Some thoughts on South African wine

This time of year, thanks to the constant stream of wines of all sorts to taste for Platter, offers something of a bird’s eye view of what’s happening with South African wines.

Due to the regional tastings no longer taking place, everyone has been allocated a wider spread of producers, which is a good thing as it does give a more comprehensive view of quality and helps with calibration. It’s as delightful to come across really well made, unpretentious everyday drinking wine as it is the grandees that excite me sufficiently to nominate for five stars.

There are, of course, still the high alcohol with residual sugar and too much oak brigade but they a slowly yielding to wines that show more all-round balance. As Saronsberg’s Dewaldt Heyns said at the recent vertical, while we all love being cool, properly read, hot vintages can also produce good wines, ie wines that are balanced so that none of the individual components sticks out like a sore thumb.

oak barrelsOaking in particular seems to be better used; not only in terms of new or used (most producers now have a good range of barrel ages, so can modify the amount of new oak to suit the wine) but size and toasting are also being given due attention according to the wine itself. Whereas it used to be 225 litre barriques that ruled in the barrel cellar, today you’ll find anything from 300 litre up to 700 litre with even larger foudres (some of several 1000 litres). Size isn’t the only change, so is toasting; there’s very much less heavy toasting, some barrels aren’t toasted at all. The effect is that oak now plays second fiddle to the wine; it’s more complementary and harmonious. That’s if oak is used at all. I’ve come across a handful of reds where no oak (not even staves or chips) has been used, yet the wines are thoroughly satisfying, having structure and concentration. It must have to do with vine age.

If there are unoaked reds, there is also an effort being made to produce more interesting rosés and what those winemakers who produce them call ‘light reds’, which lie somewhere between a rosé and full-blown red. Both oaked rosé and these light reds fill a gap for mealtimes on those hot summer days, when red is too heavy and an ordinary rosé just doesn’t have the stuffing to stand up to food.

Winemakers aren’t shy to charge for these wines, which requires more of a marketing effort, but as the quality is there, they deserve attention.

An area of special pleasure – and sometimes, surprise – has been the entry level or second label ranges. Most are just well and honestly made without any tricks; the winemakers have taken good fruit and vinified it into an easy-drinking but not facile style. These wines can offer more pleasure than those at the more ambitious and pricey level, when they are showily exaggerated.

Shannon winter pnBut I think the most interesting development is the increase in single vineyard bottlings. This subject deserves a piece on its own but until I have the time to do the necessary research, an alert that the category is growing will have to suffice.

Until a few years ago, the single vineyard wasn’t officially recognised, although some did of course exist and were bottled as such (but not indicated on the label). The basic requirements are that it has to be registered, may not exceed 6 hectares and must be planted to a single variety. Given the soil variation, even aspect and altitude, within a short distance in the winelands, 6 ha seems unnecessarily large, though I doubt many of those registered are that large. From the single vineyard wines I’ve tasted these past few weeks, I’ve noted most are from older vines, which makes sense as the winemaker will be aware of the quality and whether it matches up to making something special as a solo bottling. The question now is will these single vineyards continue to have the same thumbprint year after year, not to say will the other wine/s into which the fruit used to be incorporated be adversely affected.

About the only thing that hasn’t come my way this year is a new variety .. there’s time for that yet.

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