A serious tack for South Africa’s white wines
By Jon Bonné
San Francisco Chronicle
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Sept. 28–Just three years ago, talk of South African wine, at least on these shores, was relatively simple. A handful of wines hovered at the top, often aiming — no different than California — on standards of internationalist taste. A great bunch more could be found that were made on the cheap — not in a bad way, just meant to tangle in the shelf wars with Australia and Chile.
On the white-wine side, there was fancy Chardonnay that tasted like fancy Chardonnay, and cheery Sauvignon Blanc that tasted like a big grassy smile. And of course, a handful of Steen (South Africa’s sometimes term for Chenin Blanc) that had a loyal but mild following.
I, too, would enjoy bottles of, say, Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc on occasion. But these were wines that accommodated rather than challenged me. Their manners were utterly polite.
All fine, but as I’d often explain in an e-mail to hopeful solicitors, California is not really the place to tout wines from afar with a mild sort of mainstream charm. It would be like selling Tuscan Cabernet in Oakville.
Whether because South Africa’s wine culture is evolving, or because more interesting wines are now finding U.S. importers, a more studious sort of South African wine has begun to make a bustle.
Swartland steps up
The evident epicenter of change is the Swartland. Nestled amid the mountains north of Cape Town, the area is a crazy quilt of old shale and sandstone, and granite, the result of a collision of the South American and African plates not unlike the muddle of soils created by the San Andreas Fault.
Whether because it didn’t enjoy the earlier attention that went to regions like Stellenbosch — think of this as the Sierra foothills of South Africa — or the lingering presence of old vines that tell a different, earlier story about the country’s wine history, the Swartland has become a great laboratory for evolving tradition, and for the sort of deliberate minimalism in the cellar that is quietly rewriting the rules of modern wine.
This desire to return to wine’s basics, in a soulful way, is strong enough in the region that nearly two dozen of its vintners banded together to form the Swartland Independent, which pledges not only to promote wine specifically made in the region but also not to add acid or tannin, or even to use commercial yeast, in order to preserve a specific taste of the wine’s origin. Wines can be randomly tested to ensure they haven’t been manipulated.
Extreme? Perhaps. But the movement has attracted most of the region’s stars — several of whom were also the stars of our recent panel tasting.
For a start, there is Adi Badenhorst, whose family has been in South African wine for decades — his grandfather managed the famous Groot Constantia estate. He and his cousin Hein bought 148 acres in 2008, an old property called Kalmoesfontein, which has become the source for a brilliant lineup of wines — including three in our roster.
Then there is Chris Mullineux, a young talent who worked harvests from Cote Rotie to California before settling in the Swartland with his wife, Andrea, a UC Davis alum.
Also Eben Sadie, a former surfer who graduated from making wine for the Spice Route label, established by Fairview’s Charles Back, to his own projects, including Columella, perhaps the most critically acclaimed South African wine.
More poignantly, he makes Die Ouwingerdreeks, or the Old Vine Series, a set of wines based on single plots of rediscovered old plantings.
In all cases, these folks demonstrate talents both on the red (mostly Rhone-inspired) and white side of the equation.
Because Sadie’s wines are in short supply, they didn’t make it to our tasting of more than two dozen white wines. But wines like his Skurfberg or Kokerboom bottlings present a challenge to fancier wines elsewhere. Indeed, the Kokerboom, from 1930s-era vines farther north in the Olifants River region, offers a presence and power typically found only in white-wine monoliths like Corton-Charlemagne.
The composition of Kokerboom is Semillon — and its rare sibling, Semillon Gris — while Skufberg relies on several old plots of head-trained Chenin Blanc.
And that brings us to the magic ingredient behind much of this latest progress in the Swartland and elsewhere. To use 45-year-old Chenin Blanc vines or 55-year-old Grenache Blanc from a roster of generally disregarded grapes and vineyards, is a gamble on the possibility of great base material planted on great soils.
Chenin, like Colombard, was a longtime driver of the cheaper side of South Africa’s wine industry; yet it has only taken a few old vineyards, planted in the boom times of the 1960s, to show that what begins humble can find a more timeless purpose.
This is an affirmation of the legacy of Steen, which too often was both conceived and perceived as a simple wine. The fact that some old plantings have grown to yield something more serious is an affirmation of the belief that time is an essential factor in great farming — and great wine.
But success doesn’t begin or end with Steen. Vintners like Mullineux or Badenhorst often turn to blends for their most important wines — Badenhorst’s top white wine uses 10 different varieties.
And there is still enormous charm in Sauvignon Blanc. While wines like Mulderbosch, from the coastal region of Stellenbosch, remain benchmarks, there is growing competition nearby, including just south in Elgin. There seems to be an increasing desire to make wines that show a deeper side to the grape than much of what appears from New Zealand or California.
The lesson therein
Not everything is succeeding so well. Widely planted Chardonnay, which more than any other grape signals a region’s ambitions, appears to be treading water. Wineries like Hamilton Russell have proven that great examples can be made in South Africa. But it is hard to see a path to distinction that could tangle with Burgundy — or California’s best, for that matter.
Therein lies a lesson from modern-day South Africa to the rest of us. The concentration and intensity of great wines are less about the right varieties than mature vines and naturally low yields — not simply in places we expect, like Chablis, but in unexpected corners, too. This is crucial because so many wine cultures hand red grapes the best soils and send white wine to the back of the line.
When you discover somewhere with a love for white wine that’s at least as strong as for red, it is the key to redefining expectations. That’s the beauty of a wine region in transition, and it’s what South Africa has to offer.
Jon Bonne is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine editor. Find more of his coverage at sfgate.com/wine. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @jbonne
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A serious tack for South Africa’s white wines