The story of South African winemaking, like that of the nation itself is long, fraught, horrifying and (hopefully) ultimately inspiring. The first bottle was produced in 1659, when Cape Town was a supply station for the Dutch East India Company, and viticulture was encouraged as a solution to scurvy. Following a brief period in the 1700s during which European royalty prized sweet wines made in the Constantia area, grape-eating birds, phylloxera and overproduction conspired to render the quality dismal even before the international boycott during apartheid years isolated the local industry completely.
The end of apartheid found South African winemaking in a parlous spot: vineyard viruses remained rampant and the decades of international pariahdom ensured the persistence of outmoded and ineffective viticultural methods.
But while the industry, like the country, still has much work to do, significant progress has been made in the years since. A strong focus on research and experimentation with regard to plantings, techniques and varietals has produced vastly improved wine that reflects the remarkable biodiversity of the land itself. In addition, attempts to redress the wrongs of the past via ethical viticulture have made South Africa the largest global producer of Fairtrade wine and a pioneer in sustainability.
Wines in South Africa are classified according to the Wines of Origin (WO) system, which divides growing regions into four classifications. They are, from large to small: geographical units, regions, districts, and wards. There are only 4 geographical units in the whole country, the largest of which, the Western Cape, is by far the most important. It contains the oldest region, Constantia, once famous for the dessert wine Vin de Constanta, and Stellenbosch and Swartland, responsible for some of the country’s most prestigious reds, mostly made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Syrah) -- as well as South Africa’s signature grape, Pinotage, which is homegrown hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
Although the most planted grape in the country continues to be Chenin Blanc (called Steen locally), South Africa’s red wines have really come into their own in the past twenty years. They are a natural fit for Red Rogues, but it seems especially appropriate to showcase them right now because, even by the standards of 2020, the South African wine industry had an extremely difficult year. In an attempt to reduce alcohol related hospitalizations and preserve much needed bedspace for COVID patients, the government suspended all sale and transport of alcohol (initially including exports) throughout the country in March 2020. As cases declined and rose again throughout the year, two more periods of suspension followed, the most recent ending on February 2nd of this year.
The effect on the industry, which employs 290,000 people and is the 2nd largest (after citrus) agricultural exporter in the country, has been cataclysmic but it will survive, and with international support, we are confident it will continue to flourish and evolve. There is consequently no better time to discover South African wine, and we are very excited to spotlight three of its best producers for Q1 of this new (and better already!) year.
The Plumpjack Team
From: Hemel-En Aarde Valley, South Africa
Winemaker: Emul Ross
Price: $29 bottle / $313.20 case
About the Winemaker: Founded by Anthony Hamilton Russell in 1994, Southern Right’s aim is to produce a serious, age-worthy Pinotage (South Africa’s unique red grape variety) combining a distinct South African fruit and flavor expression with classic styling and refinement. In 2005, a stunningly beautiful 1,125 acre property on the western border of Hamilton Russell Vineyards was purchased as a long-term home for Southern Right, and in 2009, a 350 ton “Overberg”-style cellar was completed on the property just in time for the 2009 harvest. Today the winery produces a Pinotage and a Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are named after the rare Southern Right whales, which frequent the cool South Atlantic Walker Bay, two miles from the vineyards. With each bottle sold, Southern Right makes a contribution to their conservation. Anthony and his wife Olive, winemaker Emul Ross, and viticulturist Johan Montgomery are dedicated to expressing the personality of terroir in their wines.
About the Winemaking: Grapes come from 3 different sites in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and Walker Bay. Exceptional quality and record low yields characterized the 2019 growing season. Pinotage yields were down 65% but well consecrated without being too dense or heavy. Harvest finished right before the rains arrived. The wine was aged for 9 months before bottling in 28% 228 liter & 72% 400 liter French Oak Barrels.
Tasting Notes: The 2019 Southern Right Pinotage shows lots of personality with concentrated red ripe berry fruit flavors and subtle spice notes on its medium body frame. Sleek in texture, it becomes more supple with aeration. The fruit has good vibrancy and lift while the tannins are powdery, making this a wine that will really develop nicely with a few years of extra bottle age. This plays on the Pinot side of the varietal with cooler climate suggestions to the fruit.
