South Africa’s Wilderness Is Good for Wine Makers — and Vice Versa

Photo credit: © Hendrik Holler, Wines of South Africa
Photo credit: © Hendrik Holler, Wines of South Africa

Nothing about the South African wine industry is simple.

Start with their grapes. The country’s most widely planted white varietal is chenin blanc but, as in France, that grape wears many masks, from desert-dry to dessert-sweet, clean and crisp to dense and oxidized. Sparklers, too. The country’s best-known (but not most widely planted) red grape is pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and cinsault that’s grown almost nowhere else and despised as much as it is loved. The Cape Winelands are very old, and yet, the country’s categorized as a new-world wine region, its liquid bounty largely unknown to oenophiles until Apartheid fell. It’s a region that experiments with as many different grapes as any country in the world, despite being a beer- and brandy-drinking nation that largely ignores its own (ridiculously affordable) wines, exporting 50 percent of them elsewhere. This is a wine capitol that cannot even decide whether to say “syrah” or “shiraz.”

Stateside, this makes South African wine the face at the cocktail party that nobody can quite place. Even the savviest New York wine drinker’s mind can cloud over a bit when confronted with the South African section of the wine list (if, indeed, such a section exists). France is Bordeaux and Burgundy. Germany is riesling. California is cab and chard. And South African is…what, now?

South African vintners have for years looked on in frustration as other countries have etched out distinct consumer identities. “Argentina took malbec and made it theirs,” says Josh Levin, co- owner of the South African–leaning Kaia Wine Bar on the Upper East Side. “They did a good job at branding [malbec]…. I don’t think South Africa has ever been able to do that.”

“I think it’s a secret,” says Adam Block, who proudly pours South African wine at his Hell’s Kitchen restaurant Print. Block got hooked while consulting with the Sandton Sun hotel in Johannesburg. “They’re the most underpriced wines in the world,” he says. “South African wines fall into that sweet spot: They’re not only cheap, they taste great. I would get a few people who knew the wines to agree with me, but they never seemed to jump on the bandwagon. The big issue is most people don’t know what a South African wine is.”

But that may be about to change. The country has finally found a powerful marketing hook—and it was growing around their feet all the time.

South Africa’s wine lands encompass some of the most breath- taking biodiversity in the world. The dazzling scenery begins at Cape Town, where severe, cloud-capped mountains climb up from the sea. Beyond and around those peaks is the Cape Floral Kingdom, a plant and animal biodiversity hot spot that was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. It is home to nearly 10,000 different species of plants, 70 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth. As such, it is both the smallest and the richest of the globe’s half-dozen floral kingdoms. On Table Mountain, the flat-topped peak around which Cape Town nestles, the variety of plant life trumps the whole of England.

Nearly all of South Africa’s important vineyards are clustered within the Cape Floral Kingdom. This sort of specialized terrain is the very recipe of that elusive and magical wine concept “terroir.” “If terroir is important, then the age of that soil and the way the soil is constructed is important,” says Flagstone winemaker Bruce Jack. “That’s us—and it makes our wines different.”

The wine industry, recognizing the natural bounty around it—while simultaneously spying a unique selling point—founded the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) in 2004. To become an entry-level member of the initiative, winemakers must con- serve a minimum of two hectares of natural or restored natural land, as well as meet other strict guidelines for sustainability and protection of natural habitats. As of press time, 211 estates have signed up—just over half of the country’s approximately 400 vineyards—voluntarily setting aside a total of 130,633 hectares for conservation. That’s nearly fours times the land under vine in Napa Valley. Beginning in 2010, cooperating wines began pasting a white-green-and-purple “Integrity & Sustainability Certified” sticker on their bottles. By the end of this year, a full 80 percent of wines produced in South Africa will bear the seal.

