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Rhônes on the Rise in South Africa

South Africa discovers a natural affinity for the Rhône's grape varieties and wine styles.
Eben Sadie overlooks his vineyards in Swartland.
Vinnovative Imports
Vinnovative Imports

The Rhône Valley’s Mistral—the cool, drying wind (sometimes cold and powerful enough to knock over trees) that sweeps over the valley’s vineyards, slowing grape ripening and preventing disease—is long cited as a contributor to the quality of the region’s wines. The same could be said about the Cape Doctor, a strong coastal southeasterly that blows through much of South Africa’s Winelands and into Cape Town. But the wind is just the beginning of the similarities between France’s Rhône Valley and some of the cape’s winegrowing regions. It should come as no surprise that South Africa is discovering a natural affinity for the Rhône’s grape varieties and wine styles.

Syrah and Siblings

“Early on we decided to work with warm-climate varieties rather than Bordeaux varieties,” remarks Alex Dale, one of the founding partners of the Winery of Good Hope. The winery has several brands that explore Rhône varieties, most notably Black Rock and Radford Dale. For Dale, blending was a priority as well: “When you look at Europe, the Mediterranean is comparable, and the best wines there are not often single varietal.”

Despite Dale’s view, it is Syrah, the Rhône’s flagship grape, that dominates, albeit more often under its Australian pseudonym, Shiraz. There are more varietally labeled Shiraz in South Africa than any other single varietal wine, and the number continues to rise. Charles Back, the man behind the Goats do Roam, Fairview, and Spice Route brands, attributes the Aussie name’s dominance more to marketplace recognition than to any stylistic statement about the wines.

Syrah has been grown in South Africa for years; some experts say it dates back to the first vine plantings in the middle of the seventeenth century. Until the past decade, however, the grape represented a tiny portion of total plantings—only about 1 percent in 1995. According to the 2008/2009 South African Wine Directory, that number has risen to just under 10 percent and almost 25,000 acres in 2007, making Shiraz the fourth-most-planted grape after Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Colombard (which is used primarily for brandy production).

Other Rhône cultivars in South Africa are also on the rise, though only one red, Cinsault, is among the top 20 in vine plantings. Back says that today’s Cinsault plantings are a relic of mass production dating back several decades. On the other hand, he argues, “Mourvèdre can produce some really elegant styles, with more savory and more spice character,” and continues, “One of the underdogs . . . is Carignan; if you restrict yields, it adds a nice acidity and freshness in the blend.” At the moment, each of these grapes occupies less than 1 percent of total plantings, so blends dominate production. Back indicates that, since most South African wine regions lack large, flat, homogenous vineyard space and have widely varied soils, different grapes are planted to fit individual sites.

 

Plantings of Grenache, which dominate the southern Rhône, are on the rise in South Africa as well, and some producers are tracking down what old-vine vineyards they can find. According to Ken Forrester, whose flagship red, The Gypsy, is a Grenache-Syrah blend, there was a 50-year gap in Grenache plantings because of poor grape quality due to overcropping. Farmers were taking advantage of the grape’s high yields to bulk up their tonnage, and the large producers, who were buying these grapes during the apartheid period and afterward, responded by banning new plantings. For this reason, today’s Grenache vineyards are either 50-plus or under 5 years of age.

White Rhônes

On the white side, Viognier may make up less than 1 percent of the country’s total plantings, but it’s still the fifteenth-most-planted grape variety, and a growing number of wineries are using it in varietally labeled wines and blends. “There is far more Viognier planted than I expected . . . sometimes [used for] making wines in the Côte-Rôtie style,” observes John Blazon, MS, until recently the manager of wine sales and standards at Walt Disney World. Radford Dale is one of several producers cofermenting Viognier with their Shiraz (á la Côte-Rôtie) to add elegance and aroma. There are also old-vine Grenache Blanc vineyards, which are contributing to some white blends, and one producer, Rustenberg, has released a Roussanne varietal wine.

A slight twist on the Rhône model may become a signature style for South Africa: using white Rhône varieties in conjunction with the country’s ubiquitous, high-acid Chenin Blanc. While not strictly Rhône-like (in France, Chenin is a denizen of the Loire Valley), the combination works well; the Chenin Blanc adds freshness, and the Rhône grapes contribute weight and aroma. As with many of the country’s varietal Chenins, careful management of new oak seems to be the major factor in getting the style right.

Cross-Region Wines

It’s difficult to pin down what regions are doing best with these grapes just from looking at the label, especially in the case of blends. Grape sources for one wine can range all over the Cape. Boekenhoutskloof is a leading producer of Syrah and two notable Rhône-like blends, The Chocolate Block and The Wolftrap. While the winery is in Franschoek, both of the blends bear the broad “Western Cape” appellation for just that reason. The Chocolate Block, for example, uses Syrah from Swartland, Grenache from Citrusdal, Cinsault from Wellington, and Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon from estate vineyards. Yes, Cabernet. Even when inspired by the Rhône wines, few producers in South Africa feel the need to ape the French model if they find a non-Rhône variety that has something to contribute. The Backsberg Pumphouse Shiraz, for example, includes about 12 percent Malbec.

