WBW#6 heads down south – South African reds

I know, I know… we’ve only just caught our breath from the last Worldwide Wine Blogging Wednesday (Wacky Wine Names, well  hosted by Chez Pim).  But with the hiatus over the festive season, the January event ended up being rather late in the month.  And although the first Wednesday in Feb is clearly out of the question, Lenn (whose brainchild the WWBW is) drives a hard bargain and wasn’t going to hear any talk of skipping a month. So after some negotiation, we have decided hold the February edition of WBW on Wednesday 16 February – this should give everyone enough time to find some wines, yet still leave enough breathing space for the March edition (to be hosted by Andrew, I do believe) to take place approximately on time.

It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I have chosen South African reds as the theme – being the one-woman marketing department for SA food and drink in the blogosphere, there was never much doubt that the theme would be South African!!  Reds are also the obvious choice as South Africa’s gift to the oenological world, the Pinotage cultivar which was developed here (a cross between Cinsault/Hermitage and Pinot Noir) is red.  So I thought that if you had never tried one, this would provide you with the perfect opportunity!

The rules are very simple: 

  1. Go out to your local wine merchant and seek out a bottle of South African red.  Take my advice – spend a little more to get a better wine from a recognised producer.  Otherwise you end up with the dreck produced for the export market with lions and zebras on the label…
  2. Drink it, preferably with good friends and good food.  The drinking does not have to take place on the 16th of Feb – drink it anytime you like.  And feel free to have more than one wine (purely for comparative, scientific research purposes of course…) 
  3. On the 16th of Feb, write about it (and if possible, take a picture of the label).  Give us some tasting notes on the wine (there are lots of examples on the web).  Tell us what food you made to go with it and whether it was a happy combination.  Tell us about your friends, cooking sagas & injuries, dinner table anecdotes, whatever takes your fancy.  Just write and then post it on your blog together with the photo you’ve taken.  If you don’t have a blog, fee free to e-mail me (jeanne{at}501.co.za) your review and I will post it for you on my blog.
  4. Once you’ve posted your masterpiece to your blog, leave me a comment or drop me an e-mail containing your post’s link so that I can include it in the roundup, which should go up on my blog a day or 2 after the 16th.

To get you in the mood, and because a lot of people seem to be sadly underinformed about South African wines, I thought I’d also give you some inside info and tips before you go spending your hard-earned cash on an undrinkable bottle of plonk and think this represents SA wine ūüėČ  Although South Africa is a New World wine producing country, many people are surprised when they hear that the first wine was made at the Cape in 1659.  Jan Van Riebeeck was the leader of a band of Dutch settlers charged with establishing a refreshment station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company travelling round the Cape of Good Hope to the East.  They came ashore at Table Bay in 1652 and immediately set about building a settlement and planting crops.  in 1655-6 the first grape vines were imported from France, the Rhineland and Spain and successfully planted in the Company gardens and (appropriately, considering today’s date!) on 2 February 1659, Van Riebeeck wrote in his diary:

"Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes"

So we have a history of wine-making stretching back almost three and a half centuries!  In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the sweet wines of Constantia were much sought after in the courts of Europe, sometimes in preference to, say, Madeira or Sauternes.  The combination of the disastrous phylloxera pest and the Anglo-Boer war at the end of the 19th century threw the wine industry into chaos and it was not until almost 1920 that it started on the road to recovery – only to be dealt another blow in the 1980s when anti-apartheid sanctions meant that export markets for South African wine virtually dried up.  Today, however, the industry is thriving with SA wines appearing on shelves all over the world. The wine farming industry is also one of the most progressive in terms of assisting  previously disadvantaged labourers to learn the wine-making process and eventually produce their own wines and manage their own vineyards.  SA is currently ranked at no. 9 in the world in terms of volume of wine produced and supplies 3.1% of the world’s wine.  Red grape varieties make up 45% of the total plantings, and include Cabernet Sauvignon (15% of the total), Shiraz (9%), Pinotage and Merlot (7% each).  If you’re into figures, check out this page.

OK, so how do you go about choosing a good South African red then?  Well, for a start, you can try to stick to recognised producers as I said.  The Big Boys in terms of benchmark reds are Nederburg, Rust en Vrede, Kanonkop, KWV and Alto – the list is by no means exhaustive, but if you buy from them you are unlikely to go wrong.  The second tip may be a bit harder to follow – buy wine from a red wine region (for example there are few world class red wines produced in the Karoo – Stellenbosch and Paarl are where most of the flagship reds come from, whereas Robertson is better known for its whites). The problem with this tip is that the majority of wine is labeled in terms of the "Wine of Origin" scheme as being from one of four large regions rather than a specific district as shown on the map. So "wine of origin coastal region" could be a blend of wines from Paarl, Stellenbosh, Swartlad and Constantia!  This leads me to tip no. 3 – if you are going to be visiting SA’s winelands or plane to buy a lot of SA wines, invest in the authoritative John Platter wine guide – you can either subscribe online or buy the book.  The book is a wealth of information (including which region a wine was produced in – see previous tip!) and has reviews of pretty much all of the wine estates in the country as well as individual reviews of their wines.  You may not always agree with the reviews, but you can usually safely buy a wine recommended by him and not be too disappointed.  Tip four is to look out for the Veritas award stickers.  These are the symbols that a wine has been tasted and rated by an independent tasting panel and has been awarded either a double gold, gold, double silver, silver, double bronze or bronze medal according to average points awarded by the panel.  If you buy a wine with a Veritas sticker, you can be pretty sure it’s a goodie.  Fyi, here is the list of the 2004 Veritas winners. 

