Although wine has been produced in South Africa for three hundred years, the modern wines of the Cape are still in their infancy. Since the late 1980s the industry has exploded thanks to foreign investment and interest in the wines. South Africa is now a hotbed of viticultural exploration, with new wineries, newly planted regions and grapes that were never planted in the country.
This rapid change left the Cape fighting for a wine identity. Were they to produce lean, earthy wines or bold, fruit-forward wines? Which markets could they compete in, and what kinds of wines did those markets demand? This lack of identity has become the identity. South Africa has it all.
Today’s South African wines are said to reflect the classicism of the Old World, while at the same time being influenced by the contemporary fruit-driven styles of the New World. The concept of New and Old World wines refers to the finished wines and the qualities that they present. Old World wines are lean and taste like the earth they were born in. New World wines are bold and fruit forward. They are clean, but simple.The wines of South Africa as a whole reflect both Old and New World qualities, but that is not necessarily true of each individual wine from the Cape. Some combine both qualities, others focus on one or the other. Quality wine comes from all three camps, but so does disappointing wine.
Like anywhere else, South Africa has producers that are excellent, those that are mediocre, and those whose wines are simply not good. As technology progresses throughout the world, the standards of winemaking are becoming more refined, and in the case of South Africa, this trend will inevitably continue.
Three factors determine the quality of any wine: the grape, the climate, and those who tend the vines and produce wine from them. Due to South Africa’s relatively late arrival into the modern wine industry, all three of these factors are still being polished.
The winemaking process begins with vineyard site. Before South Africa was opened to the world, the grape-growing industry was dominated by co-operatives that mandated which grapes could be planted and where. These rules often excluded sites in cooler regions, where the grapes did not produce as much juice. In a climate as warm as South Africa’s, finding those cooler sites is essential to wine quality. It is from these sites that one can find wines with both fruit and acidity. Wines of the classic, warmer regions all too often are dominated by alcohol, both on the nose and on the palate.
Once those sites are found, the focus shifts to planting grapes that work well. Though it is generally a warm region, the Cape’s vineyards now supply more diverse grape varieties than any other region. They have not pigeon-holed themselves into one grape variety. Quality wine is still produced from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc, but also from Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
Finally, there are the growers and winemakers. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of wineries grew from around 150 to over 550. This growth is most responsible for the diverse identity that South Africa has acquired in the wine industry. How can one expect a distinct style to arise during such an outburst of new talent? Each of these producers has a different concept of the style of wine they are pursuing.
To see a wine producing country as youthful and dynamic as South Africa is exciting, but in wine there is a direct relationship between maturity and overall quality. No matter how experienced the winemaker is, or even how well the grape pairs with the soil, the maturity of the vineyard itself can only come with time. The vines need to age.
Unfortunately, the aging process has been thwarted by the prevalence of viruses in the Cape’s vineyards. This outbreak is now on the mend, but it will take time to eradicate them and for the vines to fully mature. Only after further trial and error will South Africa produce its greatest wines.