FOOD & DRINK: Divine wine of South Africa

David Clay takes us through some of the best wines from the South Africa region. Never had one? You may surprise yourselves....

Ihave just been reading that the 2014 harvest in South Africa was a record harvest of excellent quality and a record for exports, but asking around friends and colleagues South African wines come way down their buying list.

This is a pity since there are some really good wines about nowadays.

Don’t think South Africa is new to wine.

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The first vines were planted in 1652 by a Dutch surgeon from cuttings thought to be from Western France. In 1685 the famous Constantia Vineyard was planted and in 1687 around 200 French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution brought wine making techniques. The wines in the 18th century were all sweet from the Muscat grape and in great demand in Europe, fetching very high prices. Wine making in South Africa had some ups and a lot of downs until about the end of “Apartheid” and most grapes were grown to make brandy and fortified wine – and still are. Since KWV – the Cape Growers Association – relaxed its grip to limit production and set wine prices, the individual small growers have multiplied and quality has shot up.

There is much more white wine produced than red, mostly to make brandy. The most planted variety is Chenin Blanc but there are also good Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, and Chardonnays.

One of my standard Sauvignon Blancs years ago was from the Robertson vineyard well before New Zealand Sauvignons came into fashion and is still available. The 2015 is simple and straightforward with zesty gooseberry and green apple flavours and is £7.32 (Majestic) for one, but much better value at £5.49, for six bottles which can be mixed.

One I really like is Buitenwerwachting S.B 2015, which is 14 per cent (Majestic, £12.49, £9.99 for six mixed) from Constantia. Its name means “Beyond Expectation”. It has zesty acidity, hints of lemon zest and gooseberry, a little more restrained than New Zealand but with bags of flavour. Another grower I like is Paul Culver. Try Paul Cluver Ferricrete Riesling 2014, Elgin (M&S £13) 10pc, with its fresh lime and citrus palate, light and fragrant, it really is a lovely wine. Or if you want one for spicy foods try Paul Cluver Gewurtraminer 2015 (Waitrose, M&S, Booths, £11.99).

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For easy, pleasant drinking with or without food some of South Africa’s Chenin Blancs take some beating. One I always have in my wine rack is Zalze Reserve Chenin Blanc (Sainsbury, £10) or Zalze Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2015 (£8.29, Waitrose) which makes for easy drinking as it is fresh and crisp.

As for reds, there are some great wines around.

South Africa’s own special red grape variety is Pinotage, developed by a university professor at Stellenbosch University in 1925, a cross between French varieties Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. Later Beyers Truter became known as “the King of Pinotage,” whose Beyerskloof winery is in the Stellenbosch. A few years ago I went to a South African Trade tasting in London. Standing alone behind a row of wines was Beyers Truter who gave me a personal talk and tasting on the various styles of Pinotage. A memorable experience and lesson.

In the 1980s and 1990s Pinotage got a bad name for poor winemaking. Bad Pinotage can smell pungent and almost like nail polish remover.

In the last few years careful winemaking has worked wonders and a good selection of different styles are:

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- Beyerskloof Pinotage 2015, (Asda) 14pc, a bargain for a fiver.

- M Signature Pinotage 2015, Riebeek Cellars (Morrisons £7), straightforward and smooth with soft tannins, deep red, forest fruit and plum with a lovely chocolaty finish 14.5pc. A lovely example for the price.

- Beyerskloof Synergy Cape Blend 2014 (Sainsbury £10) 14.5pc, is a deep dark red with lovely red fruit and cherries. At 54pc Pinotage and 23pc each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon it is big and smooth.

- Bellingam Pinopasso Pinotage 2014 (Majestic £9.99, £7.49 for six mixed) 14pc. This is a firm favourite, made with the same “Ripasso” method used in the Valpolicella area of Northern Italy using partially dried grapes. It gives a smooth, voluptuous texture and added richness with its smoky black cherry, mocha and sweet spice.

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- And what about Flagstone Darling Cellars Chocoholic Pinotage (The Wine Society, £9.50, Tesco £10) 14.5pc Modern in style, damson jam, raspberry liqueur, with chocolate and mocha overtones, another with a portion made by the “Ripasso” method.

- Finally, “The Grinder” (named after a pet dog) 2013, Beyerskloof, Western Cape (Laithwaites £10.99) 14pc – a benchmark Pinotage which is powerful and refined. Rich, dark and velvety with intense black cherry, plum and raspberry aromas and a hint of coffee.

As for other reds, Rhone type varieties, Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre do well. There are also some very good Bordeaux type blends about.

Here are four to try:

Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2014 (Sainsbury, Waitrose, £7.99) is a great red to drink on its own or with red meat dishes. More European Rhone in style than most. The dense flavour packed Bernard Series Syrah (Sainsbury, £12) or the Bernard Series MMM-Malbec, Merlot and Mourvedre, (Tesco, £13). Two Bordeaux blends from Rustenberg – the first RM Nicholson 2014 (Majestic, £14.99, £9.99 for six mixed). A Bordeaux type blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Fleshy and weighty red fruit and bold tannins which will develop for eight to ten years. The second is a merlot dominated blend John X Merriman 2013 (Waitrose, £14.99) 14pc, classic Bordeaux with a South African touch. Blackcurrant and cassis, subtle oak and soft tannins.

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Five years ago there were a lot of reds tasting like burnt rubber. No longer. There are some great South Africans out there.

This article was first published in CHASE magazine April 2016. You can read the latest edition of CHASE online now