Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg in 2010
South Africa is a New World wine country, with a long wine history. With about 100.000 hectares of land under vine, it accounts for 1.5% of the world's grape vineyards. Yearly production is around 10 million hectoliters, which puts the country among the top ten wine producing countries in the world.
The authority in terms of South African wine is the Platter's South African Wine Guide. The 2011 edition packed with news, reviews and ratings of more than 800 producers and brands, including 58 newcomers, and well over 6,000 locally grown wines was just released.
A highlight of any new edition is the five-star line-up – the exceptional bottlings which emerge from a second round of tasting with the judging team’s highest rating on the Platter’s scale of 0 - 5 stars. This edition a record 58 wines made the five-star cut. You find them below.
Modern South Africa
I have traveled in South Africa many times in the past 3 decades, in particular during the period 1989 to 1992, when I used to live in Madagascar.When traveling in South Africa today, it quickly becomes evident that apartheid is resting in the dustbin of history. South Africa’s current President is the Zulu Jakob Zuma, who is mired in personal and political controversy. The Txosa Nelson Mandela, who had spent more than 25 years in prison during apartheid, was President in the 1990s and is now a revered elder called "Madiba" ("Papa"). South Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup. The Soccer World Cup was hoped to provide a boost to the tourism industry; but indications are that the expected boost did not materialize, at least not fully. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to be wide, but is narrowing and a black middle class is emerging. This, however, is not so much evident in the wine region, which continues to be dominated by the whites; Cape Town even has a white mayor. 99% of the vineyard area is in the hands of whites. The AIDS pandemic is taking a huge toll with the HIV infection rate at about 20 percent.
Over the course of the years, I have detected an increasing openness, pride and camaraderie among all the South Africans – white, colored or black, Boers or Brits; Indians, Jews, Zulus, Txosas or Vendas, I met. Nevertheless, this rainbow society with a share of 75% of blacks, has huge challenges to cope with.
South African Wine Industry
Unlike other New World wine regions, the South African wine industry is strongly influenced by several large wine-cooperatives, including Distel and KWV; in total, there about 60 co-operatives. In addition, there are about 25 trading companies, or negociants, which often operate wineries, but seldom own their own vineyards. Among these are SAVISA, Winecorp, Stellenbosch Vineyards and Graham Beck; Western Wines is among the trading companies that are foreign based and owned; their brand Kumala is by far South Africa’s biggest brand. Over 80% of the total crop is delivered to these large wineries by about 4000 wine growers. However, private wineries have increasingly emerged and seen an impressive growth; there are now about 600 winemakers with their own cellars, most of them in the premium wine segment.
Picture: Winemaker Francois Rhode, Owner David Sonnenberg and Christian G.E.Schiller at Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate
More than half of the total production is exported. The previous Cape powers, the UK and Netherlands, are traditionally the main destinations for wines shipments; but other markets are coming up, including Sweden, Denmark, the USA, Germany and Angola.
The wine industry is firmly in the hands of the whites, both white South Africans and foreign investors. But I had the pleasure to meet Ntsiki Biyela, a female black winemaker, who is producing outstanding wines at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch. Also, the Diemersfontein wine portfolio included a line of wines that was produced in the framework of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program (to promote the black community's involvement in the South African wine industry-including ownership opportunities for vineyards and wineries).
Although there has been a significant shift in favor of red wine varieties, reflecting increasing demand for the international varieties Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, white wine is still in the lead, accounting for a bit more than half of the total. Pinotage, which is a native grape of South Africa, also shows an upward trend. Among the white wines, Chenin Blanc is the front runner, followed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Owner Raphael Dornier at Dornier Estate near Stellenbosch
Cabernet Sauvignon has become the most widely planted red grape variety, accounting for 25 percent of the red wines. Shiraz seems to like the climate of the Cape very much and produces very intense full-bodied wines. In recent years, Shiraz has been planted in particular in the warmer growing areas. Although Pinot Noir is rarely grown in South Africa, it can be found in the cooler regions Walker Bay and Elgin, producing exceptionally good wines there. Merlot has traditionally been used for cuvees with Cabernet Sauvignon; but winemakers have started to produce 100% Merlot wines.
