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South Africa: Emergent Wine Region Par Excellence

Vineyard and traditional Cape Dutch homestead at Buitenverwachting wine estate in Constantia, Cape Town.

Over the past 20 years, South Africa has emerged as a wine producer of substantial proportions when it comes to quality and value.   South Africa’s wines have been my go-to recently, charming my palate with their elegant style and budget friendly price points.  The region boasts a number of stellar estates and winemakers, each seeming to have a captivating back-story.  Tales of intrigue or not, the wines speak for themselves…

Every time I taste a new wine from South Africa, especially those imported by Cape Classics, I become more enamored with the region.  Had I known the treasure trove that was in-store, I would have started exploring South African wine a long time ago.  The region’s reputation as a source of fine wine has been slowly but surely gaining awareness.  Overcoming the industry’s long-time reign of giant growers that inundated the market with mediocre, poor-quality juice, the winemakers of this Southern hemisphere region had their work cut out for them.

History

The history of South Africa’s wine industry goes back to the spice trade era, over 350 years ago, when 33-year old Dutch surgeon Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope to establish a supply station for East India Company sailors on their long journey to East Asia.  Jan van Riebeeck was commissioned to plant fruits and vegetables, including grapevines, and although he was not specifically interested in viticulture, he rejoiced when Cape wine was first produced in 1652, seven years after he arrived there.  Since that early time, South Africa’s wine industry has experienced its fair share of ups and downs, from the success of renowned Constantia dessert wines, the favorite of Europe’s 18th century aristocracy, to natural pestilence and the detrimental affects of bulk wine production.

After the ravaging affect of the phylloxera epidemic that struck in 1866, South African wine growers attempted to recover and make up for lost time by planting copious, high-yielding vines, flooding the industry with low-quality and downright bad wine.  There was such excess at some points during this period that wine was literally dumped into the rivers to dispose of it.  This wine glut led to the formation of the KWV (Co-operative Wine Grower’s Association) in 1918, an organization that had the power to delineate production areas, quantities and minimum pricing.  The KWV defeated its purpose by favoring larger grape-growers and encouraging mass-production, while simultaneously deterring the region’s smaller producers at the cost of quality.  Fortunately, the KWV surrendered most of its clout in the early 1990s and South Africa’s passionate producers have had more freedom to craft the high-quality wines of their dreams.

Since the ‘90s, South Africa’s wine industry has experienced a renaissance led by dedicated producers whose world-class wines truly shine.  Whether tasting one of the region’s ubiquitous Chenin Blancs or an exceptional Bordeaux Blend, the tendency toward superlative quality is becoming more and more apparent.

Terroir & Climate

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are spread throughout the Cape of Good Hope’s southwestern areas, near the coastline.  Here you will find one of the world’s most diverse wine terrains – majestic mountains rise up from the waves of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, verdant valleys undulate into desert-like dry lands and meld with the region’s inland mountain chains.

The Cape’s soils are extremely acidic, calling for lime treatments.  The wines often need tartaric acid adjustments and require tartrate removal prior to bottling.  Stellenbosch, the second oldest wine district in South Africa, is home to 50 different soil types, illustrating the region’s incredibly varied terroir.

Largely a Mediterranean climate, the warm summer season runs from November to April, followed by damp, cold winter conditions.  Environmental influences unique to South Africa include the Benguela current that flows from Antarctica and cools the region down considerably, lengthening the growing season and allowing many vineyards to slowly ripen despite the intense sun.  Another unique climatic characteristic, known as the Cape Doctor, is the gale force summer wind that quells humidity and protects the vines from mildew and fungal diseases.  This aggressive wind, although beneficial to some extent, can sometimes be too much of a good thing, resulting in tattered vines.

