Name a New World wine country. Australia most likely springs immediately to mind, as does Chile. You’ve probably said New Zealand too, and maybe Argentina. Did South African Wines figure on your list?
If you’re a casual wine drinker it’s likely it didn’t, or maybe it came as an after-thought. Here in Ireland we have an unusual blind spot for South African wines – indeed sales of wines from the country have dropped 35% since 2008.
Which is a pity, since The Cape is one of the oldest “New World” wine countries with a rich history of winemaking going back as far as the mid 17th century (another example of the fallacy of the Old World / New World categorisation).
South African wine’s fortunes within in the international wine world have been somewhat undesirable in the last century or two. Originally its Constantia sweet wines were the toast of the European monarchy in the 18th and 19th centuries, rivalled only by Hungarian Tokaji.
Since then, though, various market forces, debilitating vine infections (which largely still exist today), international boycotting due to apartheid and old-school “quantity over quality” winemaking philosophy have largely hampered the country’s entrance to the quality wine arena.
However the newer generation of people making South African wines, now welcomed worldwide in the wake of the democratic awakening of their country, are spending time working in vineyards abroad and returning home with big ideas.
The outcome is fresh and new thinking brought to old vines in historic areas, with the result that South Africa has recently been named by Decanter magazine as the most dynamic winemaking region in the Southern Hemisphere; considering that includes Australia, Chile, New Zealand and most of their New World counterparts, then you realise that’s a big call.
The New Old New World
I had the chance to taste the wines from Rustenberg of the historic Stellenbosch district for the first time at the annual JN Wines tasting in The Merrion late last year. Standing behind the table was one of the most stereotypical Springboks you could encounter: tall, blond, broad, beefy, square-jawed and unfailingly polite.
I would later discover this was Murray Barlow, the third generation of winemakers to farm the Rustenberg estate that can trace its history back to 1682. Murray’s grandfather, Peter Barlow – after which one of their flagship wines is named – is responsible for revitalising the estate after purchasing and restoring it in 1941. The Barlow family have now been overseeing the historic property for 75 years, the longest time it has been in continuous family hands.
Murray was affably adroit at providing salient snippets of info without burdening me with technical detail. He summarised how they have in recent years concentrated more about prioritising working in the vineyard to ensure the best-quality grapes possible versus their traditional method of judicious sorting of the berries at the winery.
This approach goes hand-in-hand with some renewed ground-up thinking – if you’ll excuse the pun! – that has also expressed itself in experimenting with varieties alien to South Africa such as Rousanne and Grenache, a sweet vin de paille, and Syrah vines trained vertically on stakes in the Northern Rhone style.
Of course Rustenberg aren’t alone in this South African resurgence. See also the wines of Mullineux, Keermont, Richard Kershaw, De Morgenzon, Glen Carlou, Kanonkop, Doran, Paul Cluver and a host of others making properly excellent, exciting wines. In fact, another article delving further into these great producers would be needed I think – watch this space…
South Africa is on the up – it’s time we opened our minds, and our palates, to the treasures offered by this historic region and started supporting their winemakers once again. Despite us Irish buying almost a third less South African wines since 2008, we’re actually 14% up on 2012, so we’re heading in the right direction. Let’s do this proud nation – and our own palates – a huge favour and continue this positive trend.
THREE TO TRY
Rustenberg Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon
€15.99 from JNwine.com
I really enjoyed the texture of this wine, which shows typical Cab flavours of blackberry and blackcurrant.
Though not hugely complex, it is nevertheless supple, textural and long, and great value at this price.
Rustenberg Stellenbosch Chardonnay
€18.99 from JNwine.com
This was really the ‘wow’ wine for me at the Rustenberg table. Yes, their €36 single vineyard Chardonnay – the Five Soldiers – has that extra je ne sais quoi, but at a mere €19 this is incredible value for the effort that goes in, and the quality that comes out. Barrel-fermented with wild yeast, this shows judicious use of oak giving an excellent supple texture and layers of complexity.
Rustenberg John X Merriman
€19.99 from JNwine.com
This is their Bordeaux blend and named in honour of a former owner of Rustenberg, John Xavier Merriman, who bought the farm in 1892 in sympathy with farmers suffering from the phylloxera crisis.
This has excellent texture and though a little taut is still very approachable and fine. Again excellent value at just under €20.