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Supporting wine makers in South Africa

By Richard at Great Grog

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Wine makers in South Africa need our support.
Wine makers in South Africa need our support.

Here at Grog we are huge fans of South African wine and have over the years forged close links with some of our favourites.

As many of you know, our own Handmade Wines were created on a pretty epic trip over a decade ago in partnership with Danie Steytler (extremely talented fourth-generation wine maker, tip-top host and legendary ex Grog van driver) from Kaapzicht Estate.

South Africa in many ways considers itself ‘Old World’ as it has been making wines for more than three centuries, when in 1652 the Dutch East India Co set up a stopping point in Cape Town. The first wine was produced in 1659 and, despite some troubled periods along the way, they have been making wine ever since.

The Dutch were not wine makers by trade, so it took the arrival of the Huguenots in the late 1600s to really start making progress in terms of quality.

Economic conditions, Phylloxera, wars, and even a shortage of oak barrels, have all played a part in creating difficulties over the years. The creation of the government-backed KWV in 1918 which fixed grape prices, encouraged improvements in viticulture and vinification techniques as well as limited yields led to a huge increase in quality of wine and, by the 1950s, it was streets ahead of its ‘New World’ counterparts.

For most of the 20th century these wines weren’t seen outside the country with the exception of “Port” and “sherry” styles, and only when export bans were lifted with the end of Apartheid did they begin to enter the world stage. Having said that, a secret contact in the wine trade once told us that all the great value, flavour-packed Bulgarian wine we drank in the 80s actually came from a little further away!

South Africa’s most planed white variety is Chenin Blanc. Originally from the Loire valley in France, it suits the climate here brilliantly and can produce anything from easy going daily gluggers to serious, intense, textured wines made from old vines. Our own Handmade Chenin is a prime example of a brilliant daily drinking wine of character.

Although the most planted red variety in South Africa is Cabernet Sauvignon, it is Pinotage that has become its signature grape. Created specifically for the climate in 1925 by Abraham Perold, it is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault; traditionally called Hermitage in South Africa.

The result wasn’t quite what he expected. Rather than a light, juicy wine, it produced a grape that was deep and intense with big tannins, it was also a highly prolific grower. This led to over-production for many years making its name synonymous with low quality, dull wines that quite often were reminiscent of nail polish.

A focus on low yields and careful wine making has increased quality over the last couple of decades and you can now find some stunning examples that are intense and bold with flavours of plum, liquorice, chocolate, tobacco, smoke and roiboos with well-integrated tannins.

Many years of drought, a troubled government and now Covid bringing about a ban on domestic sales of alcohol (which for five weeks also included all exports), the industry has been brought to its knees. As many as 80 wineries are expected to close along with the loss of over 18,000 jobs.

It is thought that on average, most vineyard workers (generally permanent staff in South Africa unlike other regions) support four family members, making this a particularly dire situation.

Fifty per cent of all wine produced in South Africa is exported, so the best thing we can do to help right now is to buy their wine – that’s our excuse anyway! – which is no hardship, as they produce some truly stunning wines.

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