Wine: 'South Africa today is teeming with wines of freshness and character'
FOR some reason Scots can't understand, South Africa will move centre-stage later this month. Putting on a world football event would have been unthinkable even a dozen years ago but significant change and the Rainbow Nation are no longer strangers. Similarly, its wine industry is an excellent case study on how to bring about a major transformation.
Making large volumes of poor-quality wine was ditched once international help pointed out that South African winegrowing areas were especially suited to premium, rather than value, wines. This paved the way for more reds and for sophisticated and complex wines of any type – which are less price-sensitive.
Just how radical the resulting changes have been was brought home to me last year when I spoke to South African Winemaker of the Year Jean Daneel. The grapes he uses come from all over South Africa but Daneel insists on fruit from mature, low-yielding vines.
His selection criteria include geology and climate so as to give the final blend different flavours and different degrees of ripeness. The geology aspect is controversial: some contend that grapes carry the flavours of underlying rock formations. Others argue that drainage, heat retention and the effect of the minerals in the soil make the difference. Either way, localised variations in the terroir certainly create taste idiosyncrasies.
Later, Daneel applies his expertise with oak barrels to select the right maturation vessel – normally barrels made with fine-grained oak from southern France for a butterscotch flavour. The overall honeyed roundness and zesty pineapple flavours he creates can be experienced in the Jean Daneel Signature Chenin Blanc 2006 on sale at Rhymers Fayre in Melrose (15.99). Some consider his to be the best wooded chenin in the world.
This transformation in quality is not limited to one or two specialists, a point Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times, notes: "The most surprising thing is the consistently good quality. South Africa today is teeming with good chenin blanc, wines of freshness and character, at prices that make them exceptional value."
This skilled winemaking is also evident in large-scale operations like the Companies of Wine People. From its Arniston Bay brand, through the Fairtrade Thandi wines to the rich and aromatic Kumkani range, the professionalism shines through. Kumkani's top-of-the-range sauvignon blanc has vibrant flavours of flint and gooseberry reminiscent of Sancerre – where Versfeld spent his early years.
If South African wine can turn things around so completely in a dozen years, can countries like Germany do the same? Daneel thinks so. He is convinced that concentrating on low-yield vines, being inventive and becoming "quality obsessive" pays off anywhere.
Given its numerous attempts to re-invent itself, I am not sure things are that simple for Germany. It already makes some excellent rieslings and increasing its popularity is no easy challenge.
Give fresh and dry German riesling another go. World Cup competitions have taught us never to underestimate Germany's capacity for a come-back.
South African Chenin Blanc 2009, Western Cape, 13 per cent Good-value, basic chenin with rounded peach flavours and minty acidity; 3.42, Asda
Nederburg Shiraz Pinotage 2009, Western Cape, 13 per cent Plum flavours and a pepper finish; 3.99 (down from 5.39 until tomorrow), Morrisons
Chamonix Blanc 2009, Franschmoek, 13 per cent Lemon freshness, apples and a long pear finish. 7, WoodWinters (0131-667 2760)
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 6, 2010
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