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South Africa 2010. Part II

Text and Photographs © Tom Cannavan, 05/2010

This is part II of a two part series. Part I gives the background on South Africa and its wines and visits Stellenbosch and Swartland.

Franschhoek

Some criticise the town of Franschhoek as being too 'manufactured' with its main street crammed with upscale restaurants, B&Bs and gift shops, but the valley remains one of the most beautiful in the winelands and its viticultural history stretches back for centuries. A terrific choice of accommodation and food doesn't make it a bad place!   

Part of the Paarl production area, approaching Franschhoek is always a breathtaking journey over a mountain pass, as the valley is enclosed on three sides by the Groot Drakenstein, Franschhoek and Simonsberg mountains. The mountains shelter the valley and their streams converge in the Berg River, no doubt the agricultural sweet-spot this creates being one of the main attractions for the early Huguenot settlers.

Franschhoek producers and wines

Boekenhoutskloof

Marc Kent is one of Franschhoek's best and most restless winemakers, expanding into new vineyard areas in search of new terroirs.

7 wines tasted

Chamonix

Softly-spoken winemaker Gottfried Mocke has a quietly confident air. And his confidence is well-placed with some excellent wines.

4 wines tasted

Bellingham & Boschendal

The twin estates of Bellingham & Boschendal are under the same ownership, and one which continues to innovate.

8 wines tasted

Hemmel-en-Aarde

The names of Walker Bay has become familiar to Cape wine lovers, but today the original producers from the Bay like Bouchard-Finlayson and Hamilton-Russell find themselves as part of a bigger ward called Hemel-en-Aarde or 'Heaven and Earth'. In fact, Hemel-en-Aarde itself is sub-divided into two valleys - Hemel-en-Aarde and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde - and the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. Though working very much as a unit, producers in each clearly see themselves as also part of a distinct sub-region defined by climate and landscape. Whether this is all moving rather too fast for UK consumers to keep up with, is a moot point.

Centred around the much-visited coastal town of Hermanus, the Hemmel-en-Aarde wine route is becoming established as a real contender to more established regions. I can vouch for the coolness of some of the sites here high on the valley slopes and ridge, where a late afternoon mist descended, immediately dropping the temperature by several degrees.

There are 23 winegrowers/producers in this area which found early fame with its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, 63% of the area's current plantings are comprised of other grape varieties, with Sauvignon Blanc the dominant variety and significant plantings of Syrah (now 12% of the total). This is a source of some debate amongst the winemakers I met, with some believing that a failure to concentrate on Pinot Noir in particular could throw away years of work to establish the area as a Pinot 'hot-spot', much like Central Otago in New Zealand.

Wines share a common thread of good natural acidity and relatively low alcohol for South Africa, the Hemel-en-Aarde enjoying a strong maritime influence with the closest property to the cold waters of Walker Bay being only 1.5km away, and the furthest only 10.6km away.

Hemel-en-Aarde producers and wines

Ataraxia

Former Hamilton Russell winemaker Kevin Grant's Ataraxia has risen like a meteor since its 2005 launch.

3 wines tasted

HermanusPietersfontein

Named after a spring discovered by a legendary early inhabitant of Hermanus, larger than life winemaker Bartho Eksteen now oversees a very forward-thinking operation.

10 wines tasted

Newton Johnson

Family-owned Newton Johnson produces some of the finest Pinot Noir in the Cape from the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde.

3 wines tasted

Creation Wines

On the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, vines were first planted in 2002 to take advantage of altitude and cool breezes.

5 wines tasted

Bouchard Finlayson

The original wine name that put the Walker Bay district on the map, and still one of the best, Peter Finlayson has strong opinions and makes some brilliant wines.

3 wines tasted

Hamilton Russell

Anthony Hamilton Russell is a mover and shaker of the region, having made his name with Pinot Noir.

5 wines tasted

Luddite

It is very - very - easy to believe the words from the Luddite web site when you meet the man behind it: "Technology and mechanization will never be a substitute for passion."

