Mother Nature sets the trends
By Joanne Gibson - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 01 February 2022
In South Africa, most new planting material is not being chosen on the basis of fashion or novelty but rather because it is best for local climate conditions – and climate change.
A mere five grape varieties account for over 54% of all plantings in South Africa (SA), namely Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz (in that order). The top 10, including Chardonnay, Pinotage, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet and Cinsault, account for over 86% of plantings, according to SA Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS). However, there are over 100 varieties planted and while some seem destined to remain very niche, such as Austria’s Grüner Veltliner (produced by Diemersdal in Durbanville and Neil Joubert in Stellenbosch) or Germany’s Sylvaner (first bottled in 1971 at Stellenbosch estate Overgaauw, the 2020 vintage scoring 87 points in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Challenge), some are really gaining currency as growers realise which ‘cultivars’ are best suited to local climatic conditions and soil types.
Historically, the SA viticultural landscape is overwhelmingly French, from the Loire’s Chenin Blanc to the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot in the top 10, with Semillon at number 13 (having once been SA’s most widely planted grape by far) followed by Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec in 15th, 16th and 18th place respectively. In 12th place, Burgundy’s ‘heartbreak grape’ Pinot Noir has found a home in cooler areas, such as the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Elgin, but in recent years SA producers have looked more to the Rhône.
In 2007, for example, Franschhoek-based Anthonij Rupert Wines purchased the Swartland farm Riebeeksrivier with the express aim of growing Rhône grapes on shale soils reminiscent of the Côte Rôtie. Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Durif, Grenache Noir, Marsanne, Mourvèdre and Roussanne are among the varieties planted, with the Cape of Good Hope Riebeeksrivier Caroline 2018 (50% Marsanne, 36% Roussanne, 13% Chenin and 1% Viognier) scoring 90 points. When it comes to single-varietal bottlings, Stellenbosch wine farm Hazendal sources Roussanne from a vineyard next to the Berg River near Franschhoek, saying that the alluvial soils and large white rocks create ideal conditions for slow ripening and flavour preservation (88 points for the 2018 vintage). Hazendal also produces a rare single-varietal Carignan (87 points for the 2017): ‘When given the opportunity to truly show itself, Carignan shines brightly as a wine of voluptuous power and elegance,’ says viticulturist/winemaker Clarise Sciocatti-Langeveldt.
Anthonij Rupert’s Riebeeksrivier farm overlooks the Swartland, with Table Mountain in the distance.
High up on the much cooler Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Creation Wines has a great reputation for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but co-owners Carolyn and JC Martin planted Viognier in 2003 and Roussanne in 2015, always with a white blend in mind. With their Viognier-Roussanne 2020 scoring 88 points, it will be exciting to see what Grenache Blanc (planted in 2018) and Marsanne (coming soon) contribute. ‘While the white blends of the southern Rhone have exquisite aromatics, they can fall flat with low acidity and high alcohol levels. Being in a cooler climate with a long ripening window, we intend to capture the beautiful aromatics and keep the natural acidity and lower alcohols.’
Twee Jonge Gezellen (TJG) in Tulbagh is best known for its Krone brand of Cap Classique sparkling wines. However, when the team started dreaming of bringing back the TJG brand with a premium white and red wine, the hot summers and rocky soils of the farm steered them towards planting Grenache Noir and Syrah for the red (a 92-point rating for the Grenache Noir 2019, sourced from Piekenierskloof, promising great things for when the farm’s own vines reach maturity), and Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Piquepoul Blanc for the white. Explains winemaker Barbara Melck: ‘We always knew the white would be a Chenin-based blend – true to our SA heritage – but we wanted a differentiating character, which led us to be one of the first farms to plant Piquepoul Blanc in 2018. Piquepoul is known for its high acidity, which is going to become even more important in the future, thanks to global warming. We are extremely excited about the maiden 2022 harvest.’
As far as fresh white wines are concerned, Cape Point Vineyards on the Cape peninsula has an almost unsurpassed reputation for Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux-style whites – which is why they decided to introduce Semillon Gris ‘to add body, texture and another dimension’. Says winemaker Riandri Visser: ‘We had to wait many years before the nursery could provide viable young vines, but in 2018 we finally planted the mother block of 1,200 vines on the lower part of the estate where it is sheltered from the wind, with a lovely view of the ocean. 2022 will be our first harvest and we will bottle it separately at first in order to learn.’