At Boschendal—a historic vineyard nestled in the dramatic mountainous passes common to Franschhoek (“French Corner”)— winemaker J.C. Bekker drives his pickup truck up a patchy, paved road. On either side are rows of quarter-century-old yellowwoods, South Africa’s national tree. Further up are countless Protea, the flowering plants that bear spiky, artichoke-like blossoms of fantas- tic color. “Month on month you’ll find different things flowering,” says Meryl Weaver, a South African wine critic who accompanies us. Weaver knows her Protea like Belgians know their beer.

Bekker stops the truck high up the slope and gets out. Rolling layers of sloping mountains, leading to the sea, are divided this particular a.m. by dangerous brushfires that I initially mistake for romantic morning fog. A flat patchwork valley of farmed land stretches between Groot Drakenstein (“Big Dragon”) Mountain on one end, and Simonsberg Mountain on the other. He describes the Boschendal property as “all of that mountain, and all of that moun- tain and most everything in-between.” Nineteenth-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes Scholars and Rhodesia fame) bought and consolidated the land, originally 19 Huguenot farms, in 1887. The cottage he built in 1901 still stands. He stayed in it a single night before he died—the tin roof was too noisy.

Boschendal is a BWI Champion, a status attained when an estate devotes 25 percent of its lands to natural growth. Impressive as that sounds, it wasn’t that difficult for the estate, which is owned by the South African wine-and-spirits giant DGB. “It’s always been there,” says Bekker. “We plant less than 10 percent of our total property.”

Not as effortless has been Boschendal’s war against alien vegetation. Stark gray patches along the mountainside outline where tall umbrella-like Stone Pines, brought in by European settlers, once usurped the soil. “We started clearing this 10 years ago,” says Bekker, “first starting with all the little gullies that take the water from the mountain. And now we’re on the mountains.”

Boschendal has spent two million rand (roughly $300,000) in the effort. Why bother? Because native Cape plants survive on little moisture, whereas “one eucalyptus or blue gum tree will suck up 800 liters of water a day,” according to Sharon Hosking, a manager at Vergelegen. That storied vineyard’s 10-year alien clearing program began in 2004 and will eventually cost Vergelegen 14 million rand (over $2 million). Already, the work has caused three dry streams to flow again. Mountain leopards now prowl the valley. Over at Boschendal, there was a similar benefit. “Our dam filled up two months earlier than before,” says Bekker. “It’s a huge difference.”

When I suggest the watery riches justify the expense of uprooting the thieving alien species, Bekker, a serious man, bristles a bit. “The reason for it, is it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Not to get mileage out of it.” Indeed, the winemakers who embrace the BWI ethos seem to take an unalloyed pride in their crusade. Estates like Bouchard Finlayson and Boekenhoutskloof crow like proud fathers when they uncover rare plants on their property.

Today’s South African winemakers have roots stretching back to Holland, France, Scotland, Germany and, of course, Africa itself. Fran- schhoek, for instance, was founded by Huguenots who emigrated in the late 17th century. Those Frenchmen would seem just the chaps to sink the first vines. But that honor goes, ironically, to the gin-guzzling Dutch, who ran ashore in 1652 to establish a base for the long-tenta- cled Dutch East India Company. The arrival in 1679 of an exacting, wine-loving commander named Simon van der Stel ushered in an era of quality. The vain Simon—Simonsberg Mountain and Stellenbosch, the town that functions as the hub of the vinelands and a name that is almost synonymous with South African wine, are among the many landmarks he named after himself—imposed fines on farmers who picked unripe grapes. He’s also responsible for the countless acorns that litter the Stellenbosch streets: His plan was to convert oaks into wine barrels, but the trees grew too quickly in the warm climate and made for poor wood. (In a sentimental gesture, oaks have been taken off the alien vegetation list.)

Simon van der Stel also produced the first South African wine to win worldwide fame: Vin de Constance.

