Friday, January 17, 2014

Unit 3 – Day 6: South Africa

In day 6 of Unit 3 in the Intensive Sommelier Training we studied New Zealand and South Africa, our final lesson the New World wine regions. With limited time and large quantity of material to cover the school is forced to consolidate certain regions into the same lesson. But, I have decided to split Day 6 into two parts. I covered New Zealand in the previous review so I will cover South Africa in this review.

South Africa Wine History

South Africa is a “New World” wine-producing nation that has been wine since the 1600s. In 1659 Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck, an administrator for the Dutch East India Company, was the first to produce wine. The country then rose to prominence in the World of Wine due to a sweet wine called Vin de Constance made from dried grapes sold in the early 1800s to a plethora of dignitaries, including King Louis Philippe (the last king of France) and the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. It is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also known in South Africa as Muscat de Frontignan or Muscadel) and its red-berried variant provided the base for white and red versions of Vin de Constance.

Unfortunately the success of South African wine would come to an end due to two factors:

First, in the 1800s the phylloxera plague swept through the country devastating the vineyards. Although vineyards were replanted to resistant rootstock the focus of the industry shifted from quality to quantity as several cooperatives pushed for mass production and the result was low quality wine for which there was little demand. Then in 1918 the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) was formed with the support of 90% of South Africa’s growers.  The KWV, a cooperative of wine producers and growers, fixed minimum prices, determined areas of production and established production limits - powers formalized in the 1924 Wine and Spirits Control Act.  This saved the wine industry but the benefits were only temporary as it favored large producers and encouraged lower quality. They supply of lower quality being greater than demand that was subsidized by the KWV continued through the 1980s.

Second, following World War II a national political party controlled by the elites established a system of legalized racial segregation called Apartheid. In response most of the countries of the western world placed trade embargoes, boycotting all South African products – including wine. Following this the wine industry fell behind as they failed to modernize their wine production methods and they turned to making poorly made jug wines for their domestic market. By the time Apartheid ended and the embargo in the 1990s the nation was too far behind to compete with the rest of the world.

South Africa Wine Laws

In the 1990s South Africa revamped its wine laws and established the Wyn van Oorsprong or Wine of Origin (WO). It is made up of a tier system of “geographical units”, regions, districts and wards. Like most New World Wines the laws are fairly relaxed labeling according to grape variety. If a recognized WO region is on the label then 100% of the grapes must have come from that region. If the wine is labeled according to a grape varietal then it must consist of at least 85% of the indicated grape. Blends may list several grapes, if vinification occurred separately and each listed grape comprises a minimum 20% of the wine.  A minimum 85% of the stated vintage is also required. 

In 1998, South Africa initiated the Integrated Production of Wine Scheme (IPW), a voluntary means of certification for WO producers wishing to comply with sustainable environmental standards.  The IPW sets guidelines for agricultural, manufacturing, and packaging practices, and certification falls under the jurisdiction of the SA Wine & Spirit Board.  Wineries are judged on a number of points, including worker safety measures, handling of wastewater, carbon emissions, use of pesticides and other chemicals, and vineyard biodiversity.  Starting with the 2010 vintage, wines that meet a minimum score in IPW evaluation (60% or better) and qualify for WO certification will be marked with a joint seal, indicating a “sustainable wine of origin,” rather than the basic WO seal. By 2011, 85% of South African WO wine carried this new seal, and virtually all WO wines in the future are expected to qualify for the IPW scheme as well.

South Africa Wine

Today, South Africa ranks 8th in the world in terms of total production. The top white grape which makes up 20% of their white wine production is Chenin Blanc (known locally as Steen) and the second is Muscat used for making sweet wines. Other important white grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard, Cape Riesling (a synonym for Crouchen Blanc unrelated to Riesling), Muscat of Alexandria (known locally as Hanepoot), and Gewürztraminer. 

The top red grapes are Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinotage is a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut that was developed by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925. It plays an important in South African wine role as at least 30% makes up what is known as the Cape Blend. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape in South Africa and Shiraz (Syrah) is the second most widely planted grape. It was from here that the Australians derived the name Shiraz for the grape as ships carrying colonists from England brought with them vine cuttings from South Africa. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Tinta Barroca are among the other important commercial red cultivars.  Pontac, a teinturier grape (a grape with red juice) linked to the old red wines of Constantia, enjoys a limited revival amongst dedicated producers. 

Traditional method sparkling wines known as “Cap Classique” (Methode Cap Classique) have been made from Sauvignon Blanc but are increasingly being produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Fortified Port and Sherry style wines are also being produced. Cape Port today is generally named according to its style: Cape Tawny, Cape Ruby, and so forth.

South Africa Terroir and Important Regions

The wine regions of South Africa fan out from the southern capital of Cape Town and they get warmer and drier as they head north. Consequently wine grapes can only be farmed in the lower third of the country. In fact, the Cape of Good Hope would be too hot for viticulture if it were not for the elevation and the moderating influence of what is known as the “Cape Doctor”; a cooling wind that comes from where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. This a strong southeasterly wind blows across the Western Cape throughout the spring and summer, inhibiting fungal disease and moderating temperature—but it also batters the vines.

