South Africa’s hosting of this year's World Cup has thrust the renaissance that has occurred across the tip of Africa into the spotlight. While I’ve been hot on South African wines for years, it’s great to see these dedicated winemakers getting some attention. Let’s make sure that once the World Cup is over this well-deserved attention continues based on the merits of their very delicious wines!
South Africa has a surprisingly long and colorful history as a winemaking region. It’s the oldest New World region around! Truth is, while it’s easy to lump South Africa in with other New World regions, it is decidedly Old World as far as wine is concerned. The South African wine industry can trace its roots back to the middle of the 17th century, but, as we know, history is often trumped by terroir and climate, and in those regards South Africa looks to be as Old World as it gets!
What to Expect: Chenin BlancChenin Blanc is one of the world's least known and most underappreciated great white wine grapes. Originally from France's Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc has spread around the globe and is used for virtually all styles of white wine, from crisp and lean to rich, round full table wines, sparkling wines, and some of the most decadent dessert wines made. Classic descriptors for the flavors of Chenin Blanc include peach, honey, lanolin, marzipan, and quince jelly, though the dry style from South Africa, where the wines are known as Steen, often exhibits more tropical fruit notes that recall pineapple and guava.
One of the great divides that separate New World and Old World wines is their expression of terroir. There are essentially two factors that play into this expression. The first being distinctive soils that can affect a grape's expression, and with some of the oldest and most complex soils on earth, South Africa has that covered.
The second factor that helps to express terroir is a temperate climate. When grapes get ripe they can express their own character in a rather transparent way, allowing for the traits that we call terroir to become evident. When grapes get really ripe they tend to produce wines that are profoundly fruity, and that transparency disappears, replaced by thick, jammy fruit -- and all that terroir generally disappears, too.
South Africa’s climate is temperate, and it’s growing season short, a perfect battle ground for that age-old struggle: Ripening grapes. When grapes get just ripe they find their perfect balance -- balance between tannin and acid, for example, and balance between fruit and terroir.
With its extended coastline and great variety of soils, not to mention vineyard sites and expositions, South Africa’s Western Cape is blessed with ideal terroirs for both white and red grapes. (For more, don't miss our travel guide to South African vineyards). There has been a long history of Chenin Blanc in South Africa though in the past it was frequently referred to as Steen. South African Chenin is produced in variety of interesting and compelling styles, and frequently at very attractive price points, so they are definitely worth trying.
In addition to Chenin Blanc, you should definitely check out the Sauvignon Blancs coming from South Africa. There are wonderful wines that combine the crisp mineral style associated with Old World examples of this grape, but with just a touch more bright fruit. I’ll have to hunt some down soon but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this handful of whites I recently tasted and watch out for an email next week when I get to sink my teeth into some great South African reds! Oh, and by the way – Go Brazil!