HEMEL EN AARDE , South Africa: For decades South Africa has been the promising but slightly uncouth cousin of the wine world, but a new generation of vintners are creating distinctive – and some say world-beating – wines.
Quaffed by the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin and Frederick the Great, wines made on the tip of Africa by Dutch settlers were the envy of the whole world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But that heyday was followed by centuries of blight, war and stagnation.
Then came the apartheid years, which brought an export embargo.
South African winemakers, hobbled by the trade curtain, shunned new techniques and tastes and instead catered for a domestic market that largely wanted cheap and cheerful plonk.
By the advent of democracy in 1994, some quality wines were still produced, but according to Mark Kent of the well-regarded Boekenhoutskloof vineyard, too many were “harsh and tannic and acidic and astringent.”
“You were always told ‘give the wine some time,’ ‘the wines would come around,’ but of course they never did,” Kent said.
“If a wine is made out of balance it is never going to come into balance,” he said.
South Africa remained in the doldrums as other “new world” producers – Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and the United States – racked up sales and awards.
The industry’s problems ran deep.
“The vineyard quality in the early 1990s was not of the standard that we would have wanted,” said Christo Deyzel, sommelier at the Vergelegen vineyard’s Camphors restaurant.
Leafroll and other viruses strangled grapes and degraded taste. In many instances “it was physically impossible to make a world-class wine,” Deyzel said.
Gradually, as export cash came in and the trade curtain fell away, old virus-infected vines were replaced.
The centuries-old idea that one estate could produce several different kinds of top-class wine gave way to planting the right grape in the right place.
Twenty years later that decision is beginning to bear fruit.
From their base in the stunning but windswept valley of Hemel en Aarde – Heaven on Earth in Afrikaans – Chris Alheit and his wife Suzaan manage plots across the Western Cape.
They are determined to create not only a world-beating wine, but one that is distinctly South African.
“What South Africa needs, what we are beginning to grow now, is an identity,” Alheit said.
For many years South Africa producers believed that this could be done through the uniquely South African grape Pinotage.
Created in the 1920s by a Stellenbosch professor, it was a marriage of Pinot Noir and Hermitage, also known as Cinsaut.
It offers the deep fruitiness of a Pinot, but critics often complain that it whiffs of burnt rubber.
“It’s been misunderstood, badly planted and badly made,” Alheit said.
Like fellow South African “maverick” winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris Mullineux, Alheit is looking further back in South Africa’s winemaking history to chart a way forward.
It is time, they say, to cast aside attempts to mimic the French Bordeaux or Burgundy and use old vines and grapes planted in the cape for 300 years, particularly white varieties like Chenin Blanc.
“Chenin has been in South Africa since about 1656, so that’s about 80 years longer than the first written record of Cabernet Sauvignon appearing in the Medoc,” Alheit said.
“We are talking about really authentic cape wine varieties here.”
Chenin is still the top variety in the country, with 18 percent of the total plantings and the largest chunk of exports, but most is used for unremarkable table wine.
By using older bush vines and taking a hands-off approach, Alheit says the wine can speak for itself.
He hopes that Chenin – which is also widely planted in France’s Loire Valley but few other places – can distinguish South Africa in much the same way that Malbec has transformed Argentina.
Their labors are starting to get noticed. Influential critic Tim Atkin recently described South Africa as “the most exciting wine-producing country in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Fellow critic Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate gave Alheit’s 2011 Cartology wine a rare 96 points out of 100.
“I am now coming to the end of my second decade in wine,” said Boekenhoutskloof’s Mark Kent.
“The next 10 years in terms of South African wine are probably going to be the most exciting.”
“I think the time is right. I think people are looking to us as an alternative for quality wine.”
But conscientious winemaking comes at a price.
Tracking down healthy old bush vines is tricky, as many of them are in outlying areas that have been neglected.
And yields from old vines, especially those over 20 years old, are notoriously small.
Eben Sadie’s flagship white Palladius uses grapes from vineyards that are up to 55 years old.
That pushes up the price in a region that is better known for its dirt-cheap tipple, and where even top-end wines are still a fraction of the cost of similar quality wine from California’s Napa, Spain’s Ribiera del Duero or France’s Cote du Rhone.
The weaker rand may help to keep prices down, but cost increases still seem inevitable.
Still, as the distinction narrows between old-world and new-world wines, South African producers hope their position straddling both will be their ticket to success.