South Africa’s vineyards are especially beautiful, cover a vast range of terroirs, and are focusing on innovation
The area around Cape Town is known as the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). It is a world heritage site and home to 10,000 plant species, more than all the plants in the entire northern hemisphere. About 70 per cent of the plants in the CFK can only be found in the south west tip of South Africa.
Parallels exist between the wine regions of the former Soviet bloc nations in East Europe and South Africa. In both places the wine industry has blossomed in the past decade as each country embraces innovation after a long period of isolation from the rest of the world.
The East bloc nations were isolated from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. South Africa was estranged from the world because of its policy of apartheid from 1948 until it embraced democratic independence in 1994. In Bulgaria, one of the former Soviet satellites, collectivised land has been returned to its original owners with various degrees of success.
Meanwhile, South Africa has developed a major focus on sustainable farming and looking after its land, which is vital because of water shortages. Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA) operates as an umbrella group to unite the work of a range of relevant groups including the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) and Wines of South Africa (WOSA).
Under the IPW scheme winemakers grow grapes according to independent guidelines in relation to use of sprays, recycling of water and protection of natural habitats. In the past decade more than a third of South Africa’s 600 wine farms have created 143,000 hectares of conservation areas on their farms, much more than the 99,463 hectares currently under vine.
South Africa also promotes ethical trading practices, and the country has more Fairtrade wineries than anywhere in the world. Last year two thirds of all Fairtrade wine sales came from South Africa. The Fairtrade logo on a bottle means the wine has been produced in a sustainable and ethical way.
Under the Fairtrade banner, Douglas Green Wines funded a mobile library that serves more than 1,200 children in the Cape winelands. The truck carries 5,000 books and 20 laptop computers, complete with an in-truck wifi system.
Wines of South Africa supports the Pebbles Project, which improves the lives of disadvantaged children in rural areas. Founder Sophia Warner aims to give children a quality education within strong family structures in sustainable communities.
The past decade in South African has seen a significant improvement in quality, noted Debra Meiburg MW. At the annual International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) awards announced earlier this month South Africa received 53 gold medals, a 50 per cent increase on the previous year. Established in 1969, IWSC was the first wine competition in the world, and currently assesses wine from 90 countries.
Veteran winemaker Ken Forrester believes the standard of South African wines has never been better. In 1990 the country had about 200 wineries. A quarter century later that number has trebled. Wine exports have also boomed. In 1992 South Africa exported 22 million litres, but by 2014 that amount had surged to 422 million litres.
Exports represent almost 58 per cent of total production. Exports to China have risen almost 90 per cent in recent years, though from a small base.
Wine tourism is now worth 6,000 million rand a year. The wine industry contributes about 1.2 per cent of the country’s GDP and provides 300,000 jobs, according to Alan Winde, minister of economic opportunities in the Western Cape province.
For all its beauty, South Africa is a tough place to make wine. Winemaker Graham Knox, who has written four books about South African wine, said that winds up to 150kph can shred vines and wipe out entire crops. Bruce Jack, winemaker and founder of Flagstone Wines, presented a seminar on the influence of wind on winemaking at CapeWine in CapeTown this week. “No other country has been dominated by wind as South Africa, and wind has a big effect on grape growing,” Jack said. Organised by Wines of South Africa, CapeWine is the industry’s flagship event and the biggest trade show in the southern hemisphere. It is held every three years.
Richard Kershaw MW, of Kershaw Wines, has been making wine in South Africa since 1999 after moving there from the UK. He said the country has thousands of different terroirs because of its ancient geology. “Climate, altitude, clones and soil. These elements are all building blocks in the winemaking process.” He likens winemaking to yacht racing. “Everyone has a yacht and sails but it’s how you rig the sails and manage the yacht that makes the difference.” Kershaw’s range of chardonnays is excitingly sublime.
Alex Starey makes excellent white blends at the Keermont estate in Stellenbosch. He celebrates the co-operative nature of winemaking. “If you like someone’s wine you can phone them and they will offer to help. That is a good thing about the industry here.”
New regions have emerged in recent years. Some of the most exciting include Elgin, Cape Agulhas and Swartland. David Trafford founded a vineyard at one of the most extreme, in Malgas about 230km east of Cape Town. The Sijnn range (Subs: correct spelling) will be the topic of a future column.
Cycling through Stellenbosch
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of Wines of South Africa at CapeWine.