South African Wine Poised For A Renaissance

Investors bring new techniques, rich flavors to South African wines


By Lou Marmon

Gazette Newspapers  February 24, 2015


Meerlust RubiconSouth Africa appears poised for wine greatness. This is somewhat surprising since the country’s winemaking industry languished during the 50 plus-years-long international boycott of the apartheid government. The wines made during those decades were uninspiring and meant to be shipped in large bulk containers rather than bottles. After the revocation of apartheid in 1994, South African winemakers had a lot of catching up to do.


They did have some advantages, including a more than 350-year history of winemaking. The East India Trading Company established a way-station for their ships in what is now Cape Town that included vineyards with the first harvest occurring in 1659. The second governor of the region founded the Constantia Wine Estate (named after his wife) on 1,900 acres outside the town.

The estate was purchased in 1778 by Hendrik Cloete, who revitalized the property and created a blended sweet wine that became wildly popular among European aristocracy (including Napoleon, Fredrick the Great and King Louis Phillipe of France) as well as poets such as Baudelaire, who compared Constantia wine to the lips of his lover.

The end of isolation meant that South African winemakers could travel and learn about modern techniques while extolling the virtues of their terroir. During this time, the country’s controlling wine cooperative shifted focus to private enterprise, which made South African wineries more attractive to outside investors. The recent acquisition of Mont Rochelle Winery in the Western Cape by Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Group) and the purchases of the venerable Mulderbosch Winery and Fable Mountain Vineyards by the former owner of California’s Screaming Eagle Winery, Charles Banks, are just a few examples.

The result is a South African wine renaissance with exports growing along with critical acclaim. While occasionally the names are difficult to pronounce, the wines are worth the search, especially since many are value-priced.

Neil Ellis was among the first to appreciate the impact of the various South African micro-climates and created wine from specific sites. His son, Warren, is now the winemaker and their Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc Groenekloof 2014 is bright and refreshing with citrus, gooseberry and white peach flavors along with a crisp, balanced finish. Also enjoyable is the Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc Western Cape Sincerely 2014, which shows more tropical fruit along with lime and grassy notes.

South African golfer Ernie Els released the first vintage from his eponymous winery in 2000. His 100% Chenin Blanc Ernie Els Big Easy White 2014 has honeyed apple, apricot and guava flavors within a medium frame that has some pineapple notes in the finish.

South African blended white wines are particularly compelling especially the Alheit Cartology Western Cape 2013, a combination of Chenin Blanc and Semillion that displays rich melon, apple, quince and peach flavors accented with fennel, citrus and honey leading into a prolonged, concentrated finish. The 2013 Sadie Family Skerpioen is made from Chenin Blanc grown on 70 year old vines blended with Palomino. It opens with straw and stone fruit aromas that lead into complex apple, melon, honeysuckle and some slight grassy flavors along with notes of almonds, Asian spice and minerals that persist throughout the long, balanced finish.

Also, look for the South African reds including the Meerlust Estate Rubicon 2009, a red blend displaying smoky floral and currant scents that persist along with blackberry, boysenberry and mocha flavors with hints of red fruit, cinnamon and sage leading into a well-balanced finish. Also consider the plum and herbal scented Kanonkop Kadette 2012, a Pinotage based blend with black cherry, raspberry, and cranberry flavors with some herbal and earthy notes.

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