VINEYARDS AND VARIETALS
By the end of 2010, approximately 250,000 acres of vines producing wine grapes are under cultivation in South Africa over an area some 500 miles in length. White varietals constitute 56% of the national vineyard, with Chenin Blanc comprising around 18% of the total. (Note: about 10% of white varietals are grown for brandy production rather than still wine.) Other key white varietals for premium still wine production are Sauvignon Blanc 9.5% and Chardonnay 8.2% . Red varietals account for 44%, with Cabernet Sauvignon the most widely planted red, accounting for 12.2% of the total vineyard followed by Shiraz 10%, Merlot 6.4% and Pinotage 6.2%.
The local wine industry as a whole is strengthening its focus on five noble varietals: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc - all of which have seen increased plantings. Until 2006, vineyard area was increasing but has since declined 1%, over 2 800 acres. Significantly, the life span for red varietals is thought to be 15 years. As at 2010, 36% of red varieties are 4 - 10 yrs and 43% are 11 - 15 yr, implying a renewed round of replanting in the near term. White varietals by contrast are 31% 4-10 yr and 27% over 20 yr.
Yes, it is a single grape variety.
Pinotage ws grafted in 1925 by Professor Perold at the University of Stellenbosch. The root parents are the Burgundy Pinot Noir and the Rhone Cinsaut. In the early part of the century, cinsaut was commonly called Hermitage. It is from Pinot Noir and Hermitage that Pinotage was given its name.
The typical characteristics of pinotage are ripe plummy fruits with dried apricot tannins in the finish. Pinotage is a delicate and fickle grape that needs to be handled with the finesse of a pinot noir rather than the hardier cinsaut. The wine is a mid-term cellar and is usually best within 5 - 7 years.
SOUTH AFRICAN TERMINOLOGY
In negotiations with the European Union over the past 20 years, South Africa has acquiesced to certain naming rights claimed by EU members. This usually occurs in an exchange for other trade benefits. As a result, common names for certain wines and spirits have had to be changed.
Méthode Cap Classique is a sparkling wine fermented using the traditional methods employed in the Champagne appellation of France. The term used more commonly in the rest of the world is methode champenoise. This renaming was agreed to in the “champagne-for-lobster” deal between the EU and SA in 1992.
Port and Sherry have been renamed - also part of an EU agreement. One wit quipped that we should rename our port “ex-port”.
Steen is a Chenin Blanc and the terms are interchangeable, however, Chenin Blanc is more widely used.
Pinotage is a single grape variety.
Johannisberg Riesling is not a wine attributable to South Africa. People often mistake a Johannisberg Riesling as a wine name after the city in South Africa, which for interest is spelled Johannesburg. Rather, Johannisberg is a riesling from the Rheingau region in Germany’s Rhine Valley and more specifically from the small area Johannisberg.
Cape (SA or Paarl) Riesling is a distinct grape variety, more properly known as crouchen blanc. In recent rulings, the term Cape / SA / Paarl Riesling will not be used. The variety will be known as Crouchen Blanc
Rhine (or weisser) Riesling is a noble, elegant grape variety from Germany planted on a small scale in South Africa (0.6%). In line with the clarification as above, the term "Riesling" will refer to this noble varietal.
Zinfandel is predominantly from University of California, Davis. Minute plantings.
Cultivar - a term coined for “cultivated variety”
RECENT CAPE VINTAGES
2011 will update shortly!
2010 An intensive, short harvest with good weather and growing conditions.
2009 Perhaps one of the greatest Cape vintages. Late and grueling, but whites and reds both look stellar. Standout sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, shiraz, cab and merlot. John Platter 2010
2008 Long, wet, late and challenging but also unusually cool season, favoring elegance in both reds and whites, with ripeness generally achieved at lower alcohols. John Platter 2010
2007 Elegant, structured whites, notably sauvignon; smaller red grape berries resulted in intense color and fruit concentration, especially for cab and shiraz, and ultra-supple tannins. John Platter 2010
2006 Perhaps the best white wine vintage in a decade - particularly expressive sauvignon and chenin. Fleshy, mild-tanning reds, with lower alcohols all round. John Platter 2010
2005 Short, early and particularly challenging. Concentrated if alcoholic reds; mostly average whites, some stellar exceptions. John Platter 2010
2004 Mid-August saw the heaviest snow in living memory, which zapped the bugs. The rains came late stressing those without irrigation and reducing crops - all of which, of course, is good for quality. Harvest was unusually long with some picking in late April. The reds ripened unevenly, requiring attention and skill in harvesting and sorting. The fastidious producers will benefit while the volume wines may lack interest. The whites have fresh, natural acidity and good fruit and appear to be more concentrated and powerful than 2003. Generally, the grapes were ripe at lower sugar levels than in previous years which will translate into lower alcohols.
2003 Generally considered to be one of the finest vintages in recent years and weather conditions were favorable throughout the year. The grapes ripened slowly on the vine and developed optimum physiological ripeness, with ideal sugar levels, good acids and prominent varietal flavours. Relatively little input was required from producers and some have described it as "an organic" year. This is an excellent year for both whites and reds.
2002 Pay attention to individual cellars, rather than general trends. The winter of 2001 was the wettest in 40 years. Downy mildew caused widespread havoc for the less than diligent grower. While the whites lack the intensity of 2001, there are some good examples of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Shiraz and Pinotage are the red stars. There are some new Cabernet Sauvignon clones that show promise, but generally a patchy year for Cabernet and Merlot: taste before you buy.
