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Young Sport: Blending is the New Game in South Africa

Posted on  | January 3, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Blending is the name of the game in South African wine.

 With more than 350 years of winemaking under their belts, it’s easy to suppose that South Africans’ predilection for blending had old roots, perhaps stemming to the Huguenots arrival from France in the late 17th century. In fact, Constantia, the South African dessert wine that was the toast of Europe’s aristocracy in the 18th century, was primarily Muscat, and early in the 19th century, blending would have been uncommon simply because over 90% of the vineyards were planted to one variety: Semillon. Today the Rainbow Nation possibly produces more blends at a wider variety of price points than anywhere else in the New World, but it is a matter of innovation than tradition.

Emil den Dulk, owner of De Toren in Stellenbosch, says interest in blending only began to appear in South Africa around the time apartheid was ending: “Before that, blends were cheap, with a few flagship wines” serving as the exception to the rule.
In 1999 De Toren introduced Fusion V, the country’s first five-variety Bordeaux blend. Today it’s hard to find a producer in Stellenbosch who doesn’t make at least one Bordeaux-style blend. “Bordeaux blends are seen as the prestigious blend” says Alex Dale of the Winery of Good Hope.

Fidelity to French models, however, is hardly obligatory in the Cape, even to the French. Glenelly, a young estate founded by May de Lencquesaing, the former owner of Chateau Pichon-Lalande in Bordeaux, planted Shiraz right from the start; it is typically the leading variety in their Grand Vin alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Nor is Bordeaux the only model, especially outside Stellenbosch. “Ten years ago there were no Rhône blends in this country,” says Anthony de Jager, winemaker at Fairview in Paarl. The winery’s punning Goats Do Roam brand (inaugural vintage 1998) introduced many wine drinkers to South Africa’s potential with the style. Today Rhône-style blends are common in Paarl and warmer, more inland regions like Swartland, fueled by the re-discovery of old vine plantings there.

Playing Off Variety

Given the Mediterranean climate, it’s no surprise that growers have planted varieties associated with other parts of France and even Italy. Fairview’s “The Goatfather” is predominantly Sangiovese and Barbera, with a smaller contribution from Cabernet Sauvignon. Other blends go further afield; Waterford’s “The Jem,” is an unorthodox mix of about 65% Bordeaux varieties with the rest “Mediterranean” grapes. Similarly, Bouchard-Finlayson’s “Hannibal” aspires to follow the Carthaginian leader’s route, picking up Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Barbera, and Shiraz on the way.

Blending has also given the Cape’s winemakers a means to tame and make the most of the country’s “indigenous” variety, Pinotage. Many producers find it difficult and inconsistent as a varietal wine, but it seems to play well with others. Warwick’s Three Cape Ladies, for example, blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Syrah. (According to South African wine regulations, 85% is the threshold at which a wine can be named after its primary variety.)

If there can be said to be a white “Cape Blend,” it probably includes Chenin Blanc, the country’s most planted grape, as a base; supplemented most typically by white Rhone varieties, these full-bodied but still fresh whites are rising stars, led again by producers the Swartland region. Boekenhoutskloof’s Wolftrap White is a blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc, with the proportions varying each vintage. Black Rock White melds Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Clairette Blanc. In both cases the Chenin provides acidity and structure, while the other varieties bring palate weight, aroma and complexity.

Antidote to Variety

Why do South Africa’s winemakers saddle themselves with the extra challenge of selling blends? In many cases it’s an acknowledgement of what the land is giving them. Variety is the rule, as the different sorts of blends suggests. In the Helderberg, one of Stellenbosch’s wards (i.e. the smallest unit in South Africa’s Wine of origin system), the ground is a patchwork of decomposed granite, coffee stone, and other soils. The mountainous terrain means sun exposure and wind can also change dramatically within a small area. So winemakers grow a wide range of grape varieties, and are forced to either market a broad selection of varietal wines, or blend them into something unified.

Kevin Arnold, winemaker at Waterford, says the diverse conditions are reflected in the natural vegetation; the Cape Floral Kingdom, essentially contiguous with the winegrowing areas, is the smallest botanical area in the world geographically, but the most diverse in terms of species. Nonetheless, blends aren’t just a concession to a local conditions. “It’s always been my belief that blended reds have been have been South Africa’s strength,” says Arnold. Nicolas Bureau, export director at Glenelly, says, “We feel that a good blend is more than the sum of its parts; the challenge is educating the public.”

Arco Laarman, winemaker at Glen Carlou, says including the percentages of each variety on the label, as they do for their Grand Classique, another Bordeaux blend, is a great help in reaching wine drinkers. Nonetheless, for some producers, sidestepping the varietal issue has helped them capitalize on a proprietary name. Fairview’s Goat series is one example at a lower price point, but their pricier Spice Route winery’s Malabar or Chakalaka have strong followings as well. Similarly, Boekenhoutskloof may be a tongue-twisting hindrance for that winery’s varietal wines, but their proprietary blends The Wolftrap and The Chocolate Block are well known and popular. And once a wine drinker has been turned on to a proprietary name and blend, he’s not going to find it anywhere else.


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