Pinotage is the signature grape of South Africa. In 1925, a South African researcher at the University of Stellenbosch crossed the Pinot Noir with the Hermitage (Cinsaut): This was the birth of Pinotage. It now accounts for more than 20 percent of South Africa’s red wine. It is made in a broad range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine and rosé to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also used for port-style wine and red sparkling wine.
In recent years, many new Chardonnay vineyards have moved into the production phase. Whether fermented in barrels or in steel tanks, the Chardonnay from the Cape region is always elegant in style, combined with refreshing fruit flavors on the palate. Viognier shows its full potential in South Africa and plantings are increasing. Two hundred years ago, Semillon was the dominant grape variety in the Cape region; today it is rather the exception. South African Sauvignon Blancs enjoy an increasing popularity; the plantings are concentrated in the cooler altitudes of Constantia, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Although on a downward trend, some South African wine makers are pushing the Chenin Blanc grape, trying to improve the quality and diversifying into different styles. Other white varieties include Colombard, Gewurztraminer, Muscat of Alexandria and Pinot Gris.
Christian G.E.Schiller with Winemaker Jean Smit at Boekenhoutskloof in the Franschhoek Valley
Finally, Cape Riesling is widely grown in the Cape, but is actually not a Riesling, the great grape from Germany, but a Crouchon Blanc, originating in Southern France, but seldomly grown there. By contrast, the noble Riesling is a niche wine, which, until this year, had to be labeled as Weisser Riesling or Rhine Riesling. Only from this year on, Riesling can be labeled as Riesling, without the pre-fixes Weisser or Rhine.
Wine Growing Regions
Under the "Wine of Origins" (WO) system, wine zones fall under one of four categories. The largest are Geographical Units (such as the Western Cape region), which includes the smaller, but still largely defined Regions (such as Overberg), followed by districts (like Walker Bay) and finally wards (such as Elgin). WO wines must be made 100% from grapes from the designated area.
Constantia ward: Located south of Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, it is the cradle of the South African wine industry and was through the 18th and 19th centuries regarded as South Africa’s grand cru territory.
Stellenbosch district: the second oldest wine zone, accounting for around 14% of the country's wine production. The seven wards of Stellenbosch-Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch are well known for their red wines.
Christian G.E.Schiller with Winemaker Ntsiki Biyela at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch
Paarl: For most of the 20th century, Paarl was for all practical purposes the heart of the South African wine industry, as it was the home of the KWV. The importance of Paarl has declined with the emergence of a strong private sector.
The Franschhoek Valley, a ward, was founded by Huguenot settlers who brought with them their winemaking know-how.
The Breede River Valley, located east of the Drakenstein Mountains, is a warm climate region; the river itself provides easy access to irrigation which makes bulk wine production of high yield varieties commonplace. The Robertson district is located closest to the river along alluvial soils. The Worcester district is responsible for more wine than any other wine region in the country with almost one quarter of the total coming from this area.
The cool climate Overberg region received very little attention until the late 20th century, but its wines are becoming increasingly sought after, notably the wines of Walker Bay with the various Hemel-en-Arde wards and of the cool, higher elevation vineyards of Elgin located east of Cape Town.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Anthony Hamilton Russell at the Hamilton Russell Estate in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
The Atlantic influenced West Coast region includes the areas of Durbanville, Olifants River, Piketberg and Swartland. Historically known for its bulk wine production, in recent years, in particular in Swartland, innovative producers making excellent premium wines have emerged.