Suggested Food Pairing: Duck, Chicken Vindaloo, Pan-fried tuna with romesco sauce, Baba Ganoush
From: Swartland, South Africa
Winemaker: Andrea Mullineux
Price: $38 bottle/$410.40 case
About the Winemaker: Chris and Andrea Mullineux established Mullineux Family Wines in 2007. Within a very short time period the winery established itself as one of South Africa’s most celebrated wine brands, both locally and on the international front. Growing up in Northern California, winemaker Andrea Mullineux studied Viticulture and Oenology at UC-Davis before working in Stellenbosch and meeting Chris at a wine festival in Champagne. Chris is the Viticulturist, in charge of the vineyards on their farm on Kasteelberg Mountain as well as fruit sourcing for their value Kloof Street wines. Andrea Mullineux was named Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year in 2016.
About the Winemaking: Grapes for the Syrah come from seven sustainably farmed vineyard parcels in different parts of the Swartland: four parcels planted in the stony Shale and Schist based soils of the Kasteelberg; two parcels of dry-land, bush vines grown in the decomposed Granite of the Paardeberg; and one on the rolling, iron-rich soils west of Malmesbury. Vines are aged between 22 and 30 years.
Each parcel of grapes is chilled, then 90% added as whole bunches to the tank and the remainder is added destemmed. Minimal SO2 is added but no further additions are made. The must is initially pigeaged once a day. After about 4 days, fermentation begins with indigenous yeasts and the wine is pigeaged once or twice a day, depending on extract and tannin development. Fermentation lasts 7 to 10 days after which 3 to 7 weeks (also depending on tannin development) skin contact is given. The wine is then pressed to barrel for malolactic fermentation and maturation. Each parcel is racked in Spring to blend the wine, which is then returned to barrel and later bottled unfiltered and unfined. Aged 14 months in French oak 225L and 500L barrels and 2000L Foudre, 15% new.
Tasting Notes: This aromatic Syrah has notes of spicy citrus rind, black fruit, and violets, which follow through on the palate. The wine is elegant and restrained, yet has good body and a silky texture balanced by a fresh, natural acidity. The finish is long with supple, dusty, tannins. Best served at 16 to 18 °C, this wine will greatly benefit from decanting if drunk within the first 3 to 5 years after bottling.
Suggested Food Pairing: Charcuterie lamb loin confit belly, served with harissa, chick peas, baby marrow, pistachio and lamb jus.
From: Stellanbosch, South Africa
Winemaker: Stuart Botha
Price: $41 bottle/ $442.80
About the Winemaker: Stuart Botha studied winemaking and viticulture at Elsenburg Agricultural College, qualifying with a B.Agric Viticulture and Oenology in 2006. He joined the team at Tokara in 2017 after having made award-winning wines in Constantia since 2007.
About the Winemaking: The grapes were hand-picked at optimal ripeness between the 11th of Feb and the 16th of March. The grapes were de-stemmed, before first passing across a mechanical sorting table and then a further hand sorting table before being crushed directly into tanks for fermentation using gravity feed and no pumps. There is a period of cold maceration for up to 5 days before the fermentation starts spontaneously (without the use of selected yeast strains). The grapes were fermented in stainless steel and wooden upright (foudre) fermenters. Pump-overs, délestage and punching down of the cap were implemented twice a day for extraction until fermentation was complete. The tanks were given maceration post fermentation if the quality and tannin profile of the wine warranted it. The wine was put to barrel for malolactic fermentation after which it was racked, sulphured and put back to barrel for further maturation. The wine spent a total of twenty-two months in 54% new French oak - the rest being older French oak barriques. During maturation the wines received four racking’s, all done barrel to barrel. The wine was bottled in January 2019 without fining or filtration. 27,300 bottles were produced. 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc.
Tasting Notes: The wine has stunning depth of colour. Displaying intense garnet centre and a ruby rim. The nose is shy at first then opens up to a melange of red and black fruits with hints of dried herbs, Eucalyptus, cedar wood and graphite. The wine enters the palate with amazing clarity. The flavours are those of dark cherries, raspberries and black currant. There is a hint of herbal spice on the mid-palate which leads to fine, firm tannins on the finish.
Suggested Food Pairing: Grilled ribeye steak served with Béarnaise sauce, potato Dauphinoise, Veal Osso Buc, roasted squash