South African Wine: Exploring the Western Cape

South African Wine
The South African Consulate-General Los Angeles presented a South African Wine Lunch. Wines of South Africa partnered with the consulate for this luncheon at A.O.C. Jim Clarke, Marketing Director for Wines of South Africa, was our host along with the wines served at the luncheon.

Most vineyards in South Africa are located in the Western Cape, an area where breezes from the Atlantic Ocean play a vital role in the terroir and growing of grapes. This region exhibits a Mediterranean type climate. The Benguela Current comes up from the Antarctic to the west coast of Africa and brings a cooling effect to the vineyards. Due to its location south of the equator South Africa provides for a growing season from November through April, the opposite of our own.

The Western Cape consists of five regions while the South African Winelands contains 27 diverse districts and approximately 77 smaller areas called wards. Districts are smaller areas that vary in size but share environmental aspects that usually impact the style of wines created.
Wards are areas with similar soil and geography, which produce a particular style of wine.
Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek, Elgin, Elim, and Constantia represents some of the more notable districts and wards. At our luncheon, we sampled wine from Paarl, Swartland, Stellenbosch, Elgin, Walker Bay, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and Constantia.

In South Africa, many grape varieties grow, but for this article, I will concentrate on Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although these three were the concentration, we did start with a Sparkling wine from Backsberg, a 2017 Kosher Brut.

Backsberg is one of the leading producers around the world of kosher wine. Like most sparkling South African wine, the Brut utilizes Méthode Cap Classique, MCC, which signifies the South African sparkling wine created in the traditional method. I found a very well balanced Brut consisting of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Backsberg Kosher Brut
Backsberg Kosher Brut

South African Wine – Chenin Blanc

Today, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape in South Africa and probably the largest in the world. The variety exceeds the acreage planted in the Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc typically represents the new world character of the majority of wines produced in South Africa.

Our South African Wine luncheon featured three Chenin Blancs. The first a Spier 2017 Chenin Blanc comes from the Swartland region. This winery dates back to 1692. I found a bright and refreshing wine that ages in 50% old oak and 50% steel.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2017 comes from the Stellenbosch region. The wine sees a cool temperature fermentation — the wine ages in 20% new oak. I found the flavors of this wine more concentrated.

Finally, my favorite Chenin Blanc was the Mullineux Old Vine White 2016 from Swartland. This wine consists of primarily Chenin Blanc mixed with Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Clairette Blanche and Semillon Gris. This wine represents what typically is produced in South Africa. As it turns out, it was not my first encounter with Mullineux wines. Last year I sampled another Chenin Blanc and was fascinated to discover that a women winemaker, Andrea Mullineux, who is from San Francisco and trained at UC Davis creates the wine. Today Andrea is one of several women making their mark on South African wine.

South African Wine - Chenin Blanc
South African Wine – Chenin Blanc

South African Wine – Pinot Noir

The climate conditions of the South Coast are ideal for growing Pinot Noir. Due to its higher precipitation, Elgin is considered one of the coolest wine growing regions of South Africa.  Boschendal Elgin Pinot Noir 2015 comes from the oldest winery in South Africa, which was established in 1685. I found this Pinot Noir very light.

Moving up the coast to Walker Bay one finds another cool climate region. B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir 2016 represented a Pinot Noir from this region. It too was on the light side.

Our final Pinot Noir, Storm Ignis 2015 Pinot Noir comes from Upper Hemel-en Aarde Valley. The name of this location means Heaven and Earth. This area is also known as South Africa’s Burgundy. This Pinot Noir proved to be my favorite because the wine displayed more depth and fruit.

Storm Pinot Noir
Storm Pinot Noir

South African Wine – Cabernet Based Wines

The two Bordeaux blends we sampled came from the Stollenbosch region. The first, Tokara Directors Reserve Red 2014 consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. The grapes for this wine grow at a higher elevation. I found a big fruiter wine.

The second Meerlust Rubicon 2014 blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Rubicon means not going back but to move forward, which I think references the state of South African wine. Meerlust is a family owned winery in its eighth generation. The winery dates back to 1756. Meerlust means “pleasure of the sea” and the main house lies very close to False Bay. The wine was more integrated with an elegant structure.

South African Wine - Cabernet Blends
South African Wine – Cabernet Blends

South African Wine – The Finale

Topping off our exploration into South African Wine, we finished with a dessert wine, Vin de Constance that claims the rights to a long history. The Constantia region is made up of two main estates of which one is Klein Constantia. When Phylloxera hit South Africa in the late 1800s, it devastated the vineyards especially those in Constantia and its famous sweet dessert wine that had pleased the likes of great kings and other famous people, ceased to exist.

In the 1980s when Klein Constantia changed ownership, its owner at the time decided to take a gamble and replant Muscat and reestablish the Constantia winemaking tradition. In 1986, Vin de Constance reemerged on the wine scene. The 2017 Vin de Constance exhibits flavors of pear and stone fruit especially apricot and is well worth discovering as it is the perfect ending to a meal. In our case, the ideal finish to a wonderful family styled luncheon at A.O.C.

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance

Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer was hosted to this wine tasting luncheon. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.