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South African Wines Find Their Niche
by David Womack
David Womack is an award winning screenwriter and the author of Mountain Bike! Orange County, published in November 2007. His blog, MountainBikeOC, offers detailed information on local trails and mountain-biking events.

South African wines have come of age, and it has only taken 300 years for it to happen. To be fair, South African wines have undergone a major renaissance in only the past decade. A new generation of winemakers has brought artistry and passion to the country’s culture of wine production. These winemakers, many who developed their craft in some of the world’s most prestigious wine regions, have infused new ideas and technology into South African wine industry. The results have been quite satisfying. South Africa has found it’s own niche in the world of winemaking. The country’s award winning wines combine old world elegance and new world dynamism. The terrior driven wines are well structured – with firm tannins in the reds and food friendly acidity in the whites – yet endowed with enough fruit character to please the most modern of palates.

South Africa’s winemaking community certainly has old world ties. Grape growing in the country dates back to the 1600’s. The landscape in the classic wine growing regions of Stellenbosch, Constantia, Walker Bay Paarl and Franschhoek, is dotted with whitewashed Cape Dutch houses – architectural remnants of the colonial era. Many vineyards have plantings of decades old, untrellised bush vines on their estates. Unfortunately, for much of its history the Cape did not produce high quality wines. The potential was always there, but it was slow to evolve. Trade sanctions against the apartheid era government hampered the wine industry’s development. Apartheid ended in 1994 as Nelson Mandela was elected president. Today, trade restrictions are now all but forgotten. The resulting free flow of ideas, capital and technology has brought about a new era for South African wines. No longer is the goal just to harvest grapes. Cape winemakers are doing everything possible to maximize the potential of each vineyard and each bottling.

Classical ideas have not been forsaken; quality winemaking goes hand in hand with careful and conscious farming techniques. South Africa has emerged as a leader in sustainable viniculture. Moreover, vintners have learned to assess the lay of the land. A necessary knowledge of terrior has emboldened regional wineries. South Africa has various climates and microclimates. Winemakers have successfully planted varietals and clones to match the potential of each individual vinicultural region.

Chenin Blanc, known as Steen in colonial South Africa, was the first widely planted varietal in the country. The Steen was first harvested to produce brandy and fairly pedestrian wines that suited the colonial palate. Chenin Blanc is still South Africa’s most widely planted varietal, but the wines produced are far from pedestrian. South African Chenin Blancs tend to fall into two categories. First there are the straightforward, fresh and affordable Chenins with bright fruit and less demonstrative acidity. These wines, although not serious or heavy, still have enough concentration and depth to make them notable. They are fun, sunny day wines that hold up well to light food. The second class of Chenin Blancs are produced from mature, lower yielding bush vines. These vines yield bottles which are more concentrated and more complex. The bush vine Chenin Blancs are generally aged in oak barrels as opposed to stainless steel and are therefore age worthy and capable of being paired with richer and more flavorful foods.

Sauvignon Blanc does not a long storied history in the Cape, but it is being planted in greater and greater quantities. South African Sauvignon Blancs tend to have ample levels of acidity and somewhat concentrated aromatics ranging from earthy capsicum, to citrus and lush stone fruit. These wines seem to be emerging as a nice compromise between the sometimes fleshy and light acid Sauvignons of California and the leaner and frequently aggressive bottles of Marlborough.

Wine: Villiera, Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch 2006

Tasting Notes: This is a mild and pleasant white wine. Although it lacks the complexity and minerality of its “Cellar Door” sibling, the Villiera Chenin Blanc is still a fine drinking wine. Perfect to drink on a summer afternoons or to accompany early evening hors d’ouerves. The wine is lightly straw colored with a nose of subdued stone fruit. A light oil texture frames the pleasant floral notes on the palate. The flavors are well tempered and not cloying. A rounded, lingering acidity hold through on the finish.

Food Pairing: Baked Brie in Puffed Pastry with Fresh Figs

Plating: Slice the fig into five or six small disc-shaped pieces. Lay the slices in a circular pattern on the plate and top with a wedge of warm Brie. Garnish the dish with a dollop of finely cut apple slaw.

Notes on the Pairing: Figs are noted for their sweetness, a mild nutty quality and a somewhat rough texture derived from their seeds. The figs in this particular dish enhance the character of the Brie, adding roundness and sweetness to the richly textured cheese. Fortunately Villiera Chenin Blanc has just enough acidity to cut through the creaminess of the cheese. The ample mouth feel and gently concentrated flavors of the wine waft through the complex sweetness of the figs, resulting in a synergy of richness, sweetness and acidity. Conversely, an overly oaked wine would dampen the character of the figs and a lush or buttery wine would overwhelm when paired with the cheese. The Villiera Chenin Blanc forms a nice balance with the combination of figs and Brie, neither overpowering the flavors nor ebbing beneath the cheese’s substantially rich texture.

Published: Jul 23,2008 14:14
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