South Africa’s wine-producing areas are divided into 5 large geographical areas: 

(1) Northern Cape consists of only five production areas: the Douglas and Sutherland-Karoo districts, and the independent Hartswater, Central Orange River, and Rietrivier FS wards. 

(2) Eastern Cape has a single ward - St. Francis Bay.

(3) Kwazulu-Natal, contains no other production areas.

(4) Limpopo also contains no other production areas. 

(5) Western Cape has the highest production in a small area in the southwestern corner of the country. Most WO areas are contained within it, including South Africa’s 6 regions: The Coastal Region is located around the original colony of Cape Town and along the western coast of the Cape.  The region is subdivided into nine districts: Stellenbosch, Cape Point, Tygerberg, Paarl, Tulbagh, Darling, Franschhoek Valley, Wellington and Swartland. The wards of Constantia and Hout Bay are located within the region but do not fall within a larger district. The other regions include, Cape South Coast, Breede River Valley, Klein Karoo, Olifants River, and Boberg. At a latitude of 27°-34°, the Western Cape’s climate is essentially Mediterranean, with warm, sunny growing seasons, although the Benguela Current flows north from Antarctica to cool the coastal areas. 

Learning Objectives of Unit 3 – Day 6: South Africa

At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 3 - Day 6 along with the answers are as follows.

By the end of class, students should be able to:

(1)  Discuss the development of Pinotage and its parentage

Answer: Pinotage is a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut that was developed by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925.

(2) Define the term cultivar

Answer: A cultivar is a cultivated plant that has been selected and given a unique name because it has desirable characteristics that distinguish it from otherwise similar plants of the same species.

(3) Describe the wines known as Vin de Constance

Answer: A sweet wine created with dried grapes, namely Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.

(4) Identify the principal WO’s in South Africa’s Coastal Region  

Answer: Stellenbosch, Cape Point, Tygerberg, Paarl, Tulbagh, Darling, Franschhoek Valley, Wellington and Swartland

(5) Identify the principal WO’s in South Africa’s Cape South Coast region

Answer: Cape South Coast contains five districts and 15 wards. The regions include Elgin, Bot River, Hermanus, Napier and Elim.

(6) Recommend a WO in Cape South Coast suitable for sparkling wine production  

Answer: Both Elim (a cooler region) and Stellenbosch (a warmer region) produce sparkling wines.

(7) Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today

Answer: See below

The Wines

On the sixth day of Unit 3 we tasted the following wines from South Africa:

1. 2010 Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc, West Cape, South Africa

This is a clear white wine, straw in color of medium concentration and watery at the rim with medium viscosity. On the nose the wine is clean with moderate intense aromas of bruised apples, lemon, chamomile tea, bell peppers and various oxidative notes. On the palate it has flavors of bruised apples, dried peaches, grapefruit, toasty bread, and cheese rind. It has medium+ acidity, medium body, medium+ alcohol and a long finish. A less than impressive wine, it sells for about $13.

2. 2011 Raats Unwooded Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region, South Africa

This is a clear white wine, straw in color of medium concentration with medium viscosity. On the nose the wine is clean and youthful with subtle aromas of bruised apples, pears, orange blossoms, buttered bread, and almonds. On the palate it has flavors of lemon, oxidized apples, bitter grapefruit, and cheese rind. It is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol, medium body and a medium length finish. Another less than impressive wine, it sells for about $12 - $15. If you are looking for a quality Chenin Blanc, I suggest you pass on this one and go for a Vouvray.

3. 2011 Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa

This is a clear red wine, light ruby at the core to garnet at the rim with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of black cherries, wild blackberries, dried roses, cloves, crispy bacon and smoke. On the palate it has flavors of dried cherries, cigar box, leather, tobacco, old leather and dried cinnamon stick. It has medium- tannins, medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol and a long finish. It seems very old world in style and I was quite impressed, it sells for $30 to $35. This was the best in the line-up and if you have never had a Pinot Nor from South Africa, I highly recommend it!

4. 2011 Warwick Pinotage, Old Bush Vines, West Cape, South Africa

This is an opaque red wine, dark ruby at the core to violet at the rim with minimal rim variation and medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of wild blackberries, dried black and red fruits, dried cranberry, bramble bush, black licorice and black pepper. On the palate it is gamey and rustic with flavors of dried black fruits, beef jerky, and black pepper. It is dry with medium to medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, medium body and a medium length finish. This is not a sipping wine that you open with friends, it is more of a backyard barbeque wine that needs some charred meat to go with it. So, if you have never had this Pinot Noir + Cinsault lovechild, the next time you are serving a dish that you are pairing with Zinfandel, try this one as well. While I can’t say that I loved this wine, I found it to be intriguing. This wine sells for about $15.

5. 2009 Ken Forester, Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa

This wine is clear, golden with minimal rim variation and high viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of orange marmalade, dried apricots, dates, quince, honey and saffron. On the palate it is has similar notes, it is sweet with medium+ acidity, medium body, moderate + complexity and a long finish. Although I have seen this wine priced from $50 to $60 all over the Internet, this wine sells for about $13 at K&L Wine Merchants, a local wine shop in the San Francisco Bay Area. (

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