14th Apr 2021

South Africa is the most European of 'new world' wine makers

  • Europe has had a long tradition of importing South African wines (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Red soil, breezy air, steep mountains and an all-embracing sun. It's still the end of winter in the wine-making region around Cape Town, so work in the vineyards is yet to begin. But inside the caves, barrels are being cleaned, wine-tanks are being monitored and bottles are lining up one by one, under the careful watch of supervisors.

The names of the wines in the barrels - Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot - sound European. So are most of the rules and standards applied, from crushing the grapes to using French oak barrels.

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  • EU flag alongside South African ones in Franschhoek, a town founded by Hughenots (Photo: Valentina Pop)

"The only difference is that in Europe you find a specific area planted to a specific grape, like Pinot noir. In South Africa, because there are a lot of mezzo-climates, the vineyard facing south on that hill is very very different from the one looking west. So here, people would plant Sauvignon Blanc on the south slopes, Cabernet on the north ones, etc. People on their farms have a lot of grape varieties," says Jasper Raats, wine-maker at Longridge, one of the over 600 vineyards registered in South Africa.

Himself a descendant of the Huguenots - French Protestants who fled persecution in their home country in the 16th century - Raats firmly rejects the idea that South Africa is a newcomer when it comes to wine-making.

"I am the ninth generation in this country. And if you look at the original wine-making that happened in 1660 - in the beginning it was perhaps not very good, but still enough for the sailors to drink on the ships. When the French Huguenots started to arrive a few decades later, the knowledge and skills improved a lot. They knew about wine-making and they handed that tradition from one generation to the other. That's why some farms you see here date back to 1680."

And unlike the wine-making 'new worlds' in California or Chile, South Africa was among the first to accept and respect the European demarcation of wines. "We don't have Champagne, but they're still making it in the US, just not exporting it."

What differentiates a South African wine from a French Bordeaux or an Alsacian Riesling is rather the approach of the industry - completely consumer-focused and, unlike in France, not benefiting from state subsidies.

"In Europe, you artificially control the size of vineyards, to control the basic quality of it. In South Africa, that is determined by market forces. I've got quite a few friends in France who would love to do some experiments and try something else or who have this piece of land that's outside the recognised Burgundy area, but that has fantastic potential. Still, they have to call it 'vin du pays' even though some of that wine is even better than the Grand Cru. And they can't get any money for it. That's stupid. Just put the bottles on the table and see which wine is best and pay the price for the best one," Raats argues.

Apart from the Napoleon-era wine-making tradition, South Africa has adopted some of the 'newer' European expertise as recently as the mid-90s.

After decades of a trade embargo during the apartheid era, wineries began searching for experts from the 'old world' to come and revive the tradition. Among them was Romanian Razvan Macici, currently one of the most awarded cellarmasters in South Africa.

Speaking to EUobserver at the Nederburg winery, whose wines he had been masterminding since 2001, Macici said that his background from a wine-making family and the degree from the Iasi university had given him the right tools at a time when South Africa was opening up and looking for expertise abroad.

"In terms of style, Romania is more of a classical wine-making country, close to the French tradition and profiles of wine. Here, we don't make wine because this is how the tradition is telling us to do it, but because we believe we know what the consumer likes to drink: Wines packed with upfront flavour, lots of character, aromatic potential, brilliant colour for the reds, soft tannins. You may call them commercial," he explains.

Awarded 'winery of the year' by the Platter's guide to South African vineyards, Nederburg is renowned for its 'private auction' which is one of the country's most selective wine competitions. Apart from velvety reds and perfumed whites, Nederburg also has five-star rated desert wines of the 'noble late harvest' type. Initially developed in the country's oldest winery, Constantia, this type of wine is said to have been Napoleon's favourite and has been referred to in poems by the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Even as he concedes that exports to France are currently not as strong as in Napoleonic times, Macici says that his wines are best-selling in numerous European countries, with Germany being their biggest market.

"In Sweden, South African wines are the number one in consumer preference, ahead of French, Italian or Spanish ones. Holland is a big market too, obviously due to the historical links. But also in the UK, we are third or fourth," he said.

One little contribution from his home country is the use of Romanian oak barrels, which Macici is using for some of the red wines at Nederburg.

"The Romanian oak has distinctive characteristics of taste and flavour so I started experimenting with it some 10 years ago. Today it's an important part of my wine-making process," he said.

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