The emergence of fine white blends in South Africa marks a significant advance in winemaking maturity there, with ambitious young winemakers abandoning the customary safety of international styling and varietalism. Tim James charts the increasingly persuasive and sensitive responses to local viticultural possibilities
The Cape is red-wine country. So much the Winelands golfers and IT millionaires tacitly agree, in their quest for what Tokara's owner (GT Ferreira, himself a merchant banker) wryly calls "return on ego" as much as "return on investment." This is consistent with the practices of the rugby-playing winemakers of earlier decades, in their gabled estates under the Stellenbosch mountains. The grape to carry their ambition was Cabernet Sauvignon-still the favorite-though Syrah might also do.
What other than a red wine to brandish in challenging the cult champions of Bordeaux and Napa, as well as the few pretenders from less advocated and spectated regions? The great white wines of Germany might well have their place-a little behind Burgundian Chardonnay-but generally, for those with immortal longings, red wine is much more powerful and ... winning.
This is not to scorn the red-wine makers' ambitions, and some of what they have already achieved is sufficient rebuttal to irony- except, perhaps, the irony that the Cape's warm and rugged beauty appears particularly suited to producing fine white wine. For many critics, there is little doubt that this is now what South Africa is doing best, at all levels-from the heavily cropped Chenin and Colombard on the lowest supermarket shelves, to several Sauvignon Blancs and Chenins, and a handful of genuinely fine Chardonnays (from Hamilton Russell, Rustenberg, Vergelegen, and Chamonix, for example) that in the past decade have pushed their way into the front ranks of New World white wines. And now, in a development that more than any other marks the maturing of the post-apartheid South African wine revolution, there is an emerging, though still small, range of blended-variety (indeed, frequently non-varietal) white wines, whose significance goes beyond their discernible high quality and originality. These wines are an intelligent and valid response by viticulturalists and winemakers (rather than those with eyes fixed on markets and ratings) to terroir and, such as it is, to tradition.
Whether what seems a particular suitability of the Cape for white wine is more historical than inherent is as yet unclear: Time might prove the red-wine-country faithful correct. But white grapes have, in fact, dominated the vineyard since the first plantings in the second half of the 17th century. Professor CJ Orffer refers to "several documents" indicating that certain cultivars "had played a lesser or larger role in the early days of viticulture at the Cape." The only red on his list is Pontac (the now almost vanished Teinturier grape); the others are Semillon (known then as Greengrape), Palomino (White French), Chenin Blanc (Steen), and a few Muscats (including a red subvariety).1 By 1822, Semillon was extraordinarily dominant, with 93 percent of total plantings.
Stagnation and crises throughout the 19th century, with some extension of the Cape Colony vineyard, then the replanting forced by phylloxera, changed all that. The time of the great Constantia sweet wines, from Muscat de Frontignan and Pontac, was past, and with the dominance of the KWV cooperative monolith from the third decade of the 20th century, there was probably little wine of notable quality produced until after World War II . Then it was to be the red wines of the 1960s and '70s, mostly of Cabernet, that provided-and still provide-inspiration (and good drinking). But the largest plantings before the 1960s were, depressingly enough, of Cinsaut (known in those distant decades as Hermitage-hence the second part of the name of Pinotage, the crossing with Pinot Noir). A graph plotting vineyard plantings over the years shows, around 1965 and at about 20 percent, the steeply declining line of Cinsaut crossing the inexorably rising line of Chenin: Both were grown for bulk wine, but at least the upcoming champion carried the potential for high quality in its genes.
The distilling industry was already harvesting huge quantities of white grapes, but the mastery of cold-fermentation techniques saw a phenomenal expansion, especially of the Chenin vineyard, as the grape extended its local repertoire to include pleasant, fresh, and fruity white wines made from heavily cropping vines. Sales of the local wine Lieberstein exceeded 31 million liters in the mid-1960s, making it the world's biggest-selling bottled wine at the time.
