South African tasting

Posted by Michael Hutton on

The wines of South Africa are something of a rarity on NZ shelves, but with good and ever improving quality combined with great value for money they won't stay that way. 

The heart of the 'Saffa' wine industry lies in the Western Cape, with the regions of Stellenbosch and Swartland lying a stones throw from Capetown.  Winemaking here has a surprisingly long history - the first vines for wine being planted in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck - for the purposes of supplying the Dutch East India Trading company enroute to the spice trade in the far east.  

 Heat and drought tolerant vines like Cinsault flourish here, but the hot dry climates of Africa are moderated by the 'Cape Doctor' - cooler winds from the Atlantic that also help to keep the vineyards free of rot through air circulation.  The number one grape variety planted by volume in South Africa is Chenin Blanc, albeit large amounts of  it are used to distill into brandy instead. (Photo- Chenin grown as bush-vines in Swartland).

The Wine industry in South Africa has transformed with the end of apartheid, the end of economic isolation meaning markets for high quality wine export opened up.  In 1990 only 30% of grapes in SA were destined for winemaking, whereas now that is closer to 70%.  With a reliable climate and free draining granite soils means good conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and also South Africa's hallmark grape- Pinotage.  This is actually a hybrid grape created in the 1920s between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (previously known in SA as 'Hermitage'... thus the pormanteau).  Pinotage has remarkbly little similarity as a wine to either Pinot or Cinsault, except for being somewhat finickity to look after in the vineyard.  Dark earthy fruits loaded with spice, charred rubber and tar for the cheaper versions, whereas a finer example could be mistaken for a good Aussie Cabernet. (Photo- old Pinotage vine in Stellenbosch).

One of South Africa's most famous wines however is a fortified sweet Muscat - famously enjoyed by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was allegedly a man of quite simple tastes, however the exceptions to this was Moet Champagne, and while in exile on St Helena allegedly consumed some 300 gallons of Vin de Constance - including his last taste in this world on his deathbed he asked for a sip of this decadent nutty, toffee, honeyed wine. (Photo- Napoleon on his death bed).

The Tasting Line Up

At the tasting, we tasted ten different South African wines.  

We started with two Chenin Blancs that were very different in style but both quite good examples - the first was the 2015 Mullineux 'Kloof Street' Old Vine Chenin Blanc  which had a fresh aromatic style with lovely minerality.   Second up was the 2014 Cartology Chenin Semillon Blanc blend, including 10% Semillon from old vines, over 70years old  - this wine was fatter and fuller, richer and more cerebral with honeyed notes and waxy stone fruits.

Then we launched into the red wines.   We started with the 2014 Darling Cellars 'Cinful' Cinsault as an example of the pre-hybrid grape that creates Pinotage.  We then compared three very different Pinotages - 2010 Darling Cellars Premium Pinotage, full of dark fruits, tar and spice ... compared to a more sophisticated 2012 Kaapzicht Pinotage with smoother aromatic fruits, finer tannins and some fine oak.  The 2014 Barista Pinotage was a very different beast- a new style of "Coffee Pinotage" where the wine is treated with highly toasted oak staves producing a unique burnt coffee & dark chocolate flavour into the wine. 

Next was the 2014 Wolftrap Syrah Mourvedre Viognier, a Rhone style blend from the 'French Quarter' of Stellenbosch - a touch of Viognier bringing a subtle floral lift to the wines.  Then onto the Bordeaux styles with a 2008 Darling Cellars Premium Cabernet Sauvignon - tremendous value for money but definitely still on the rustic end of the spectrum and the 2006 Steytler Vision "Cape Blend" - a back vintage of essentially a Bordeaux blend Capetown style - Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but blended with a healthy dose of Pinotage.  This was a powerful brooding dark wine, richly concentrated but rounded with 10 years of age including 2 years on fine grained French oak.

Then finished off with the Klein Konstantia 'Vin de Constance' dessert wine.   This wine was the winner of the favourites for the night, closely followed by the Kaapzicht Pinotage.

The wines were paired with traditional South African fare -- two english cheeses (Wensleydale and an Isle of Mull Cheddar), two SA curries - one vegetarian friendly with imported South African water-plants, and a classic Bunny-Chow with lamb served in a bread loaf,  Boerewors sausage, and both wet and dry Biltong (beef jerky).  The Vin de Constance was paired for dessert was a melktert custard tart and was the perfect pairing of the night.

Next tasting Dan will lead us through different regions of Scotch Whisky, and I'll introduce us to the leather and spice of Tempranillo wines with a Spotlight on Spanish Rioja!

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