The Constantia wine-growing district sits on a thin talon of land just south of Cape Town, and Klein Constantia is one of three vineyards that once made up the original Constantia estate. Over the centuries, it’s passed through many hands. During the Roaring 1920s, it was owned by the Pittsburgh steel baroness Clara Hussey, who threw Gatsbyesque parties around the Art Deco pool and enforced a set of wacky “house rules.” (Example:“No one must ever, even in self-defense, do anything to any of the dogs. They are kept for the purpose of barking.”)

A few decades before Hussey arrived, Phylloxera and bankruptcy KO’d the Cape vintners, and Vin de Constance ceased to be. The property was a ruin when it was purchased by Jooste family in 1980. Klein might have plodded along on a dull path had noted viticulturist Christiaan Orffer not told the owners, “Do you realize you’re sitting on possibly the first world-famous vineyard in the Southern Hemisphere.”

The owners vowed to re-create the wine that had once consoled the exiled Napoleon on St. Helena. They planted traditional bush vines of muscat de Frontignan in 1983, and the first new Vin de Constance in a century was released in 1990. “We haven’t fully explored the potential,” says winemaker Adam Mason. “We’re looking on establishing it in the States as a brand.” (In May, Klein Constantia vineyard was bought from the Jooste family by Czech- born U.S. citizen Zdenek
Bakala, and Charles Harman from the UK, both investment bankers.)

If Vin de Constance was the first wine to win the Western Cape accolades, the sauvignon blancs are the most recent golden wines. Elgin Valley and Elim are part of the Overberg and Cape Agulhas areas, wine districts so young they don’t yet belong to a greater region. (South Africa’s Wine of Origin scheme, set up in 1973, divides the wine lands, in descending size, into regions, districts, wards and, finally, estates.) They hug the southern shore of the Western Cape, where the warm Indian Ocean meets the icy Atlantic. Until recently, the area was covered with apple or- chards. Reborn as vineyards, they now hold the title of coolest grape-growing areas in the country. And cool is currently hot. Large midland wineries boast of buying southern grapes to lend acidity and fruit to their sauvignon blancs.

“It is recognized as a quality grape-growing area,” says Jac- queline Schneider Harris, the bubbly, blonde communications director for the family-run Paul Cluver Wines, which owns 2,000 hectares of the wide, bowl-shaped Elgin Valley (half of which is cordoned off for conservation). “You can demand a higher price.”

“Grapes were planted here in the mid-’80s by Dr. Cluver, so he is regarded very much as the pioneer of grape-growing in Elgin,” says Harris. At first, the good doctor threw any seed into the soil, to see what would spout. With time, his focus was trained on sauvignon blanc, sémillon, chardonnay, riesling, gewürztraminer and a single red grape, pinot noir.

Cluver isn’t the only winemaker who thinks South Africa has a future as a capital of pinot noir, crown grape of vino purists. Peter Finlayson was winemaker at Hamilton Russell—the first South African winery to prove Pinot could thrive there—before founding Bouchard Finlayson in 1989. White-bearded and sage- like, he speaks softly and pours a good wine. “My neighbor says this little valley comes as close to Burgundy, in terms of structure, as any place he knows outside of France,” he says.

Nearby at Iona, winemaker Andrew Gunn has some pinot in barrel, but sauvignon blanc is his calling card. His vineyards are high on a mountain plateau overlooking the sea and accessible only by a steep dirt road. Gunn bought the property in 1997 and, an engineer by trade, placed devices to log temperature around the farm. He discovered a climate “somewhere between Sancerre and Burgundy.” Out came the apple trees and in went sauvignon blanc, a grape that, says Vergelegen’s Hosking, “likes to see the water, but doesn’t like to get its feet wet.”

“What we expected in theory happened in practice,” says Gunn, who is of Scottish descent. “Our sauvignon blancs have none of the asparagus and green pepper that you get from warmer climates in South Africa. They get that because they harvest ear- lier. We get the pears, white fig, good minerality.”