Precisely in the triumphs of Lieberstein and the like we can see one historical reason for the present excellence of at least some of the Cape's white wines-particularly the ambitious Chenins and many of the new-wave white blends. The Chenin vines planted in the 1950s and '60s, in what were discovered to be particularly suitable sites (particularly the Swartland, Paarl, and Stellenbosch), form what now amounts to a national viticultural treasure house. But the treasure is being depleted as the role of Chenin in South African viticulture declines; its proportion of the national vineyard is down to well below 20 percent, from over 30 percent a decade ago. When the vines can no longer be cajoled into high production, the vineyards are scarcely worth tending, and most are ripped out, given the smallness of the market for low-cropped old-vine grapes.
It is tempting to find a second clue to present white-wine successes in Lieberstein's very name. The postwar decades were, somewhat oddly, a time when Germanic wine styles and names (and even bottles) were important to success in South Africa. To these factors we can add German technology (cold fermentation) and the viticultural and winemaking expertise of immigrants like Günther Brözel and local graduates of Geisenheim and Weinsberg. Can we infer some particular sensitivity to white wine-even in the succeeding generation, when France became the model of excellence, leading to the dominance of wood-matured reds? This is probably too romantic a notion, but the younger generation is literally harvesting the benefit of astute white-grape viticulture.
On a more banal level, it is worth noting that it is generally somewhat cheaper to make ambitious whites than reds-and that those whites are approachable earlier than the reds. Moreover, there is less pressure to follow perceived international standards and styles: Even a reduced temptation to overripen, overextract, and overoak probably plays its part.
If cultural and historical factors are important when accounting for the success of the Cape's white wines, there might also be more permanent considerations. One of the revelations for many winemakers liberated from the academic shibboleths of the 1980s has been the viability of wines-both red and white-without acid additions. Whether this possibility derives from better viticultural practices or from climatic conditions (some cite diurnal temperature differences, for example), this natural acidity is something that, while beneficial for reds as well, seems even more significant for the more transparent white grapes. (It must be admitted that some skeptics suppose there to be not less natural acidity, but rather more subtle acidification, asserting that more tartaric acid is sold to wineries than is, apparently, used-in much the same way that more 1945 Bordeaux seems to have been sold than was ever produced.)
From a nexus of climatological, geological, and human factors has nevertheless come a possibility for white wines of locally unprecedented quality and interest. While not ignoring the splendors of Chardonnay and Chenin, and the charms of Sauvignon Blanc (the last evolving in a singular style distinct from those of Marlborough and Sancerre), it is perhaps the varietal blends that are announcing themselves as the most exciting development. Internationally, only the south of France seems to have a parallel, equally extensive and significant, development.
Cape white blends
Of the two broad styles of serious white blends now emerging in South Africa, the Sauvignon/Semillon one based on the Bordeaux model, from the Cape's cooler areas, is easier to characterize and therefore to name. The other, more associated with warmer regions, also has European inspiration, in the blends of the Rhône Valley. But speaking of the Cape's "Rhône-style blends" (or of "Mediterranean blends," as is occasionally done) ignores the fact that, although the varietal partners of this genre are exuberantly (and experimentally) diverse, a frequently crucial part of its character is the Chenin Blanc that the Cape is so well learning to deploy. For convenience, and to acknowledge the essentially autochthonous nature of the development, we might now speak simply of a Cape white blend, while acknowledging that there is no essence to it (as there is in the dismal attempt to semilegislate a "Cape red blend," which requires a minimum percentage of Pinotage).
Chenin-the now old-vine Chenin that was planted to meet the vast needs of the brandy and Lieberstein industries-was certainly part of the birth of the Cape white blend. This came about as a later stage of the rediscovery of the Swartland region, following the emergence, over the past decade or so, of what promises to be a group of excellent red blends based on Syrah.
The first of the ambitious white wines to emerge from the cooperative-supplying anonymity of the Swartland's Perdeberg area (a sprawling granitic mountain bordering on the Paarl district) was Eben Sadie's Palladius-named, like his Columella red, for a Roman viticulturist. Behind it was his awareness of developments in the south of France, combined with a deep and growing understanding of local viticultural possibilities.
