My first tasting during my recent trip to South Africa was poolside at my hotel with Pieter Walser. His wine, and his approach to making wine, was not what I was expecting.
Under his label, Blankbottle, Walser (who, I found out later, is also an excellent surfer) sources the best grapes he can find around South Africa’s many regions, and makes wines that he feels are representative of each place. These are not even region-specific wines, but vineyard-specific ones, made with grapes like grenache blanc and fernão pires that I didn’t even know are grown in the country.
This is next-level stuff.
As my career as a wine writer moves into its second decade, I can say that I have seen and tasted much of the world’s wine offer. I have been to many places. The first visit is always about discovery, learning about the wines and the culture. Now I am returning to these places. While change in Europe is so gradual that it is often imperceptible, in newer wine-producing countries it can be quite drastic. A case in point is South Africa.
As I explained last week, South Africa has been growing grapes since the 17th century. But because of political isolation due to apartheid, the country’s wine industry did not make a push toward quality and modernization during the ’70s and ’80s, unlike much of the rest of the world.
If South Africa was slow to start, my most recent trip showed me how fast things can progress. When I visited in 2011, much of the offer available in Quebec was from more established wine regions like Stellenbosch, Robertson and Paarl, or sold under the broad Western Cape appellation combining a number of regions. But one place stuck out like a sore thumb: Swartland.
Located north of Cape Town, this sprawling region was known more for wheat production than wine. But there was a gang of younger winemakers who had settled the area during the first decade of the 21st century; they were there not only to make wine, but to make a particular style of wine.
They banded together, and in 2010 the Swartland Revolution, an annual tasting party, was inaugurated. Their association, called Swartland Independent Producers (SIP), pushed a pretty radical agenda: wine had to be made in a more natural way, without added yeasts, acid, tannin or the use of other technologies that have become crutches for modern winemaking. Oak was limited to 25 per cent new barrels, because, after all, wine is about fruit.
But what I found most interesting was that they had a list of grape varieties that were allowed to be used, and most of these were Mediterranean varieties like syrah, mourvèdre and grenache. No cabernet sauvignon.
This in itself was radical. It’s easy to sell even middling cabernet sauvignon. But as SIP co-founder Eben Sadie explained: “Most Bordeaux grapes like cabernet and merlot grow best at 42° latitude. Swartland is 33°. We have a Mediterranean climate, so the grapes must complement that.”
In 2015, the group held its final Swartland Revolution. On their website, the SIP members wrote: “We now want to focus our time and energy on the next phase, the evolution perhaps, of great things in this great region and country of ours.”
But the lingering effects of what SIP brought to South Africa are apparent throughout the country. Winemakers like Walser, and many more who are part of similar associations, are focusing on wines that are not only good, but have the aim of regional and vineyard expression, made with the right grapes for the climate.
Considering how varied South Africa’s climate is, there is opportunity to grow so many different grape varieties. Chardonnay from cooler areas like Elgin and Hermanus shows exceptional finesse. There is some great pinot noir being grown in cooler regions. Stellenbosch and Paarl produce very convincing Bordeaux-style blends that walk the line between European structure and boisterous New World fruitiness. I tasted sauvignon blanc from Constantia and Elgin that was unique in what is often a very boring category.
Maybe that is the “evolution” the SIP producers were talking about: determining which grapes work best in which climate so there is less need to tweak them after the wine is made, and revealing what is unique about each region.
If they keep their foot on this pedal, South Africa will carve out its proper identity within the world of wine, and will have done so in a relatively short amount of time.
Five South African wines to try
Syrah 2016, Swartland, Porcupine Ridge, South Africa red, $16.45, SAQ # 10678510. Really good. Dark-fruited, great freshness and refined tannins. Has a subtle note of smoked meat and spice on the finish, so very much like Crozes-Hermitage. Grape variety: syrah. Residual sugar: 3.3 g/L. Serve at: 16 C. Drink now-2019. Food pairing idea: apéritif, white meat roasts, vegetarian stir-fries with hoisin and ginger.
Pinot Noir 2015, Félicité, Breede River, Newton Johnson, South Africa red, $19.70, SAQ # 12556321. Very fresh and fruit-forward pinot noir. Lots of red fruits, an underlying smoke note and just enough tannin to give it some grip. Good value here. Grape variety: pinot noir. Residual sugar: 2.2 g/L. Serve at: 16 C. Drink now. Food pairing idea: apéritif, grilled salmon.
Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Elgin, Paul Cluver, South Africa white, $21.95, SAQ # 13061654. Moving into grapefruit and riper citrus notes. Very salty, fresh and really juicy. No real herbal element — perhaps a faint hint of grass. The acidity is so comfortable, refreshing and not at all sour. Really good. Grape variety: sauvignon blanc. Residual sugar: 2.6 g/L. Serve at: 8-10 C. Drink now-2020. Food pairing idea: apéritif, asparagus, lighter fish like trout.
Red 2014, Kloof Street, Swartland, Mullineux, South Africa red, $22.55, SAQ # 12483927. Super-fresh Rhône-style blend that is all about crunchy fruit, refined tannin and an earthy, meaty finish. Might lack a bit of texture for some, but drinks super easy. Grape varieties: syrah, mourvèdre, carignan, cinsault. Residual sugar: 2.4 g/L. Serve at: 16 C. Drink now-2022. Food pairing idea: vegetarian stir-fries with tamari and ginger.
The Chocolate Block 2015, Western Cape, Boekenhoutskloof, South Africa red, $38.35, SAQ # 10703412. Much cleaner and fresher than I remember it being. Juicy with nicely layered tannins. Oak is way in the background, adding spice if anything. Yes, there’s a touch of chocolate on the finish and it has a New World feel, but if you want a powerful wine with elegance, this is it. Grape varieties: syrah, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault. Residual sugar: 2.7 g/L. Serve at: 18 C. Drink now-2022. Food pairing idea: pepper steak.
You can hear Bill Zacharkiw pair wine with rock on CHOM-FM (97.7) every Friday at 7:45 a.m.