Lifestyle

By the glass - South African wine review


The popularity of wines from the southern tip of the continent has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. TABJ takes a look at what is setting South Africa’s wine offering apart from its competition.

South Africa wines are enjoyed by diners and drinkers across the world. The country has become the seventh largest producer of wine in the world and its 2010 wine grape harvest was estimated to total 1,231,405 tonnes by industry organisation Wines of South Africa (WOSA).

With more than 112,700 hectares of vineyard in South Africa, it is perhaps no surprise that the country exports close to 400 million litres of wine a year.

Since the fall of the apartheid-era government and the birth of the Rainbow Nation in 1994, the opening up of the country’s economy has helped the wine industry blossom into a truly international player.

WOSA chief executive officer Su Birch says: “The recognition by foreign trade and consumers of the value South African wines offer across price ranges and the rise in South African wine tourism have contributed to the aggressive growth [of the industry].”

“Positive international media coverage has also played a key role. South Africa has the advantage of being able to supply foreign markets with regionally diverse wine styles that highlight the Cape’s biodiversity,” Su adds.

The industry is helped by South Africa’s Mediterranean-style climate, which is marked by its plentiful sunlight and its warm and dry conditions. The country’s grape growing season is long, sometimes lasting from November through to April of the following year.

As the gateway to South African’s wine growing regions, Cape Town is recognised as one of the world’s great wine capitals.

Although the majority of the country’s wine regions lie in the Western Cape, other regions noted for their viticulture are located in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Northern Cape.

As with all successful industries, a range of not-for-profit organisations have sprung up to support the South African wine sector, with the aim of increasing export exposure in key markets and supporting growers and their agricultural requirements.

These associations range from the export-focused WOSA, to the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), a partnership between the South African wine industry and the conservation sector.

Other non-gain organisations include WIETA, an agricultural ethical trade initiative, and SAWIS (South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems), which collects and processes industry information, and administers the industry’s Wine of Origin system.

Backing the sector

The South African wine industry is also backed by state research body, the Nietvoorbij Institute for Viticulture and Oenology. 

This organisation employs close to 250 staff and brings together experts from the departments of viniculture and viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch and the Elsenburg Agricultural College, which offers cellar technology.

To ensure that South African wines are reaching customers across the country, there is an extensive distribution network of wholesalers and retailers in place, who are supported by producer cellars, estates and other organisations that directly market the wines.

With the South African economy opening up to foreign markets in the 1990s, there has been a rapid increase in the amount of wines the country sells abroad. By the middle of the last decade the sector was growing at a rate of around five per cent a year.

All of the country’s wines must be granted an export licence if they wish to make their mark abroad.

In order to ensure that the country’s winegrowers are only selling the best possible products to wine lovers across the globe, samples of each batch of wine destined for foreign countries are sent to the Wine and Spirit Board (WSB) in Nietvoorbij, Stellenbosch.

Each batch undergoes detailed tasting tests and chemical analysis before a licence can be granted. An official seal is given to each bottle by the WSB, which verifies the truth behind claims made on the label regarding origin, vintage and grape variety.

Red and white

The most widely planted variety in South Africa is the Chenin Blanc, but with close to 40 per cent of vineyards being replanted in recent years, there has been a notable shift from 80 per cent white grapes to a split that equates to a near 50/50 split between red and white.

South Africa’s top five grape varieties consist of Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc and, according to the experts, the country’s winemakers utilise a healthy mixture of Old World traditions and New World techniques.

Since the relaxing of trade laws in the early 1990s, South African wines have been produced to cater for an international market, with winemaking techniques and styles being brought to the country by winemakers from Spain, California and France.

Once noted for being coarse in texture, South African red wines have become increasingly popular abroad in recent years thanks to the introduction of modern winemaking technologies and the resulting creation of softer, fleshier wines.