You are using an old browser that may not function as expected.
For a better, safer browsing experience, please upgrade your browser.

Log in Become a Member

For us, it really is far away: about 10,000 kilometres away, the wine country in the very south of Africa, where the sailors once stopped on their long journey to and from India. Here they not only stocked up on provisions, but also on water and even more preferably on wine. Wine, which has also been pressed here since the 17th century, introduced by ship's doctor, merchant and expedition leader Jan van Riebeeck, who had the first vines brought from France and pressed the first wine here in 1659. But that is history, 355 years of history that can be looked up in any good Wine lexicon. Much more interesting, however, is the status that wines from South Africa - after many ups and downs - have today. They are usually counted as part of the "new" wine world, which may well be true stylistically, but historically it is wrong.

"Grand Constance" - a sweet wine% that Napoleon already drank (Photo: P. Züllig)

It is documented that Napoleon and Frederick the Great had sweet wines (which are still sold today under the name "Grand Constance") brought to their courts from South Africa's oldest vineyard - Groot Constantia. Great Britain, which was at war with France (Napoleon) at the beginning of the 19th century, also sourced most of its wine needs from South Africa, where the British had become the colonial masters in the meantime. But these heyday days for the wine trade are long gone. In the 20th century, the apartheid regime (until 1994) largely isolated the country. The wine trade, which urgently depends on exports (today almost 50 percent), also came to a standstill. South African wines only returned to the "old" wine world - to Europe - in the 1990s. It was mainly the prices that made them attractive, less so their quality. But South African wine producers seized the opportunity. They invested in production, increasingly relied on internationally popular grape varieties, and they quickly understood what "international" taste is today. The wines became much better in a short time. The old winemaking tradition (at the end of the 17th century, Huguenots who had fled France brought their knowledge and skills to South Africa) was revived.

Oldest wine estate in South Africa: Groot Constantia (Photo: P. Züllig)

The favourable climate (sun, but also cool winds from the sea), sufficient rainfall, rolling hills and rather lean but permeable soils are good prerequisites for modern viticulture. As a result, more and more full-bodied, powerful, often also very alcoholic, tannin-rich red wines are being produced, increasingly vinified as Bordeaux-style cuvées. Wines that also sell well in gastronomy. It is similar with the white wines. The traditional Chenin Blanc, the most cultivated grape variety - also called "Steen" here - is increasingly giving way to the fashionable Chardonnay, and the use of wood is destroying many a terroir approach. Perhaps it is precisely this striving for mainstream that is blamed on South African wine here - in Europe.

Estate Lanzerac% where the first Pinotage was sold in 1959 (Photo: P. Züllig)

The area around Stellenbosch - centre of the South African wine region - has become a popular tourist destination, not only (but also) for wine lovers. Parks, historic buildings in Cape Victorian style, interesting cultural offerings, cafés and restaurants where you can eat well and of course - the most important thing - more than 100 wine estates that are also open to the public. It is not necessarily the wine that attracts tourists to the wineries; it is far more the atmosphere, the beautiful park-like grounds, the historic buildings, the whole area that seems to breathe wine, and a light, fresh, drinkable white wine at that, not the heavy, earthy red. Perhaps it is precisely the discrepancy between the vinified wines (especially the modern cuvées) and the open, cheerful - and in many cases genteel - atmosphere that brings out the sceptics. For example, my brother-in-law - quite fond of wine - summed it up after a trip to South Africa: "I didn't come across a single really good red wine." And my brother-in-law is not the only one who has told me similar things.

The Delaire Graff Estate stands for luxury and uniqueness in one of the most beautiful wine regions on earth - according to the advertising (Photo: P. Züllig)

For example, at home at a wine event, my table neighbour said, "I was at a presentation of South African wines here in Switzerland, not a single good wine did I find"; but he quickly added, "but then I was in South Africa and suddenly found the wines good, yes, great." What am I to make of such contradictory statements - they stand for many similar judgements? Who should I agree with, who should I disagree with? Now I have been there again, a whole week in the wine region. I too have a hard time with the competition between wineries for the internationality of their wines (not only in South Africa). With today's huge range of wines, it is simply not enough to make good wines, they also have to make something of the character of a country, a wine region, the grape varieties, the tradition tangible; they have to be something like unique, otherwise they are and remain interchangeable. That's probably why I've grown so fond of the local Pinotage - which, by the way, is also of terrific quality (for example, from Lanzerac). Although I am not a white wine drinker, I also admired the Chenin Blanc and the elegant, spicy, bittersweet Shiraz (Syrah), which I have never found in any other wine region (not even on the Rhône).

Typical of the new development in recent years: New planting at the Tokara vineyard (Photo: P. Züllig)

Whenever something of independence, originality and coherence shines through in the wine - this is how I observe myself - it seems to please me, and whenever I quickly sink into the sea of pleasantness (of wanting to please!), it is not only the 10,000 kilometres as the crow flies that come to mind, but also the cultural differences and a residue of colonial mentality: doing (or arranging) everything the way "everyone" does it or is doing it and the way we have arranged it for ourselves long ago. Symptomatic of this is that Pinotage (grown in Stellenbosch) is in decline, as is "Steen", but Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and even the difficult Pinot Noir (for which it is actually too warm in South Africa) are on the rise. An incredible number of new blends - mostly aged in barriques but still drinkable early - are vying for the favour of wine consumers. It is not because of the grape varieties, the art (or skill) of the winemakers to make good wine or even the climate and soil that the breakthrough into the international wine world - despite the doubling of exports in the last ten years - simply does not quite want to succeed. It is probably more to do with the winemakers' self-image and South African wine culture, which has been isolated for so long. People are now trying in all or too many sectors and styles.

View from the Ammani wine estate over the large wine region of Stellenbosch (Photo: P. Züllig)

In the influential list of the country's best 100 wines ("Top of SA Wines"), which is compiled every year by a jury of experts, there are - for example - just three Pinotages this year, while the fashionable Cabernet Sauvignon (especially in cuvées) accounts for more than a quarter of the award-winning wines. But "exotics" (for South Africa) also appear, such as Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Grenache (Garnacha) or Muscadelle. John Platter (a kind of Robert Parker for South Africa) distributes his favour to almost all estates, grape varieties and wine styles, right across the country. There are certainly beautiful modern wines in South Africa, including Bordeaux blends, for example, but there are far better ones elsewhere; there are beautiful Viogniers, but far better ones elsewhere, and the same can be said of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and co. Why should we go far afield for that? But for the so-called Cape wines - mostly with a lot of Pinotage - or more generally: wines that only exist (or exist so well) in South Africa, I like to go far away, because there the better is not so close.


Related Magazine Articles

View All