In October 2011 I blogged some thoughts on The Taste of History, ie. the consequence of, over time, migrating vines and winemaking to various regions of the world. South Africa has its own history starting in the middle of the 17th century with Dutch colonization at the southernmost tip now Cape Town. Known for its antiseptic properties wine was used to combat scurvy, to treat water supplies and other medicinal uses. The rest is a historical digression of wine capitalizing on its social and commercial value.
In the early 1900’s winery owners suffered under pressures of phylloxera and the Anglo-Boer War until supported in 1918 by the Cooperative Wine Growers Association of South Africa, in Afrikaan ‘KWV’. KWV found new markets while setting prices and quotas regardless of wine quality. The reputation of South African wines ‘died on the vine‘ until KWV dominance as a regulator lessened through to the 70s. But legislation intended to focus on wine quality was put on hold until the 90s as the Country went through years of sanctions and civil strife. A ‘Wine of Origin’ scheme introduced in 1973 continues to recognize winegrowing regions, districts and wards. The names of specific vineyards started to appear on labels in 2005(1) .
A first step was distinguishing between ’estate’ and ’branded’ wines quickly followed by scrutinizing label claims of origin and bottle content. Identifying soil types and the suitability of vine varieties in the geologically diverse areas of South Africa was complicated by the influence of two Oceans and several mountain chains. ‘Wine of Origin’ mapping progressed from Constantia at the tip near Cape Town to Cape Point, Somerset West, Helderberg (Raithby), Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Tygerberg (Durbanville), Paarl and expanding inland & eastward to Elgin, Breedekloof, Worcester, Robertson, Calitzdorp and north to Darling, Swartland, Tulbagh and Olifants River. These are just a few of the districts in these regions. South African wines tasted in the December blogs originated from the districts/towns underlined.
Looking at the recent tasting results (Reds, Whites+) South African wines are equal to any the LCBO is importing (in my price bracket) - but they have their own style. While retaining close to a European style South African wines strongly reflect the extreme terroirs and climates and range from subtle and salty, bold & hot and flat & furry. The reds are not Australian. The Sauvignon Blancs are not of New Zealand nor France. The Chardonnays are not Californian nor Burgundian. The Chenin Blancs are full and savoury having a wide range. A projection to Semillon, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz etc., varieties not tasted, would likely show the same results. All are uniquely South African... and not a bandaid in the lot!
Change continues at a great pace increasing sustainable and organic viticulture and awakening to New World preferences. There have been substantial increase in premium plantings and as vineyards mature and private holdings dedicate their effort to quality South Africa, based on what I see in only 22 tastings, is becoming a player in the world market.