Renaissance in South Africa

“We had to leapfrog the sanctions,” explained Simon Barlow, the affable owner of Rustenberg Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa, as he described the dramatic transformation of his family’s estate following the democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 that marked the official end of apartheid.  Since that point, the renaissance at Rusterberg has been emblematic of the advance of the entire South African wine industry.

A Long but Checkered History

The South African wine industry has had its ups and downs since its beginning, documented over 350 years ago, on February 2, 1659, when Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch Commander of Cape Town noted in his diary:

“Fine warm weather….Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes, namely from the new must, fresh from the vat. The grapes were mostly Muscadel, and other white round grapes, very fragrant and tasty.” 

“We were making wine when the Médoc (the most famous area in of Bordeaux) was still a stinking swamp,” quipped Lars Maack, owner of Buitenverwachting, a highly regarded estate in Constantia, just outside of Cape Town.  In the 19th century, the famed sweet wines of Constantia sold for more than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.  But the industry entered a new dark age when South Africa became the world’s pariah and economic sanctions were imposed.

In the mid-1990s “We were 10 to 12 years behind the rest of the world, stuck because of the sanctions,” noted Barlow.  Sanctions prevented winemakers from traveling to or from South Africa, leaving South African winemakers unaware of advances and innovations.  Barlow decided that for Rustenberg to move into the modern era, he needed a new winemaker from outside of South Africa to replace the current winemaker who had been there for over 20 years.  Barlow recruited Rod Easthope, a New Zealander and currently the winemaker at the highly regarded Craggy Range winery in New Zealand, to Rustenberg in 1995.  The plan was for him to stay for one harvest, but as often is the case, he stayed for four, until 1999.  Barlow also recruited another Kiwi, Steven Smith, also currently at Craggy Range, as viticulturalist.

Caustic and Citric

When Easthope arrived he wanted “to clean the cellar with ‘caustic and citric’ (caustic soda and citric acid) in the New Zealand, scrub-it-down way,” bemused Barlow. The focus on cleanliness extended even to rental equipment.  At the time, they rented mobile bottling equipment because Rustenberg lacked a bottling line.  Before Easthope would use it, according to Barlow, he disassembled and basically sterilized the whole thing.  The owner of the mobile bottling apparatus wandered by during the cleaning process and was furious–likely to disguise his embarrassment–but that did not deter Easthope and Barlow.  It was as though they were washing away the vestiges of apartheid and the sanctions.

Easthope and Barlow designed a new winery–complete with a permanent and sterile bottling line–to replace the one from the 1800s. The new bottling line ensured consistency replacing multiple bottlings of the same wine with just one.   In addition to modernizing the winery, Easthope took a more modern–and natural–approach to winemaking, introducing fermentation with natural yeast.

Unexpected Help from an Aussie

As sanctions ended, winemakers from the rest of the world poured into South Africa.  Barlow recounts how Len Evans, a leader of the Australian wine industry, serendipitously helped them create their flagship red wine.  Evans paid Barlow a visit as part of his South African tour in 1996.  After Evans left, but while he was still in South Africa, Evans’s Australian winery, Rothbury Estate, was sold out from under him.  Having no pressing need to return to Australia, Evans called Barlow and asked if he might return for a longer visit.  During that visit, Evans emphasized the importance of keeping wines from different parcels of the same vineyard separate every year to evaluate the subtle variations a vineyard delivers.  After tasting batches in the cellar, Evans suggested a separate bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown in just 17 rows of a vineyard, instead of including it in the overall blend.   As a result, Rustenberg’s “Peter Barlow” bottling, named to honor Simon’s father, was born.  And now Rustenberg has 40 to 50 smaller fermentation tanks that allow them to track different parts of their vineyards.

Evans also advised changes in winemaking widely known and implemented outside of South Africa, but less commonly employed in the country because sanctions had limited the inflow of ideas.  For example, Evans suggested they do a gentler pump-over at the end of fermentation to minimize extraction of bitter tannins.  He explained that the extraction needed to be done differently at the beginning of fermentation when the must was basically water than toward the end when it contained more alcohol.

The Wines Are Better Now

Just as the winery and approach to winemaking have been transformed, so have the wines.  Before my just completed visit to South Africa, I last visited Rustenberg in 2000.  At that time, the wines showed potential, but were clunky and slightly aggressive, lacking polish and refinement.  Their 1999 Five Soldiers Chardonnay, Rustenberg’s flagship white named after five stone pine trees overlooking the 5 ½-acre vineyard, was overly fruity, oaky and buttery.  In dramatic contrast, the 2008 Five Soldiers ($35, imported by Cape Classics) still has ripe, pineapple-like flavors, but has vibrancy and a subtle use of oak aging that conveys a creamy classiness and elegance.  Rustenberg’s 2006 Peter Barlow ($50) delivers a marvelous combination of black and red fruit flavors, herbs and graphite-like nuances surrounded by polished tannins.  It, like the Five Soldiers, has grace.

What to Plant and Where to Plant It

The next step and current focus, according to Barlow, is “what to plant where,” a refrain I heard all over South Africa.  Experimentation abounds, and the experimenting winemakers are like kids in a candy store.  Schalk-Willem Joubert, cellar master at Rupert & Rothschild, a superb estate in the nearby Franschhoek Valley, explained that within a distance of only a few miles the rainfall varies by 30%, creating vastly different microclimates.  “Unlike Napa Valley, in which at least the valley floor has quite uniform climate, the hills and the mountain ranges and the exposures make the local climate [in South Africa] very different in very short areas.”

A clear benefit from the experimentation has been the emergence of Shiraz/Syrah as a very promising wine.  When I visited South Africa in 2000, I tasted hundreds of wines, but only an occasional Syrah.  Now, Syrah is everywhere.  And for good reason.  The grape has the potential to make a unique wine in South Africa, combining the plumy, dark fruit nature of warm weather Syrah with the gamey and peppery notes associated with cool climate Syrah.

Stellenbosch, generally a warm area, is, like Napa Valley, highly regarded for its Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rustenberg, best known for their terrific Cabernets, took a risk when they planted Syrah in 2000.  Barlow’s team took advantage of elevation and a seemingly persistent cooling breeze and planted Syrah on a ridge between 650 and 1,000 feet.  It paid off.  Their 2008 Shiraz ($30) is marvelous, fulfilling the potential of the varietal in South Africa precisely because it delivers a balanced combination of ripe fruit and savory nuances.

The renaissance in South African wine is far from complete, which isn’t surprising since it has been less than two decades since the country rejoined the world wine community.  There’s much more to come, including distinctive renditions of Chenin Blanc made from old vines, Viognier and other Rhône varieties from Swartland, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from cool Walker Bay.

It’s exciting to watch new shoots grow from old roots.

February 8, 2011