The Platter’s 58 5 Star Wines
• Boekenhoutskloof 2008 (Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon continued its run of form (7 in 10 years and their 11th in so many years) and while it was the only Cab last year)
• Delaire Graff Reserve 2008
• Kanonkop 2007
• Klein Constantia 2008
• Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2007
• Le Riche CWG Auction Reserve 2007
• Neil Ellis Vineyard Selections 2008
• Meerlust 2008
• Newton Johnson Domaine 2009
• Beyerskloof Diesel 2008
• Boschendal Cecil John Reserve 2008
• De Trafford 2008 (Red Wine of the Year)
• Eagles’ Nest 2008
• Haskell Pillars 2008
• Rijk’s Private Cellar 2005
• Saxenburg Select Limited Release 2006
• Shannon Mount Bullet 2008
• Ernie Els Signature 2007
• Graham Beck Ad Honorem 2007
• Hartenberg The Mackenzie Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2007
• Nederburg Ingenuity Red 2007
• Reyneke Reserve Red 2008
• Spier Frans K. Smit 2006
• Vergelegen Red 2005
• Groot Constantia Gouverneurs 2009
• Julien Schaal 2009
• Mulderbosch 2008
• Rustenberg Five Soldiers 2008
• Botanica 2009
• StellenRust ‘45’ Barrel Fermented 2009
• The Foundry 2009
• Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run 2010
• Klein Constantia Perdeblokke 2009
• Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2009
• The Berrio 2009
• Zevenwacht 360° 2009
White Blends: the single biggest category was white blends with 11 wines. No fewer than six followed the Bordelaise/Graves template but then South Africa’s fondness for – and ability with – Sauvignon Blanc is well established. It was the other five wines which demonstrated real intent to display South Africa’s vinous diversity. Chenin Blanc featured largely – along with Viognier, Verdelho, Clairette Blanche, Chardonnay, Nouvelle and even Rhine Riesling and Muscadel
• Cape Point Isliedh 2009
• Hermanuspietersfontein Die Bartho 2009
• Lammershoek Roulette Blanc 2009
• Nederburg Ingenuity White 2009
• Nederburg Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay Private Bin D253 2009
• Rall White 2009
• Sadie Family Palladius 2009
• Steenberg Magna Carta 2009
• Steenberg CWG Auction Reserve The Magus 2009
• Strandveld Adamastor 2009
• Tokara Director’s Reserve White 2009
Méthode Cap Classique
• Topiary Blanc de Blancs Brut 2008
• Villiera Monro Brut 2005
Dessert Wine, Unfortified
• Fairview La Beryl Blanc 2009
• Fleur du Cap Bergkelder Selection Noble Late Harvest 2009 (White Wine of the Year)
• Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2006
• Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve Noble Late Harvest 2009
• Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2009
• Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve 2008
• De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2008
• De Krans Cape Tawny NV
• JP Bredell Cape Vintage Reserve 2007
Platter’s Wines of the Year
Of the five-star awarded wines, the red and white which receive the most votes from the judging panel are named Platter’s Wines Of The Year. This time the Red Wine Of The Year is De Trafford Shiraz 2008, whilst the White Wine Of The Year is Fleur du Cap Bergkelder Selection Noble Late Harvest 2009.
Platter’s Winery of the Year
Platter’s Winery of the Year award is the editor’s personal selection, after considering a variety of criteria, the aim being to showcase a producer which epitomises the best of South African winegrowing today: Nederburg Wines is the 2011 Winery of the Year. Already one of the most frequent five-star recipients in the guide’s 31-year history, with 18 top ratings over 11 editions, it achieved another milestone this time by accumulating a record 5 five-star accolades, plus the award for Superquaffer of the Year. Congratulations to cellarmaster Razvan Macici and his team on a remarkable achievement.”
schiller-wine: Related Postings
In the Plane: Wine on South African Airways from Johannesburg to Livingstone in Zambia (Victoria Falls)
New World Wine Producer South Africa
Boekenhoutskloof – Producer of Sensational Premium Wines as well as Good Value Table Wines in Franschhoek
Lunch with Raphael Dornier in Stellenbosch
Burgundy Wines in South Africa: Hamilton Russell Vineyards
Devon Rocks - A Boutique Producer of Pinotage in South Africa
Wining, Dining and Relaxing with the Chocolate/Coffee Pinotage at Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate in Wellington, South Africa
In the Glass: A Rust en Vrede 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon With South African Oysters in Stellenbosch
Marianne Wine Estate: South African Wine with a French Soul
Meeting Ntsiki Biyela at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch – South Africa’s Only Female and Black Winemaker with International Recognition
Wine, Art and Food: Donald Hess’ Glen Carlou Estate in South Africa