The tiny quantities of the maiden Palladius of 2002 created a stir-as much among winemakers as alert critics and wine lovers. It revealed new possibilities for local winemaking, based on what was offered by a slice of terroir (and of history-those old vineyards), as well as on exacting standards of viticulture and winemaking. Five years on, while a score of other wines have already been prompted by his achievement, Sadie (driven by a genuine passion and the most immodest of ambitions for his wines) is still working on the composition and character of Palladius-primarily in the vineyards, but also in the cellar.
The wine has always had a substantial component of Chenin (up to 40 percent), from 40-50-year-old bushvine (en gobelet) vineyards yielding around 11/2 tons per hectare. Viognier has also been a significant contributor, but Sadie finds it a less enchanting grape these days ("it's really only good in Condrieu"), and he had to oxidize the flavor out of it, he says, only partly joking, to prevent its powerful and unsubtle aromatics dominating the whole.
"Viognier is for show," he adds, "not for ageability." And: "You can blend for comfort or for complexity-which is what I'm trying for." Some of the Viognier is being replaced by Chenin and the other varieties already invoked in Palladius (mostly Chardonnay and Grenache Blanc), and now even a little old-vine Clairette-all from vineyards on the Perdeberg. Sadie believes that he can get the complexity he wants from this area alone, whereas his red Columella benefits from a wider Swartland terroir.
High levels of alcohol can be a problem consequent on harvesting fully ripe grapes in Swartland warmth, as is a corresponding reluctance for the wine to ferment totally dry- especially when relying, as Sadie does, on ambient yeasts. Reducing the Viognier component is helping resolve the problem, as is assiduous vineyard work. The current 2005, though still powerfully rich and something of a challenge after a few glasses, is the most elegant of the wines yet released, with 3.7 grams of sugar per liter scarcely perceptible thanks to a fine savory (natural) acidity and an alcohol level well under the 15 percent of the first vintages. The 2006 reduces both sugar and alcohol levels still further, to Sadie's satisfaction.
Palladius has not reached a stable recipe, he says, but it is getting there. The wine spends some 18 months in small oak (about one third new), possibly the longest of any Cape white, primarily to give it the stability that an unfined, unfiltered wine needs. It is not a wine that is immediately understandable in the South African context, with a profile that is far from the familiarity of Chardonnay's and equally rare among the crisp, clean fruitiness of Sauvignon. It remains unique, despite the inspiration it has provided for other winemakers, and is among the best of the Cape's wines. Under the label of a different company, Sequillo, Sadie is about to launch another white Swartland blend but from different-and differently farmed-vineyards; it is less expensive, a little less idiosyncratic, but only a little less impressive.
Contrasting with these is another top-class Perdeberg wine, The Observatory Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay, made by brotherand- sister team Catherine and Tom Lubbe. Tom (based in Roussillon, where he makes the acclaimed Matassa) worked briefly but closely with Eben Sadie some years ago at Spice Route, when they both developed their intense feelings for the Swartland. Their interpretations of the terroir are rather different, however, in both red and white wines. While Sadie can sometimes push rich ripeness quite far, the Lubbes pick early (but not unripe) from their splendidly deshabillés, biodynamically farmed vineyards. The few vintages of this 50/50 white blend are around 12.5% ABV and austere in the manner of a good German Spätlese Trocken, emphasizing the minerality that these granitic soils produce, and with a vibrant acidity. "The most extreme of the Swartland whites," comments Sadie in genuine, if slightly alarmed, praise, "if they poured their little bit of wine into the sum total of all Cape white wines, it would raise the average level of character a lot!" It is a wine more in the European tradition of partnering food than one made to be admired in isolation.
Two other important examples of this genre produced in the area are the promising new Scali Blanc (only a 2005 so far) and, with perhaps a little too much new oak in 2005 compared to the restraint of the Scali old-oak treatment, Lammershoek's Roulette Blanc. Both blend Chenin with Chardonnay and Viognier, as does Black Rock from the négociant Winery of Good Hope.