2 wines tasted

Elgin

When I first visited the Elgin Valley five years ago there were only three producers farming in this very cool, apple and pear orchard area about one hour east of Cape Town. Pioneer Paul Cluver had been joined by Oak Valley, and a newcomer at that time, ex-engineer Andrew Gunn who had just established his Iona Estate. Today, there are dozens of wineries sourcing fruit from the valley and the number of wine estates has tripled.

The draw is undoubtedly the genuinely cool climate here, with proximity to the ocean and plenty of cloud cover. On my visit, the hilltops were shrouded in a decidedly chilly mist. A longer ripening season and good, natural acidity does make the Elgin Valley quite distinct from more established areas. Photo © Marion Byers.   

Elgin sits on a plateau at 300 metres, though vineyards climb to 600 metres on the foothills of surrounding mountains. At its closest, the region is only 5km from the Atlantic. Cool climate varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer thrive here, though Pinot Noir is now well established and producing some terrific results. The latest buzz is around Shiraz, with some believing it will be the region's trump card in the future.

Elgin producers and wines

Paul Cluver · Oak Valley · Iona Estate · Belfield · Almenkerk · Highlands Road

A handful of Elgin's best producers gathered at the cellars of Paul Cluver for a tasting, where each was invited to show just two or three wines.

11 wines tasted

Somerset West and Cape Point

There is nothing that really binds these two areas together other than convenience in this report, though both are some of the closest wine regions to Cape Town as each can be reached easily in half an hour. Somerset West is a southerly extension of Stellenbosch, with its vineyards crowded into an 11-mile stretch between the two towns. Meanwhile Cape Point, on the famous Peninsula south of Cape Town, is largely composed of a national park, but Cape Point vineyards has been here for a number of years, growing grapes in some very cool conditions indeed.

Its proximity to Cape Town has meant the wineries of Somerset West offer excellent visitor attractions, with many boasting fine restaurants and marvellous views. At Guardian Peak, for example, views to the Helderberg mountains, whilst the newly-opened Waterkloof offers stunning views to the coast over the town of Somerset West.

Producers and wines

Morgenster

With an Italian owner and Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc as consultant, Morgenster has a definite European feel.

6 wines tasted

Guardian Peak

With the same winemaking team as neighbours Ernie Els, Guardian Peak opened in 2005 as a food and wine destination.

8 wines tasted

Cape Point Vineyards

Time spent with Didier Dagueneau influenced winemaker Duncan Savage, who strives to make "really profound Sauvignon."

4 wines tasted

The Chenin Show

"The early UK buyers saw South Africa as a source of cheap wine, and tried to buy as cheaply as humanly possible," says Ken Forrester. "And the South Africans were willing victims." The folly of this was clear to Ken from the beginning: "The crazy thing is that South Africa is not, and never was a low cost production country: we have low yields, an uncertain economy and exchange rate and it was madness to continue to provide wines for sale at 4 that we have to sell, bottled and shipped, for 80p." This is a harsh truth that South Africa has had to learn, and Ken Forrester sees drastic measures as the solution: "We need to reposition ourselves in the on-trade," suggesting quality producers more or less abandon the supermarkets and concentrate instead on restaurants and other premium outlets.

I met with Ken, Bruwer Raats and Johan Kruger of Sterhuis for dinner at the excellent Terroir restaurant in the Klein Zalze estate, for an evening of unbridled Chenin passion. All three men are wonderful exponents of the grape and zealous believers in it: "In other areas like Swartland they really need to blend in some other grapes," says Bruwer Raats, "because the best Chenin grows in cool sunshine - not hot sunshine." Chenin is now being planted in areas like Elgin and Walker Bay, and Bruwer thinks there are new dimensions to the grape still to come on stream. "I've just packaged a new Elgin Chenin for Selfridges," chips in Ken Forrester, "and it was so cool out there that it ended of with only 10% alcohol, even though it has only 7 or 8 grams of residual sugar."

Producers and wines

Ken Forrester · Raats Family · Sterhuis · Klein Zalze

Three of the Cape's best Chenin Blanc producers come together for a tour-de-force display of the grape's potential in the Cape.

8 wines tasted

go to part I