2001 Big concentration and longevity: good aeration or decanting is recommended. Although the driest and warmest winter in years, good rains in August and September of 2000 soaked deep into the substrata, helping the vines through the what continued to as a long dry summer. The chardonnay crop was down by as much as 70%. The earlier-ripening grapes, including Merlot and Pinotage, benefited from ideal harvest conditions. The late-ripening grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon experienced a heat wave in the middle of the harvest season, which accelerated the ripening and kept farmers very busy.
2000 Third hot harvest in a row. A hot, dry summer season with runaway mountain fires that licked a few vineyard blocks on the Simonsberg, the Constantiaberg and up in the Darling hills. After the early 90s deregulation and the lifting of sanctions, many vineyards were replanted with new clonal stock. These vines started to yield grapes this season. Intensely flavored wines, particularly amongst the reds.
1999 The second unusually warm, dry winter in succession brought vines on early. A cool snap at flowering led to vastly lower yields in early-ripening varieties such as chardonnay and pinotage, though quality is excellent in the “old” South African style.
1998 Hot dry season, marked by localized frost during October. Heat waves during January in some areas caused early, short harvest.
1997 The coolest, longest season within memory: cabernet was harvested into May (March is more usual). Some, picking too soon, made green, thin wines. Those with the courage to wait often produced great wines. These will take at least 5 - 7 years before the wine is in balance in the bottle. An exceptional vintage for long-term cellaring.
1996 Cool season marked by several sets of late showers in many areas, and a record yield. Very average quality reds, mainly for early drinking. Patchy whites, some good chenins and semillions. Not a good year.
1995 The second consecutive very dry and hot vintage - and very low yields. A very ripe year for big, concentrated reds with good maturation potential.
Note: some of this information was sourced from WOSA, John Platter Wine Guide and Grape.
RED GRAPE VARIETIES PLANTED
In recent years, over 40% of vineyards have been replanted with new vines and new clones. The industry is moving away from volume production and concentrating on noble varietals and quality wines. Traditionally, South African vineyards have been dominated by white varietals but the trend now is toward red. A significant 75% of red vineyards are younger than 10 years old. Noble varietals in focus include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot.
A late ripening grape, Cabernet Sauvignon prefers warmer climates and requires well-drained soils. Possibly introduced to the Cape 200 years ago. The most popular clones locally are CS 46 & 163. Cabernet is found primarily in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland.
A variety that does particularly well in South Africa and found mainly in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland. The quality of Shiraz being produced is improving radically. Plant material is now virus free. Good quality from low yields (previous regulations encouraged high yields). Certainly a wine to watch in the next few years.
SAs “national” variety, created in the 1920s. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (previously known as Hermitage). Hence, Pinotage. Color is light-ish with an inky center. Earthy, fruity nose. Taste often described as hard candy, ripe plum, baked cherry and broad smokiness. A feeling of peach fuzz lingers on the front palate. Industry is researching and developing guidelines for growing, harvesting and producing.
A Bordeaux grape, Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and yields are higher. Plantings of Merlot have increased dramatically in the past several years, predominantly in Stellenbosch and Paarl.
Rarely bottled on its own. Previously known as Hermitage and parent to Pinotage. A widely-used varietal in traditional table wine from Rhone.
Some successes now that French clone material has come into production. A difficult variety but wine farmers are beginning to understand its complexities. Some good wines from the cooler regions of Walker Bay...and watch out for Elgin
Increasingly bottled as a single varietal. Found mostly in Stellenbosch.
Plantings are increasing. Watch.
First planted in the mid-1970s by Blaauwklippen, only red zinfandel is produced locally - by three, maybe four, farms. A versatile grape, Zinfandel excels in SAs warm climate. Plantings are increasing. Mainly found in Stellenbosch.
WHITE GRAPE VARIETALS
South Africa has more chenin vineyards than any other country, including its home - France, where it is referred to as Vouvray. Mostly used for sparkling wines and brandy, chenin is a versatile grape. Innovative and adventurous wine producers are making truly classy chenins, surprising a host of people. Good examples compete on equal footing with good Vouvray.
Mainly used to make brandy. Often used in dry blends at the lower price range.
Known for its sauvignon blanc, SA runs neck and neck with New Zealand and France. A great alternative for the pinot grigio crowd.
Significant plantings in recent years. Winemakers are using less oak these days and the South African style is more akin to France than New World. Mostly Non-malo.
Also known as Hanepoot in South Africa. Used chiefly in dessert wines. However, mostly harvested for table grapes.
Also known as Paarl Riesling, is thought to be crouchen blanc. As a nondescript variety, it should be drunk in its youth.
From the ‘true’ German clone, it has more depth and a longer life.
Showing potential but not yet near the leagues of Bordeaux or some New World producers. In the early 19th century, semillion covered 93% of SA vineyard area.
Adventurous wine producers are showing some exciting examples. Still a long way to go to find the delicate flowers and oily viscosity.
A few dry examples in South Africa.
There are over 90 different grape varieties grown in South Africa with approximately 300,000 acres under vine (acreage estimates vary according to source). The varietals listed here are some of the more popular or interesting ones. Some of this information has been extracted from the WOSA.co.za web-site and The John Platter Guide to South African Wines.