Last year’s World Cup gave Japan the opportunity to discover more about South Africa than just vuvuzelas: In 2010, packaged wine exports from South Africa to Japan grew by an impressive 11 percent. While the noise of the hornlike instrument is happily fading away (hopefully never to be heard again), the impression left by the country’s wines might prove to be more enduring, not least because they represent excellent value in these straightened times.
The end of apartheid heralded the beginning of the revitalization of the country’s flagging wine industry. Boycotts on South African goods had prevented the country gaining an international reputation, but once the oppressive regime collapsed, the industry was able to set about making a name for itself.
During the 1990s, flying winemakers led the charge in revolutionizing their craft. These overseas producers introduced new hygienic techniques that led to increasing sophistication in what had been a rather rough, rustic product.
The most important changes came in the vineyard: Where previously vines had been planted with an eye to quantity rather than quality, that philosophy was now reversed. Instead of planting bush vines, the vines were now trained and the varieties of grapes that were grown proliferated.
An arcane quarantine system had made it nigh-on impossible to import new varieties before this time and, as a result, the country’s wine output was dominated by the Pinotage and Chenin Blanc grapes. In the ’90s, it became possible to import Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot: all grapes that have performed extremely well in the country’s warm climate.
But it takes time for new root stock to really come into its own. As the vines age and put their roots further down in the soil, the wines they produce begin to increasingly acquire interesting characteristics. And since many of these new plantings were made in the ’90s, they are now really beginning to develop the qualities that are rightly putting South Africa on the map.
Chardonnay thrives all over South Africa and is an increasingly popular grape. Glen Carlou Chardonnay 2002 (¥2,380 from California a la Carte’s Rakuten store, www.rakuten.co.jp/cwa ) grown in the Paarl Valley, is a good example of a refined South African Chardonnay that encompasses both old-world French elegance and subtle new-world flavors of tropical fruits. It’s also got an interesting nuttiness that adds distinction to the mix. A wine of similar age and quality from California and France would be prohibitively expensive, so my advice is to snag this one while you can.
Sauvignon Blanc is also a variety that has showed up well in South African hands. The cooler south and east areas of South Africa’s most illustrious wine region, Stellenbosch, appear to provide the requisite conditions to produce the fresh levels of acidity necessary for a good Sauvignon Blanc. Thelema Mountain Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (¥1,480 from Wine Japan, www.ewinejapan.jp ) is a nice place to start: This zingy number has great citrus fruit flavors against a grassy palate coupled with a tangy saltiness that goes well with tempura.
If you’re looking for a reasonable white that will match well with the subtle flavors in Japanese food then Chenin Blanc is a good option. Like Riesling, the wine is both acidic and sweet, but the extent to which it displays these characteristics is really up to the winemaker. Fairvalley Chenin Blanc (¥920 from iWine, www.iwine.jp ) falls more toward the dry end of the spectrum; its subtle melon and lemon flavors make it a good match for a flavorful sashimi such as saba (mackerel). Like many South African wineries, Fairvalley is a cooperative; it is useful to note that, when looking for a bargain wine, these cooperatives can usually be relied upon to produce something equitably gluggable.
Moving on to the reds, we have to sound a note of caution. Many wine experts have detected some extremely unflattering characteristics in some of the worst of South Africa’s reds. These include burned rubber flavors and baked fruit. While the latter can be put down to an unusually hot year or a tardy harvest, the reason for the former defect remains somewhat of a mystery. Many accuse critics of singling South Africa out with a particularly harsh description of an acrid flavor that’s prevalent in poorly made wine the world over.
Whatever the cause, it’s important to be a little careful when buying a red. There are some excellent wineries out there that haven’t been tarred with this brush, so a little research before you buy goes a long way.
Like Chardonnays, South Africa’s Cabernet Sauvignons are really coming into their own with each passing year. A nice one to try is Rietvallei’s Cabernet Sauvignon (¥2,380 from Vinos Yamazaki Online Shop, www.v-yamazaki.net ); this wine has a deep rich hue and appreciable heft of tobacco and dark chocolate, combined with lively spicy pepper and cherry flavors.
Another red that comes highly recommended, for those who want to really splash out, is Eben Sadie’s Columella Syrah-Mourvedre blend 2004 (¥12,000 from Jeroboam, www.jeroboam.co.jp ). With a complex palate that includes rich blackcurrant and blueberry flavors, the wine has well-developed tannins and a delicious savory edge.
Finally we come to South Africa’s most maligned variety: Pinotage. Haters stress the grape’s acetone paint-stripper smell and the fact that it lacks the refinement of classic European grapes. But who wants to drink Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot day after day? Personally, I find Pinotage makes a welcome break from heavier Euro-centric wines.
A cross (not hybrid) of Cinsault and Pinot Noir, the grape combines the light fruitiness of Pinot Noir but also has richer notes reminiscent of a Co^tes du Rho^ne wine. Typically drunk young, lighter fruity wine styles are similar in taste to Beaujolais Nouveau, making it a nice match with yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). Seijyu ( www.seiyu.co.jp ) makes an extremely cheap South African Pinotage (¥780). Slightly rustic, but fantastic value, this wine has blueberry flavors combined with an interesting biscuity dryness.
Pinotage is not necessarily best drunk young, and there is a wine that brings out the full weight of its Rho^ne-like character. Kanonkop, which has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most expensive Pinotage, can age anywhere between 15 and 20 years. Grown on 56-year-old bush vines, the wine could arguably be said to be the true expression of South African wine style. Unfortunately this wine is no longer sold in Japan, which is a pity, as it makes a nice break from your run-of-the-mill varietals.
It’s heartening to see such massive improvement in viticulture in South Africa, sparked off by the social revolution in the 1990s. Following on from the resounding success of South African wines in Japan in 2010, lets hope the range of wines available at retailers continues to grow.
Stellenbosch and Paarl are at the center of South Africa’s quality wine revolution, and while good wine is increasingly produced in other areas, the focus remains on these regions to the southwest of the country.
Stellenbosch: This area wins the majority of South Africa’s wine awards and makes 18 percent of the country’s wine. To the east of Cape Town, its Mediterranean climate — with dry summers and wet winters — is perfect for wine-growing. The north of the area, where temperatures in summer are slightly higher than Bordeaux, is particularly good for producing reds.
There are a wide variety of soils in the region, ranging from light and sandy soils in the western valley (perfect for Chenin Blanc) to heavier granite soils. The mountains to the east provide a cooler climate that’s well suited to producing crisp Sauvignon Blancs. Though the trend these days is toward producing high-quality reds, great Chardonnay thrives all over the region.
Paarl: To the west of Stellensbosch lies Paarl, a region that used to be the center of the South African wine industry. While Paarl no longer enjoys that distinction, it does produce some excellent wines. Look out for bottles from Franschhoek Valley and Wellington: areas known for their excellent terroir.
W.O. (Wine of Origin): Similar to the French appellation d’origine contro^lee system, the term indicates the provenance of the wine, guaranteeing that it was made with grapes harvested in a particular area. Though this ensures that the wine will have the peculiar characteristics of a grape grown in that soil and climate, unlike the French system, growers do not have to adhere to any rules about how the grapes were grown.
Single vineyards: This indicates that the wine is made from an area restricted to five hectares.
Estate wine: Simply put, wines made from one site. While this used to be one site owned by the winemaker, this has now been revised to mean one contiguous vineyard farmed as one unit.