so much experimentation, innovation and exploration going on that there are numerous types and classes of wine for the industry to hang its hat on. What would be useful though is for each of the various districts or wards at least to agree on what they’re best at and to focus more, rather than persisting with an entire fruit salad.
Mike Froud is editor of the Top Wine SA website and blog, manager of the SA Wine & Cellar Classifications, author of the book My WineRoute South Africa, editor of South Africa’s Pinotage Wine Guide and managing editor of the Icons book showcasing the results of the Trophy Wine Show.