The first Iona sauvignon blanc bowed in 2001. It cleaned up in awards and acclaim. Today, Iona is that rare thing, a critical and pop- ular South African favorite that has conquered New York’s wine shops and restaurant lists. “Those sauvignon blancs really pop,” says Tanya Hira, owner of the South African wine bar Xai Xai in Midtown.

“Let’s face it, South Africa[’s climate] is hot,” says Rozy Gunn, Andrew’s pretty young spitfire of a wife. “We don’t have a lot of cool growing areas. This allows us to make wines that potentially can age. To me, that’s exciting.”

Still, for all Elgin’s success with sauvignon blanc, Harris feels the region’s reputation is still in limbo. “Ten years ago it had a real identity. Elgin—sauvignon blanc,” she says. “Subsequently, we’ve had a lot of guys planting all kinds of things. Now, it’s a little more confusing for the consumer. Elim seems to have overtaken it in terms of sauvignon blanc. The Elgin growers are trying to develop a language to make it more clear what they do. They’re trying to position themselves as producers of elegant wines.”

The straight-talking Gunn, however, doesn’t put much stock in slick sales angles. He believes South African wine must be un- derstood and accepted as itself. “People are waiting around for people to think about South African sauvignon blanc as being like New Zealand, or like France. It’s not going to happen. It’s its own thing. It’s not something that’s going to be helped by some simple marketing fix.”

Bruwer Raats also believes South African wine must be accepted on its own terms, and that it will take time. But he believes it about chenin blanc, not sauvignon blanc.

Along with the De Morgenzon and Forrester wineries, Raats is one of the premier producers of chenin in South Africa. And he is an evangelist on the subject. I meet him on a balmy night in March at 96 Winery Road, a rural restaurant found by Ken Forrester. It’s celebrated for its wine list and dry-aged steaks, and is the fallback gathering place for area growers.

Tolkienesque in his rumpled hair and ruddy, wide, shopworn face, Bruwer Raats leans heavily over one end of the table. He catches my gaze with a pair of dark, shining eyes and says he has 10 minutes.

“I’d worked in Napa,” says Raats, who founded his vine- yard in 2000. “In Bordeaux. I ran a cellar in Tuscany. I worked in Germany. What I found is there’s too many people in the world who try to be everything to everybody. They’ve got four or five white wine varieties, and six red wine variet- ies, a single varietal and a rosé and a bubbly. You end up being nothing to nobody.

“What I wanted to do was focus on one white and one red,” he continues. (The red he’s chosen is, eccentrically, cabernet franc. He succeeds brilliantly with it.) “[South Africa’s] got half the world’s chenin plantings. They have it in the Loire, but they call it Vouvray, Savennières. Most people don’t know they’re drinking chenin. We’re the only country in the world that stands up and says, ‘This is chenin blanc. We make it. This is our thing.’” This single-minded devotion, Raats believes, will eventually pay divi- dends. “It’s like grüner veltliner. It was there and it was there, and then, all of a sudden, it was above the line of vision. I think chenin is hanging right below that line.”

When it comes to trendy growing areas, South Africa’s vintners go to climatic extremes. Nearly as popular as breezy, cool Elgin and Elim to the south, are the hot, parched plains of Swartland to the north. Franschhoek winery Boekenhoutskloof—the critics’ dar- ling whose popular red blend Chocolate Block became the locker room tipple of the 2010 World Cup Spanish soccer champions (they drank 50 cases)—sources syrah grapes from the area. “You can definitely taste Swartland in it,” says winemaker Jean Smit after a satisfying sip.

Eben Sadie is on a mission to find out what Swartland tastes like. That’s why he stuck his flag in that sandy soil. “I don’t want to make a wine that’s been made before,” he declares. “This area is new. No one can tell me what a Swartland wine should taste like.”