Wine Regions

Enacted in 1973, South Africa’s wine legislation is known as Wine of Origin and defines the wine regions as well as guaranteeing the information presented on wine labels.  The Wine of Origin (WO) certification is only granted after a given wine is tasted and approved by a panel. The wine regions are organized by size with the estates being the smallest, followed by wards, encompassing a group of estates, districts, which enclose groups of wards, and finally regions, which are the largest wine production areas in South Africa.  Wards are the closest in nature to French appellations and are delineated by unique soil and environmental influences, elements of terroir.

The majority of South Africa’s fine wine comes from the Coastal Region near Cape Town and in the southwestern area of the Cape.  Within the Coastal Region lies Constantia, South Africa’s oldest and most legendary wine ward.  Located just outside of Cape Town, the small area is home to just five wine estates – Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, Buitervenwachting, Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg.  The nearby sea has a wonderful cooling affect on these vineyards and provides ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc.

Stellenbosch is the second oldest wine region in South Africa and lies east of Cape Town.  Located along the False Bay, where the cool waves of the Atlantic Ocean sweep in and moderate the grape-growing climate, Stellenbosch is an exceptional area for Bordeaux style blends, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes in particular.  Shiraz does especially well in this region and makes its way into Bordeaux blends, adding a unique twist!  Stellenbosch is also known for Pinotage, the Cape’s very own clone crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsaut.  Along with delicious red wines, Stellenbosch boasts excellent white wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.  These crisp, bright white wines display pure fruit flavors that are kissed by sea air, with hints of refreshing salinity and racy minerality.

Wines to Try Now

Many of our favorite South African producers are located in the Stellenbosch region, including Mulderbosch, Rustenberg, Thelema and Raats Family Wines.

Glenelly is a renowned Stellenbosch producer with a heritage that dates back to the 17th century. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing purchased the property in 2003, after running the famed Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande for 30 years prior. May de Lencquesaing is renowned for the wines of her Pauillac Grand Cru Classé Chateau and has upheld the same level of excellence at Glenelly.

2010 Glenelly Chardonnay The Glass Collection, Stellenbosch ($14) The Glenelly Glass Collection was inspired by antique glass pieces from May de Lencquesaing’s private collection. The Glass Collection Chardonnay showcases invigorating aromas of peach, citrus and ginger. Crisp and refreshing on the palate, this lovely Chardonnay has an enduring finish.

The 2007 Glenelly Grand Vin de Glenelly ($25) is the estate’s signature red blend offering elegant, complex aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry, plum, spices and hints of toasted hazelnut. On the palate, this wine has a rich intensity that is harmoniously balanced by refreshing brightness and great structure.

2010 Mulderbosch Vineyards Rosé, Stellenbosch ($12) Mulderbosch Vineyards is located in the Stellenbosch Hills area and is widely accepted as one of the very best white wine producers in the country.  In addition to their award-winning whites, they produce two highly regarded reds and this excellent 100% Cabernet Sauvignon rosé – a delicious, refreshing summertime sipper that showcases complex aromas and flavors of rose petals, lime zest and wild strawberry.

2007 Rustenberg John X Merriman, Stellenbosch ($25) A blend of five Bordeaux varietals, the John X Merriman is one of South Africa’s most legendary wines. Named for the Prime Minister of the Cape who, in the late 1800s, bought and refurbished part of the historical Rustenberg estate, this wine is rich with cherry and licorice flavors that mingle seductively with smoky tobacco and spice notes.

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Autism Speaks’ Annual Golf Challenge

The Wine Cellarage is proud to participate in the Autism Speaks’ 13th Annual Celebrity Golf Challenge.  We have partnered with Cape Classics, the leading US importer of South Africa’s finest wines, to feature a selection from their superb portfolio of wines on the evening of the golf challenge. Attendees will have the opportunity to taste the wines and to learn about them from our Cape Classics representative.

The Wine Cellarage is pleased to announce that for two weeks following the event, 20% of gross purchase price from any purchases of the featured wines will be donated to Autism Speaks.  In addition, several of our partners will be donating fine wines for the silent auction to be held the evening of the event.

