The almost-great grapes of South Africa

on 06/04/11 at 5:00 pm

Wine

Pinotage and chenin blanc could carry the country’s wine production to a bright future.

I am just back in Quebec after spending two weeks in South Africa, where I toured wine regions at the invitation of Wines of South Africa, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the exports of South African wine.

The wines that are imported here are for the most part like those from every other newer wine-producing country – classic “international” varietals like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.

Like all those other countries, whether we are talking Chile, Australia or California, there are convincing and less convincing examples of these wines. The problem is that they are planted as much for commercial reasons as “the right grape for the right place.”

So my goal on my first trip to South Africa was to decipher the country’s regions, and figure out which grape works best, from which region, and why. I will do that in next week’s column.

However, over my 10 days of travels, two grape varieties rose above the rest. They worked across different climatic zones, expressing themselves equally well and distinctively in both cooler and warmer climates. And while I had a tendency to compare the better cabernet sauvignons I tasted to Bordeaux, sauvignon blancs to Pouilly-Fumé, or syrah to the Côtes-du-Rhône, these two grapes produced wines that were beyond comparison. They are pinotage and chenin blanc.

So why “almost great?” As I found out, winemakers seem to have a love/hate relationship with pinotage. With respect to chenin blanc, perhaps due to it being such an integral part of the history of South Africa’s wine industry, and the fact that it was poorly made in the past, many winemakers just seem to be bored with it.

PINOTAGE

The name pinotage can make you think pinot noir, but the connection runs deeper than simply the word “pinot.” In 1925, a professor at the University of Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, by the name of Abraham Izak Perold crossed two of his favourite grapes, pinot noir and cinsault, and created pinotage.

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