One of the more pleasing conclusions I’ve come to after years of careful attention to South African wine (and much pleasure and exasperation) is that local winemakers are particularly good at blending varieties, probably because they are, for whatever reason, more interested in doing so than their counterparts in other so-called New World winemaking countries, such as the United States, Australia and Chile.
It’s hard nowadays to realise how unimportant grape varieties were to drinkers a century ago when the Europeans had a virtual monopoly of top-end stuff at least. Although different grape varieties were associated with particular areas (pinot noir and chardonnay in Burgundy, riesling in Germany and shiraz in the Rhône valley), wines were invariably labelled according to their place of origin.
They still are in classic Europe, whereas the dominant practice in newer wine-producing countries is to name wines after the grape varieties used. The latter gained force in the United States 60-odd years ago to help improve the local product by giving an alternative to lazily naming wines after the European regions that producers wanted to kid their customers the wines approximated.
Almost inevitably, though, a vague and unfortunate consumer understanding emerged that if varietalism is desirable then mono-varietalism must be better. If cabernet sauvignon is good then pure cabernet must be best, even though generally it is blended with other varieties in Bordeaux.
In South Africa, though, the list of pure cabernet wines is probably shorter than that of Bordeaux-style red blends. For many producers of both a blend and a mono-varietal wine, the blend is generally the more expensive and prestigious — Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer versus its Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance. And a number of wineries make a positive virtue out of including all five of the main red Bordeaux grapes, some even proudly reflecting this in the wine’s name, such as De Toren Fusion V, Raka Quinary and Constantia Glen 5.
This disposition to blend varieties speaks eloquently of a consciousness of a winemaking history that is long compared to those of most countries outside Europe, and it supports a view of South African wine falling somewhere between the Old and New Worlds in character and aspiration.
It is a good and welcome thing. It means that our winemakers are always particularly open to experimenting with new and traditional combinations of grapes.
Some grapes do resist promiscuity, such as pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling. And ambitious wines from shiraz are less often blended, although it’s happening more now that some fine Swartland wines (Badenhorst, Spice Route Malabar, Sequillo and Lammershoek, for example) are showing another possible way.
Blending of white wines is less customary in the Cape but that too is changing. This category is now arguably the most exciting of all, not only the model borrowed from Bordeaux of mixing sauvignon and semillon but also indigenous blends based on chenin blanc and taking in a number of other varieties. Again the latter is a Swartland-based development – the Sadie Palladius marked the great breakthrough.
It’s all a potent symbol of the kind that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would enjoy – when the will to build new unity out of diversity has such happy results as it does in South African wine.
First published in the Mail & Guardian, 8-14 April 2011