Now that you are armed with all the correct tips, all that remains is to select your wine!  Personally, I feel that South Africa excels at Cabernet Sauvignon and lately Shiraz has been receiving a ton of good press as well.  I also think we make some exceptional Bordeaux-style blends.  I am not personally a fan of Merlot, so I wouldn’t want to express an opinion on that, but I believe we make some very good Merlots as well.  And of course the Walker Bay area is producing some fabulously classy Pinot Noirs – Hamilton Russel and Bouchard Finlayson spring instantly to mind.  But our most famous cultivar is of course Pinotage.  It was created by Prof Abraham Izak Perold (a faculty dean at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa) in 1924 and was the result of crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault (then locally known as Hemitage).  The resulting cross (its name is an amalgamation of its parents’ names) proved to be disease-resistant, vigorous and early-ripening, and the first commercial plantings began in the 1940s.  The textbook tasting notes for a Pinotage would include an appealing "boiled sweets"  nose, with plums, bananas, cassis, cherries and berries in its youth, often taking on more austere "barnyard" flavours as it ages.  However, I often find Pinotage either too nondescript or too stridently chalky, like the scariest Merlot you can imagine.  There are some great examples out there, like the Uiterwyk (now De Waal) Top-of-the-hill Pinotage made from a single vineyard of old (50+ years) vines.  Or check out last year’s winners of the South African Pinotage competition – if you can’t find something you like amongst that list you are just being picky!  What you don’t want to do is buy a wine that’s largely made of Cinsault (it is grown as a high-yield, indeterminate quality grape in SA), or some of the scarier (and often cheaper) blends – Pinotage/Cabernet Franc or Ruby Cabernet/Cinsault blend is never a good idea in my book…

Last but not least, here are a couple of my personal favourites:

La Bri Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab/Merlot blend

Springfield Cabernet Sauvignon (particularly the 1996 vintage if it’s still available)

Nederburg Petit Verdot (the first single-cultivar bottling of this grape in SA)

Bellingham Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1981 vintage was my favourite for years till stocks ran out…)

So… that should give you more than enough inspiration to go and find out about South African wines and to make an informed decision as to what you want to try on the 16th.  I may have to raid our secret supply of wines lovingly ferried back from South African to London and bring out something special.  After all, it’s not every day that South Africa gets to take centre stage in an international blogging event!

Sien julle almal op die 16de – ek sien klaar uit daarna! 

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  1. Spittoon.biz says

    Wine Blogging Wednesday – South African Reds.

    Wednesday the 16th should be ringed in red on your calender for it has just been announced as Wine Blogging Wednesday! The fifth such event is to be hosted by Jeanne at Cook Sister; as she is South African her choice of topic (South African Reds) is to…

  2. says

    I was suggested a pinotage by the author (a Nederburg I think) and found it most agreeable.
    “The wine farming industry is also one of the most progressive in terms of assisting previously disadvantaged labourers to learn the wine-making process and eventually produce their own wines and manage their own vineyards.”

  3. says

    It was indeed a Nederburg Pinotage! Good thing you liked it, otherwise you’d never listen to another word I said…! Look forward to hearing about your wine choice on the 16th!

  4. says

    Hi Christina – yup, many people are surprised when they hear how long SA has been making wine…
    Wine + food + blogging – what’s not to like! I can vouch for the fact that it’s fun! And London is pretty well-stocked in terms of South African wines. I would avoid the big supermarkets and check out Oddbins and other smaller outlets – they often have the most interesting selections. Majestic’s SA wines are singularly boring – avoid! Look forward to seeing what you choose.

  5. says

    Wine Blogging Wedensday #6: South African Wines

    Several friends have asked me to give notice when I learned of the next Wine Blogging Wednesday. It has just been announced that Jeanne is hosting the next edition Wednesday, February 16th on South African Reds. Sometime between now and…

  6. The Thorngrove Table says

    Worldwide Wine Blogging Wednesday #6 – South African Reds

    The Worldwide Wine Blogging Wednesday is being hosted by CookSister on Wednesday 16 February and, perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s chosen the theme of South African Reds. Yum.

  7. Accidental Hedonist says

    WBW #6: South African Reds: 2001 KWV Cabernet Sauvignon

    The things we learn.
    For example, did you know that the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
    Now if I only had some context to which I might apply that knowledge.

  8. Donna Marie Ullman says

    Dear Sirs,
    I recently purchased a 2003 Bianco Pinotage. What is your evaluation of this wine? Thank you.
    Donna Ullman

  9. Lisa Gardhsol says

    Hi, we are a South African retailer and wondering if this site is still being used as the last article was posted feb o5. we are looking for a good wine courder to attend in London. Thanks