There are few rock and roll stars among South Africa’s wine- makers. Sadie is one of them. Disheveled, his hair flecked with dust, Sadie is intense and handsome. Philosophical and iconoclas- tic, he’d blend seamlessly into any New York locavore scene: he lives in near-isolation on a small-scale winery at the end a long bumpy road outside Malmesbury, and expresses open disdain for the internationalist powers (Robert Parker, Wine Spectator) that drive the greater commercial-wine world. “I don’t need somebody to spit my wine into a glass and tell me my fortune,” he remarks. He rarely welcomes visitors. When he does, he regales them for hours, like dinner guests, before pouring samples of the two wines he makes—a complex white blend called Palladius and an equally dense red named Columella.

“I came here because of the soil,” he says of the dust bowl he calls home. “We’ve got wheat here and we’ve got wine. It’s the re- gion from South Africa with the most old vineyards.” Sadie draws his grapes from a dozen-plus small parcels scattered around the area, some of them more than 100 years old. From that, he makes 20,000 bottles. Last year, he put down a costly 30 tons of home- made compost per hectare. And recently he bought some concrete eggs, experimental vessels in which to age his reds. They’re made of South African granite and cost 5,000 to 6,000 euros each.
“You make a wine of a region, and it’s got to be regional,” he says. “It’s got to be in the bottle. What are the characteristics that will define this place? Once you define that, I think that’s fantactic. Wine is a liquid story of a place. Every wine’s got an address.”

What comes out of his barrels is impressive, layered and full of character. It’s also, given the painstaking process, expensive. This makes Sadie wines, critically praised as they are, a tough sell. “They’re pricey,” says Tanya Hira of Xai Xai. “People, because they don’t really know South African wines, they don’t go for the expensive bottles. Unfortunately Sadie’s wines sit on the shelf longer than they should.”

Tired of hitting his head against the price ceiling South African winemakers encounter in the U.S., Sadie says he may pull his wines from the States. He does not believe a high-end Cape red will find success in America in his lifetime. Sadie’s situation captures the central conundrum of South
African winemaking. With his high-style wines drawn from old- world vines, he’s trying to fold the country’s past and future into a single package that makes sense to the buyer. But U.S. wine drink- ers are still puzzling it out. “Since South African is classified as New World, most people are surprised by the wines,” says Hira. “It’s old-world wine with a new-world label. They’re expecting Australia, something that will pop in their mouth.”

At Klein Constantia, the muscat bush vines that feed the Vin de Constance—the old wine newly new to the world—are planted very near the property’s old homestead, in the exact same soil they covered centuries ago. The verdant, quasi-tropical property is pop- ulated by black eagles, lynxes and baboons. The baboons love to tear the traditional thatch roofs off the old Dutch Cape buildings. They probably did the same thing back in Simon van der Stel’s day. “You drive in and the vines are there,” says Adam Mason. “It’s a reminder of the past. That’s what I love about sweet wines. There’s a link to the heritage of that area. It’s that golden thread that goes back. It’s a bit like being a South African, I think. One foot in the Old World, one foot in the New.”

SOUTH AFRICA’s wine country ranks among the most beautiful in the world, drawing visitors from around the globe. The ancient town of Stellenbosch, with its picturesque Dutch Cape architecture, makes for a good base from which to tour the Cape’s wine- growing regions; you will need to rent a car, one you feel safe driving over high mountain passes and bumpy dirt roads. Another option, if you prefer the sauvignon blancs of the south cape, is the coastal town of Hermanus.

The following wineries are some of the most celebrated in South Africa, and all welcome visitors:

Boekenhoutskloof. Boutique winery offering deep-flavored syrah, old-vine sémillon and the popular red blend Chocolate Block.

Bouchard Finlayson. Specializes in in South African pinot noir.

Boschendal Wines. A large winery with a wide range of wines, including the lovely blanc de noir, a distinctive rosé.

Paul Cluver Wines. An Elgin trailblazer in riesling and pinot noir.

Vergelegen. A top South African performer with prized red and white blends.

Warwick. An old and popular producer with a talent for pinotage.

Laborie. Master of Cap Classique, the Cape’s own brand of sparkling wine.

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