Such is the association of the blend with the Swartland, and the appeal of its old vineyards, that wineries elsewhere are importing grapes from the Perdeberg area, sometimes to complement their own. Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards in Tulbagh makes its very good TMV White partly from Perdeberg old-vine Chenin, supplementing it with Chenin and a little Viognier and Clairette from elsewhere. Miles Mossop (based at Tokara but also making his own small range) uses Chenin from 28-year-old vineyards in Stellenbosch for his Saskia but buys in the 30 percent Viognier component from Perdeberg. The majority of the wineries making these wines are fairly new, with winemakers in their early 30s at most bringing youthful energy and joy in experimentation and in breaking new ground.
Older estates with established prestige are also increasingly embarking on them, though-even if often driven by young winemakers like Rustenberg's Adi Badenhorst. Badenhorst's new wine is not yet bottled, but the label will bring back the Schoongezicht name that was historically used for the estate's whites (it's just too bad about the foreigners who can't pronounce the name, he says). The wine includes 60 percent Grenache Blanc from the Perdeberg, the remainder split between Roussanne and Viognier from Rustenberg. It has no oak influence but will remain on its lees in tank for up to 18 months. One of the pleasures of these wines, it should be said, and part of their success, is the general willingness to adopt the Rhône tradition of not loving oak barrels for their flavors.
Another important believer in the Cape white blend is L'Ormarins, the Johann Rupert property in Franschhoek, which is spending lavishly on its renewed ambitions with money and expertise, and should shortly release its own top-level 2006 blend. Many of the grapes are from vineyards it owns in the Swartland, though subsequent vintages could draw on its new plantings on the home-valley slopes. Also in Franschhoek, Solms Delta, one of the most dynamic and interesting wineries established in recent years, makes its Amalie mostly from Viognier, with some 20 percent from vine-dried Grenache Blanc. Owner Mark Solms and winemaker Hilko Hegewisch are working on the challenge of making table wines entirely from desiccated grapes; and accompanying a good Amarone-style Shiraz (Africana), there is a slightly less successful white blend called Koloni, from Muscats and Riesling.
The Sauvignon dimension
Any binary varietal split in the new wave of high-quality white blends in South Africa is complicated by the role of Sauvignon Blanc, which unusually participates in a number of serious varietal blends here (there are also some Chenin/Sauvignon blends in Anjou). The dry taxonomist must set aside a touch of irritation in wondering whether to place a wine like Adoro's Naudé White Blend in the Cape white-blend class or in a subcategory of the classic Bordeaux-style blend. The maiden 2006 (named for part-owner and winemaker Ian Naudé) is half Chenin, with Semillon and (less) Sauvignon making up the balance. In fact, it successfully straddles the two main stylistic categories posited here, at the same time achieving Naudé's ideal of a blend with no varietal seams and his desire for a balance between "Old World complexity and elegance" and "New World fruit and structure" in a meticulous, focused, and minerally wine with well-calculated oaking and a moderate 13% alcohol level.
The grapes are derived from different areas, so as yet, terroir expression is of less concern than style. Naudé first tried this blend in his previous position at Dornier Wines in Stellenbosch, where the Donatus White continues successfully.
Chardonnay appears to some observers to be a more questionable partner with Sauvignon and Semillon than does Chenin. Chardonnay/Sauvignon blends were fairly common in South Africa ten or 15 years back-but they were mostly cheap wines, hopeful opportunists born of the leftovers of more ambitious single-variety wines. Hamilton Russell Vineyards made-and then abandoned-one of the more serious examples, and Anthony Hamilton-Russell has now revived the blend as the white-wine partner for his red Ashbourne (the Cape's most bordelais Pinotage). The Sauvignon-dominated maiden 2006, mostly unwooded, has 15 percent Chardonnay and a little Semillon added to provide density and a fuller mid-palate, without offering aromatic confusion. While the goal here is to move from varietalism, in accordance with the proprietor's continuing search for terroir expression, it must be said that in its pre-release youth the wine is dominated by fairly straightforward Sauvignon character; since it is intended as a wine with some ageability, however, it may develop interestingly.
