Cultivars 25 September 2019

There’s a fashion to wine cultivars, despite the life of a vineyard being measured in decades rather than years, and the cost of replacement running to over R500k per hectare. In the 19th century South Africa was semillon and chenin country, with probably no more than 10% of the national vineyard dedicated to other cultivars. In the 1980s, cinsaut, palomino, sultana and chenin blanc accounted for at least 60% of all wine grapes grown in the Cape, with colombard, muscat and clairette blanche contributing at least another 15% to the mix. Cabernet, shiraz and pinotage, together with all other reds, came to under 7%. Now chenin accounts for less than 20%, cabernet, shiraz and pinotage around 30%. Add to this all the other red varieties and today the red component of the national vineyard comes to about 44%.

The primary driver of change is, not unexpectedly, economics: when South Africa started trading in world markets again after 1994 there was very little demand for our white wines but great interest in the reds: farmers uprooted the cultivars which had guaranteed them a stable income in the era when the KWV was the buyer of last resort (namely high yielding whites) and replaced them with varieties which could be sold to supermarkets and multiples abroad.

The problem with relying on “supermarket varieties” – the so-called noble grapes like cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – is that they are often treated as commodities and priced accordingly: the cheapest international source often displaces better wines where the country of origin doesn’t add much to the appeal of the wine. In other words, it’s a trade where the inevitable race to the bottom doesn’t favour South Africa. It’s hardly surprising that smart producers with well-established distribution arrangements are making more adventurous choices when it comes to their latest plantings.

Jordan in Stellenbosch has finally obtained permission to plant assyrtiko, the cultivar which survives in extreme conditions on the Mediterranean volcanic island of Santorini. This decision has been motivated by more than a desire to anticipate climate change and persistent drought scenarios. Gary and Kathy Jordan spent time in the vineyards of Santorini many years ago and have always wanted to see whether this ancient variety could thrive and produce interesting wines in the Cape. They are following the fashion for “mineral” (stony, flinty) whites. So is Nederburg and the Newton Johnsons. Their choice for this style of wine has been the great Galician variety Albarino and their first releases are delicious and worth tracking down.

The cultivar which worldwide has seen the greatest rollercoaster ride however is Grenache. Once it was the most planted red variety in the world, the backbone of many Mediterranean reds as well as the fruit source of some of Australia’s finest fortified wines. Grenache fell out of fashion from the mid-1950s onwards, in some cases supplanted by tempranillo (in Spain), cabernet and merlot, and more recently (especially in the Rhone Valley in France), by shiraz.

Lately it has staged a comeback as growers come to recognise that it yields prolifically long past the normal vine age of many other varieties, and can manage warm dry climatic conditions better than most. Handled properly, grenache does not have to make amorphous dull wine, though the best examples are not “big.” Rather, they manage the almost impossible paradox of intensity with great delicacy. No wonder the French speak of grenache as the “pinot noir of the South.”

In South Africa it’s become a cult cultivar. It was never widely planted so there aren’t many old vineyards still in production. Happily for the Swartland aficionados, the fashionable Piekenierskloof is home to many of them. Ten years ago there were fewer than 10 Cape grenache bottlings: since then the number has trebled. Eben Sadie’s and David & Nadia’s are probably the most sought after, though Neil Ellis, Vriesenhof Piekenierskloof, The Foundry, Spice Route, Welgegund and Painted Wolf are some worth seeking out.

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