South African wines born from a mixed marriage

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital (www.enjoygourmet.com.cn) and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via jcolumn@enjoygourmet.com.

When my sage friends at Shanghai Daily informed me that today’s feature topic for the iDeal section is watermelon, I was at a temporary loss. Quite frankly this isn’t the most obvious or relevant topic for a wine article. Occasionally rose wines may feature secondary or tertiary notes of watermelon and, save for some pretty awful sparklers, putting a piece of watermelon in wines is not a good idea. But writers should never despair or give up and with a little bit of detective work I found out that the origin of watermelons is most likely southern Africa. Voila! I had my topic.

Pinotage

The story of Pinotage is a tale of a mixed marriage that resulted in a child of controversy. The first Pinotage wine was made in 1941 at Elsenburg Agriculture College by professor and winemaker C. T. de Waal. The first vine was planted 16 years earlier almost by accident.

Abraham Izak Perlod, a South African of French heritage, was quite the erudite gent having received advanced degrees in mathematics and physics and a doctorate in chemistry from the university of Halle an der Saale in Germany. Upon return to South African he was appointed temporary professor at the University of Cape Town. Not long after his return the Cape Government sent him on a protracted trip to Europe to collect vines from the continent’s major wine regions. He returned with nearly 200 varieties and was appointed the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch.

In 1925, Perlod crossed a male Cinsault flower with a pollen donor Pinot Noir. The cross resulted in only four seeds which he planted in a garden next to his home. Then he pretty much forgot about them. In 1927 Perlod took up a new position at the state wine cooperative KWV and moved to a new home while leaving behind the young vines. Just before the overgrown garden was to be plowed under, a young university lecturer, named Dr Charlie Niehaus, jumped on his bicycle and rescued the four seedlings, which were replanted and grafted to new rootstock at the Elsenburg Agricultural College. Several years later the first glass of Pinotage was made and tasted by C. T. de Waal. If not for these very haphazard steps of development South Africa might never have had its own grape.

Another curious aspect about Pinotage is that drinkers tend to love it or hate it. Some have embraced Pinotage and championed it, while other winemakers utterly distain the grape. Seldom in the wine world can you find such an extreme schism of beliefs. It’s quite true that this high-yield, easy-growing variety of the grape is used to make some pretty awful wines, but what is also becoming increasingly apparent is that with careful yield restrictions and superior winemaking some remarkably fine wines are also being made.

At their best, Pinotage wines are rich with flavor and a texture featuring an abundance of plum, blackberry, blueberry and mulberry flavors, often with notes of chocolate, tobacco and spices. They are also big, high alcohol wines with plenty of tannins and good weight in the mouth and match best with robust game and meat dishes as well as aged cheese. Recommended producers with wines are: Beeslaar, Warick, Fleur du Cap and Tulbagh. But as nationalistically appealing and intriguing these Pinotage wines are, the most acclaimed wines of South Africa are white.

Chenin Blanc

Should Pinotage be the king of South African reds then Chenin Blanc is the queen and in the eyes of most connoisseurs, the queen rules. Chenin Blanc is not only the most planted variety in South Africa but also makes many of the best wines. Wine lovers in China should be aware that the price quality ratio of South African Chenin Blancs is among the best in the world.

The grape was introduced by Jan van Riebeeck, who worked for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. The best South African Chenin Blanc wines typically exhibit fruit-forward flavors of green apples, melon, ripe stone and citrus fruits along with good minerality and acidity. The robust fruit and clean nature of these wines make them perfect partners to seafood and white meat dishes. Some of South Africa’s best Chenin Blanc producers have wines available in Shanghai including: Alheit Vineyards, Badenhorst and Secateurs. Whether you’re considering a Pinotage or Chenin Blanc it’s good to know that most recent vintages in South Africa have been good with 2015 and 2009 standing out.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties:

Chenin Blanc is the most planted varietal in the Coastal Region and South Africa but the white varieties Chardonnay, Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc and red grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinotage are also well-represented.

Key term:

The appellation system called WO or Wine of Origin was established in 1973 and is roughly the equivalent of the AOC system in France and DOC system in Italy.