Other significant blends with Sauvignon Blanc include Kumkani VVS from Stellenbosch (the initials standing for Viognier, Verdelho, and Sauvignon); a typically successful multiple assemblage in Fleur du Cap's Unfiltered range and clumsily named for all four of its components-Viognier, Chardonnay, Semillon, and Sauvignon; the maiden De Grendel Winifred (ex-Durbanville; Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Viognier); and a promising Vondeling White Blend from Armajaro in Voor-Paardeberg, which adds Sauvignon to the more customary Perdeberg-area mix.
Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
Its presence still only faintly recalling its erstwhile ubiquity in the Cape, Semillon is making something of a comeback, both as a single-variety wine and as a partner to Sauvignon-though the growing success of the latter on local and international markets makes for some go-it-alone disdain. Those wanting to supplement Sauvignon's eagerly proffered fruit with an added dimension and richness, as well as enhanced potential for bottle maturity, have, however, found confirmation and inspiration in the Bordeaux model. Some varietally labeled Sauvignons, like that of Klein Constantia, have long added an unadvertised touch of Semillon, no doubt supporting their recorded ageability.
As a more formal varietal blend, the partnership is establishing itself as a cooler-climate counterpart to the more Rhône-oriented blends. The white flagship of Vergelegen in Stellenbosch is the outstanding example. An element of not-altogether-characteristic insecurity prompted winemaker André van Rensburg to make the maiden 2001 white Vergelegen with a large component (nearly 80 percent) of Sauvignon-"because of its up-front fruit."
Subsequent vintages have seen the proportions progressively reversed, with the growth of van Rensburg's confidence in what Vergelegen's 20-year-old Schaapenberg vineyard can produce.
Of particular benefit is properly ripe Semillon with no influence of rot, something that he feels can generally give his wine an advantage over Graves and Pessac-Léognan. He is also now content to forgo immediate youthful appeal, so the fairly oxidative style is established. The varieties are separately bunch-pressed, then fermented (with inoculated yeast) in oak, where they spend some ten months before being blended. Only half the oak, incidentally, is new; five years back, it all was. Although those older vintages continue to drink very well, and even to develop, later ones should age better, the winemaker thinks. In terms of character and style, Vergelegen is far removed from Palladius, but the two arguably share the highest ranking among Cape wines.
There are still comparatively few Cape winemakers following the Bordeaux model for white wines. They are largely to be found in the more classic and cool regions of the Cape-Stellenbosch and Constantia-and further down the Peninsula from Constantia, where Cape Point Vineyards has for a few years been making a first-class wooded Sauvignon/Semillon blend called Isliedh, in addition to its varietals of each grape, both of which are highly regarded. In Constantia itself, the Constantia White from Constantia Uitsig is a fine and serious wine, usually with a majority of Semillon grapes. Neighboring Klein Constantia has recently expanded its portfolio with a blend of much the same composition, except that it is invoking its own tradition by adding a little Muscat de Frontignan-the grape responsible for its famous dessert wine, Vin de Constance. In Stellenbosch, with grapes from carefully selected vineyards on the slopes of the Schaapenberg overlooking False Bay, Alain Moueix is usefully bringing his bordelais experience and sensibility to a white counterpart to his red Bordeaux-style blend-both named Amelho.
The first Bordeaux-style red was made here less than 30 years ago, and large numbers of them have emerged since then. Given that they often respond more to the authority of the model than to local terroirs, the limited number of white counterparts should be seen positively. In a context where varietal Sauvignons are proving their viability (and enjoying greater market appeal than the blended wines) and where there is an alternative in the more open category of Cape white blends, the Bordeaux-inspired wines are a carefully selected option-one made in response to thoughtfully appraised viticultural possibilities.
What is needed in South African wine is, in this small instance, precisely what is happening: a confident response to local climates and soils rather than to established European models or peremptory New World varietalism. That-as well as the individual successes and the intellectual excitement and sense of possibility both producing and fed by them- is the real value of these stylistically varied white blends in this red-wine country.