Autism Speaks’ 13th Annual Golf Challenge

Autism Speaks’ 13th Annual Celebrity Golf Challenge will be held on June 20, 2011 at the highly acclaimed Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY.  Among the attendees at this important event will be renowned celebrities from entertainment, sports and media. Golfers will play their rounds on Winged Foot’s demanding East and West courses and will have the chance to participate in several course contests.

After golfing has finished, the evening program will commence, including both live and silent auctions.  These auctions will feature unique get-aways, signed sports memorabilia, soothing spa treatments, fashion items and fine wine.  For more information please contact Elizabeth Irving at eirving@autismspeaks.org. For an event recap and to see photos from last year’s Celebrity Golf Challenge, click here.

About Autism Speaks

Founded in February 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, grandparents of a child with autism, Autism Speaks has since grown to be the largest autism science and advocacy organization in the United States, devoted to funding the research of causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism.  Autism Speaks has worked diligently to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and is the leading advocate for the needs of the individuals and families struggling with autism.  This organization gives hope to all those affected by autism.

Featured Wines

We are thrilled to be pouring the following outstanding South African wines on the evening of the Autism Speaks’ 13th Annual Celebrity Golf Challenge and to make a contribution to this wonderful cause.

2010 Mulderbosch Vineyards Rose Stellenbosch – Mulderbosch Vineyards, situated in the Stellenbosch Hills area outside of Stellenbosch, South Africa, is widely accepted as one of the very best white wine producers in the country.  Their delicious, refreshing 100% Cabernet Sauvignon rosé showcases complex aromas and flavors of rose petals, lime zest and wild strawberry.  This rosé is ideal for summertime quaffing!

Glenelly Estate Wines

Located in Stellenbosch, the Glenelly estate’s heritage goes back to the 17th century. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing purchased the property in 2003, after running the famed Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande for 30 years prior. May de Lencquesaing is renowned for the wines of her Pauillac Grand Cru Classé Chateau and has upheld the same level of excellence at Glenelly.

2010 Glenelly Chardonnay The Glass Collection Stellenbosch – The Glass Collection was inspired by antique glass pieces from May de Lencquesaing’s private collection. The Glass Collection Chardonnay showcases invigorating aromas of peach, citrus and ginger.  Crisp and refreshing on the palate, this lovely Chardonnay has an enduring finish.

2007 Glenelly Grand Vin de Glenelly – The estate’s signature red blend, Grand Vin de Glenelly offers elegant, complex aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry, plum, spices and hints of toasted hazelnut.  On the palate, this wine has a rich intensity that is harmoniously balanced by refreshing brightness and great structure.

Rustenberg

2007 Rustenberg John X Merriman Stellenbosch – A blend of five Bordeaux varietals (48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc & 3% Malbec), the John X Merriman is one of South Africa’s most legendary wines.  Named for the Prime Minister of the Cape who, in the late 1800s, bought and refurbished part of the historical Rustenberg estate, this wine is rich with cherry and licorice flavors that mingle seductively with smoky tobacco and spice notes.

The Rustenberg estate has enjoyed an illustrious, albeit tumultuous, wine-making history that dates back to 1682, when the land was first recognized for grape-growing potential by a German man named Roelof Pasman.  The estate flourished for the first half of the 19th century, but faced hardship when recession came and disease struck the vines.  In 1892, the Cape’s Prime Minister, John X Merriman rescued the estate and helped to restore it to it’s early glory. Wine has been consistently bottled at the estate ever since.

Peter and Pamela Barlow purchased the Rustenberg estate in 1941, passing it on to their son, Simon, who has taken over operations. Although among South Africa’s oldest wine estates, Rustenberg boasts one of the Cape’s most modern cellars.  Rustenberg produces long-lived, depthy wines, crafted through a marriage of technology with the art of tradition. Rustenberg wines are exemplary of the Stellenbosch region’s excellence.

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