At certified organic producer Waverley Hills, some 20km south of Tulbagh, manager/winemaker Johan Delport has pioneered the growing and bottling of Marselan, a cross between Cabernet and Grenache. Material was imported in 2009, and after some years of propagation and experimentation, the first commercial vineyard was planted at Waverley Hills in 2016, with the maiden 2020 vintage scoring 90 points. Says Delport: ‘I am very happy with our Marselan, the first in SA. It has a dark colour and concentrated flavours, with very soft tannins. I would recommend it to other local producers, because of its drought resistance.’
A southern French grape with a much longer track record in SA is Cinsault, aka Hermitage (famously crossed with Pinot Noir in 1925 to create Pinotage). Once widely planted in SA, Cinsault went out of fashion but has made a top 10 comeback thanks to people increasingly wanting lighter reds. ‘Like Chenin Blanc, it was a workhorse due to its high yields,’ says Arco Laarman of Laarman Wines whose Focal Point 2019 from a Bottelary Hills vineyard near Stellenbosch has scored 91 points. ‘Now, however, thanks to older vines being available, the wines show much more concentration. I believe Cinsault can reach the same status we have achieved with Chenin,’ he says, with a 91-rating for another Bottelary Hills Cinsault, the Kaapzicht Skuinsberg 2020, adding weight to this idea.
Although not widely planted, there have been small pockets of Italian grapes growing in SA for decades. Barbera, first planted in Durbanville in the 1920s, was brought ‘home’ to Merwida Wines in the Breede River Valley in the late 1990s by co-owner Schalk van der Merwe. Today, his son Albertus reports that almost five hectares flourish in the farm’s rich floodplain soils. ‘Barbera is one of the few red wine grape cultivars with the ability to retain high natural acidity in the warm Southern Africa climate. This combined with its low tannins and spicy undertones has allowed it to become one of our flagship wines, winning numerous awards and acquiring a loyal and ever-increasing following.’
Certainly the Merwida Barbera 2019 impressed the Gilbert & Gaillard tasting panel as a ‘great example of the variety’ (90 points), shining alongside the Merwida Papenkuils Waterblommetjie Pinot Grigio 2021 (87 points) from an 11-year-old block. ‘The Pinot Grigio ripens nice and early in the season and has really impressed us with its subtle but poignant floral notes, good natural acidity and well-balanced structure.’
At Merwida, six members of the seventh-generation Van der Merwe family are currently involved at either the winery or on the farms.
SA’s first Nebbiolo seems to have arrived around 1910, although better clones were imported in the 1990s, when Steenberg in Constantia became the first farm to bottle it as a single-varietal wine. Meanwhile, Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley decided to combine it with Sangiovese and Barbera, along with Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, to create a memorable left-field blend whose name – Hannibal – is ‘a symbolic expression of the connection between the Old and New Worlds of viticulture’ (the Carthaginian general Hannibal was famously carried by an African elephant when he invaded Italy).
SA’s first Sangiovese was planted at Boplaas in Calitzdorp in 1982, with better clones for high-quality wines imported in 1991. The Jasper Raats Single Vineyard Wines range includes a rare Stellenbosch interpretation, named Silk Weaver, grown on the lower southwestern slopes of Helderberg Mountain using a traditional Pergola or Tendone trellising system. ‘This one-hectare vineyard enjoys refreshingly cool breezes from the Atlantic Ocean during the day and cool night air flowing down the mountain, resulting in even ripening of the berries and good natural acidity,’ says wine famer/vigneron Jasper Raats. ‘The vines are meticulously cared for by hand to ensure maximum quality and the wine is organically produced.’
Bosman owner Petrus Bosman says Nero d’Avola thrives under the bright African sun.
A far more recent Italian import is the Sardinian grape Nero d’Avola, which was first planted at Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington in 2004. Says owner Petrus Bosman: ‘Nero doesn’t just survive; it thrives under the bright African sun. Even on the hottest day, the grapes remain vibrant and fresh in the vineyard, needing much less water than their neighbouring varietals.’ Cellarmaster Corlea Fourie agrees: ‘It thrives in our warm climate, with higher natural acidities than some of its red counterparts. The wine we have bottled since 2013 is still medium bodied, but I believe structure and extraction depth will follow over the next few years as the vineyards come into their stride.’
Other varieties thriving in Bosman’s Wellington vineyards include a Cinsault and a skin-fermented Grenache Blanc. ‘Our viticulture landscape is sure to change in future when we start to adapt to water-saving strategies and to drought- and heat-resistant cultivars,’ says Fourie.