The South African Wine of Origin scheme breaks down winegrowing regions into districts and into smaller entities called wards. Single-district, single-ward, and even single-vineyard Rhône-style wines probably will become more common as plantings increase. Nonetheless, certain districts are already making a name for their potential, even if labeling doesn’t reflect it yet. Stellenbosch is ground zero for the South African wine industry, and Syrah comprises one-quarter of the red-wine acreage there. The district also has grown some notable Viognier. In neighboring Paarl the tourism association calls Shiraz their “signature cultivar.” In fact, Boekenhoutskloof’s Syrah is a single-vineyard wine from Wellington, a ward in the northern part of the Paarl district. Paarl has some Mourvèdre and Viognier plantings as well.

Beyond the Winelands

Stellenbosch and Paarl, together with Franschoek, constitute what is traditionally called the Winelands, but Rhône varieties are also making a lot of headway in warmer, lesser-known regions farther inland. The Swartland, north of Stellenbosch, was long a source of generic, hearty reds, largely produced by cooperatives. Today the Swartland Wine Route lists fewer than 20 member wineries, but a number of outside producers are snapping up grapes from the district’s old-vine vineyards—Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and whites such as Grenache Blanc. Charles Back bought a farm in Swartland’s Malmesbury ward in 1997, creating the Spice Route brand, and the Winery of Good Hope’s Black Rock label is made solely with Swartland fruit.

East of Swartland lies Tulbagh, another small winegrowing area where Syrah, Mourvèdre, and their fellow Rhône grapes are doing well. Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards is the district’s leader for Rhône varieties, making organic wines from their estate grapes and some negociant wines with Swartland fruit as well. Winegrower Callie Louw believes that, despite the hot climate, cool nights protect the grapes from overripening. Tulbagh is surrounded by mountains on three sides, which trap the cool air.

A few producers are also finding quality fruit in Robertson, farther inland, and Olifants River, to the north. “Piekenierskloof [a ward inside Olifants River] reminds me of Roussillon,” offers Marc Kent, winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof. “There’s this garrigue-like scrub—it’s like Roussillon near the Spanish border.” Marc describes his blends, The Wolftrap and The Chocolate Block, as being more southern French than southern Rhône in character but adds that he spent “quite a bit of time in the Rhône Valley,” the role model for his Syrahs, focusing on “spicy aromatics, with oak in a secondary role.”

South African Rhône Character

The Rhône Valley may have more gaminess and black pepper and Australia more lush fruit, but according to John Blazon, “The Rhône varieties tend to have a more mineral expression” in South Africa, “allowing the fruit to come through but retaining its structure.” According to Back, “Warm slopes create a plummy, fat style, while cooler areas [produce] a peppery style,” so blending, even if it’s the same variety but from different sites, can result in more balance and complexity.

Back should know. His Goats do Roam brand was founded with these varieties in mind, as its punning name suggests, and he had already made a name for Shiraz with the Fairview label, which dates back to 1974. When he founded Spice Route in 1998, he took on Eben Sadie as winemaker; Sadie has gone on to make a pair of highly rated and rather pricey biodynamically grown wines using mostly Rhône varieties from the Swartland. Sadie’s white, Palladius, combines Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Chenin Blanc, while his Columella, a Syrah-Mourvèdre blend, has garnered high praise from wine critics. Sadie shrugs off scores and reviews, but it’s a promising sign for the style. South Africa’s wine industry is celebrating its three hundred-fiftieth birthday this year and proving at the same time that an old dog can still learn a few new tricks.

 

South Africa’s Rhônes on the List

John Blazon, until recently the wine sales and standards manager for Disney World, helped develop the all–South African wines list at Jiko—The Cooking Place, which sells more South African wine than any other US establishment. Of the wines’ heightened minerality, he notes, “It’s a style of wine we haven’t seen before, but we find that people are recognizing it as truly unique.” Blazon also acknowledges the diversity of South Africa’s Rhônes but adds one caveat: “The big questions with these wines are controlling ripening and alcohol levels.”

Blazon says Jiko has done very well with two exotically named blends, Spice Route’s Chakalaka and Boekenhoutskloof’s The Chocolate Block, which has been featured by the glass and allows servers to share the story of Franschoek and its wine history with guests. Blazon praises Boekenhoutskloof’s 100 percent Syrah as “Rhônesque—there really isn’t a finer expression you can put on it.” He claims that Eben Sadie, whose Columella graces the Jiko wine list at $150, has been leading the luxury end of the style, and he also likes the wines from Radford Dale, Black Rock, and The Foundry, singling out The Foundry for its Viognier.

If he sees something new on the horizon, it may be producers trying out some Pinotage as part of an otherwise Rhône-like blend. To date, the Cape Blend style has focused on Pinotage with Bordeaux varieties, but that could change; one of Pinotage’s parents is Cinsault, after all.

Perfect Pairing: Master Sommelier John Blazon likes the 2007 Spice Route Chakalaka, a Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Carignan blend from Swartland (“gobs of spicy black fruit…woven around a mineral core”), with Durban or Malay spiced slow-cooked beef short ribs served with mealie pap (corn grits).

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