This week’s column is being filed from the Western Cape wine region in South Africa, about five days into my current trip, which marks my first time setting foot on the continent.
Along with a small handful of wine writers from Quebec and Ontario, I’ve been brought here by the Wines of South Africa promotional organization to get a close look at what’s happening here.
So. Let’s set the scene.
The landscape is lush, with rolling hills covered in vineyards and multicoloured flowers and foliage that are mostly alien to me. Each region I’ve visited is noisy with the whistles, warbles, and calls of various birds, and the skittering of insects, all of them unrecognizable as well. There has been drought for years, straining vineyards and all aspects of life, and the sociopolitical climate I’ve witnessed seems far removed from apartheid-era grief, with many cultures intertwining merrily in business and pleasure. The Dutch and British colonial influences are still strong, in architecture and language (the Afrikaans language borrows heavily from Dutch), and also in the cuisine, where hearty meats and stews are often accompanied by strong cheeses and rich sauces.
With this kind of food being common, wines with heft are often expected, and there are certainly plenty of them to be had here. That said, what I’ve encountered during the past few days is an energy among winery proprietors and winemakers to make pristine wines with freshness and elegance and to distance themselves from the rich and gloopy cheap wines that made waves around the globe a couple decades back.
At the forefront of premium South African wine is Anthony Hamilton Russell, who took over his father’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Hamilton Russell Vineyards winery in the 1990s, taking it from a multivarietal portfolio to one specifically focusing on (squint and it could be Burgundy) Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. An elegant and classy gent, he’s kinda the James Bond of the industry here, with a keen sense of quality, a boatload of charisma, and—as he mentioned while giving a tour of his cellar—a penchant for “wines of relevance and consequence”.
Extensive soil research, low yields, and the precise hand of winemaker Emul Ross have resulted in wines that are sophisticated odes to this breezy, cool-climate region. Sure, they’re pricey (we’re looking at $60 to $80 and above at private stores like Everything Wine and Marquis Wine Cellars), but wines of their quality and stature would run in the hundreds were they originating from Burgundy.
That punching above one’s weight class doesn’t just happen at the higher tier of pricing. I was absolutely smitten during my visit to DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch, where biodiversity, a variety of distinct soil types, a focus on sustainability, and quirky touches like baroque and classical music playing throughout the vineyard and cellars make for wines of lovely nuance and quality.
Take DeMorgenzon DMZ Chardonnay 2017 from Stellenbosch, a mere $22.49 at B.C. Liquor Stores. Seriously, it’s such a killer value. From vines steeped in granite and sandstone soils, the wine comes from various lots, individually fermented, then blended and aged in a mix of stainless steel and French oak. The fruit is citrus-driven, with light tropical edges bringing forward guava and star fruit, and a generous acid and mineral core making things nice and juicy. A hell of a charmer.
And the Chenin Blanc. Oh, the Chenin Blancs of South Africa! It’s one of the only countries seriously focusing on the pear-and-honey-laden white variety, and they’re often so full of cheer. Look no further than Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2018 from Stellenbosch ($21.99, B.C. Liquor Stores) to get a good idea of the heights this grape can hit. Jasmine blooms in the aromatics, while the palate enjoys a touch of toasty brioche along with plenty of apples and Asian pears.
In my next column, we’ll dive deeper into South African wines—a wider array of varieties—and geek out with some unique food-pairing suggestions.