Thanks to SA having a proud history of Port-style fortified wine production, it’s perhaps not surprising that several Portuguese grapes have been cultivated locally since the 1920s, with some of them now also very successfully used for table wines. For example, the Gilbert & Gaillard panel was very impressed with the Moordenaarskloof Tinta Barocca 2019 produced by Stellenbosch estate Dornier from a Swartland vineyard, awarding it 92 points.
‘That vineyard was a lucky find,’ says Dornier winemaker Philip van Staden. ‘We were buying Chenin Blanc from the grower when we noticed the Tinta Barocca. When we asked about it, they said they were going to pull it out because they were selling it to the local co-operative at a loss. We immediately offered to pay double. It makes a phenomenal wine, with all the fruit, concentration and structure you get in Port, with soft velvety tannins.’
Dornier’s former owner, the late Swiss artist Christoph Dornier, had a passion for architecture, as the estate’s landmark cellar demonstrates.
When it comes to Portuguese whites, it was a blend of the Madeiran grape Verdelho with Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay that really impressed the panel: the Cavalli Cremello 2020 (91 points). ‘We planted the Verdelho in 2000,’ says winemaker Craig Barnard. ‘It was planted so that we could have a unique offering, initially as part of a complex blend, but as the vines got older the quality really started to shine through so we took the decision also to bottle it as an individual wine. It has an amazing acidic backbone which lends the wine a vibrant freshness. When used with older barrels, you are able to get great structure in the wine without impacting on the floral, perfumed and exotic aromatics. I definitely think more producers should consider planting it. It is well suited to our terroir as the summer heat allows the vines to ripen early and evenly, thereby retaining freshness.’
It was memories of drinking Portuguese Vinho Verde with prawns on family holidays in Mozambique that first got the Newton Johnsons thinking about planting ‘Alvarinho’ at their farm in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde with its maritime climate. Their research led them across the Spanish border to the classical expression of the grape that they most wanted to pursue: Albariño from the granite soils of Rias Baxas. ‘As the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is an “island” of granite between the shale soils of our neighbouring appellations, we had an unusual opportunity to work with a white variety suitable for our granite soils and maritime climate,’ says managing director Bevan Newton Johnson. ‘We sourced some material from UC Davis in California.’
Made by Newton Johnson’s brother, Gordon, and sister-in-law, Nadia, the Albariño has been enthusiastically received since the first general release in 2015, with the 2020 scoring 90 points.
‘The wine is fermented and matured in a combination of concrete eggs, old oak barrels and stainless steel tanks to preserve the clear aromatics of the grape, along with good mid-palate texture and fresh acidity to finish off. We are getting a good feel for it after eight vintages, except the acidity levels are still too high at our preferred picking stage that we have to leave it out there a bit longer before we pick, unlike our other wines where we err on slightly lighter alcohols to retain freshness and perfumed fruit. These are nuances we have yet to fully master.’
More from the Med
At Dornier, mentioned previously, another Spanish variety that has taken time to master is Tempranillo, the noble grape perhaps most famous in Rioja. ‘We wanted something to set us apart, so in 2010 we grafted Tempranillo onto a one-hectare block of Cabernet,’ says Philip van Staden. ‘It grew very vigorously and the early wines were a bit green and extremely tannic. We decided to use Smart-Dyson trellising to get more sunlight into the bunches, which helped with the greenness, and then we researched how they handle the wine in Spain and realised that it needs much longer oak ageing. It now spends one year in older French oak, one year in one-third new American, and then goes back into French oak for about 44 months in total. You can’t be in a hurry with Tempranillo, you have to be patient,’ he says, his patience now rewarded with a 93-point rating.
At Dornier in Stellenbosch, Tempranillo was grafted onto Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
More patience is still required for SA’s first Assyrtiko to bear fruit. The drought- and wind-resistant grape from the Greek island of Santorini, where vines planted in igneous soils are famously trained in ‘koulara’ baskets, has found a new home in SA thanks to Gary and Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wines in Stellenbosch. In 2019 they planted vines on a stony hilltop with a north-facing aspect, strong south-easterly winds, and soil consisting of broken-up granite. ‘Assyrtiko must be planted in sight of the sea – which ours is, overlooking False Bay – and some of the vines will be trellised while the others will be trained into baskets,’ says Jordan. ‘So far it’s looking good!’
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