A version of this first appeared in Hampshire View, May 2009.
In the last decade (barely the blink of an eye in viticultural terms) something’s been going on around the coastline of South Africa’s Western Cape, where the winelands are concentrated.
The old bureaucratic control boards were disbanded in the mid 1990s, which meant that suddenly, growers could plant grapes wherever they wanted, and there’s been a rush to the coasts to find the most maritime-influenced climates possible.
The variety being planted in these cooler coastal regions is mostly sauvignon blanc. And the flavours in the wines suggest the Kiwis will finally have some competition on the cards for their Marlborough ‘savvies’.
South Africa might be warm to hot in climatic terms, but a combination of moderating maritime and near-maritime influence, plus some skilful management of the vine canopy to shade grape bunches from the heat, while allowing in light for photosynthesis, has resulted in wines with a range of flavours from green-grassy herbaceousness, through zesty citrus fruit, figs and asparagus, into more tropical guava and passionfruit flavours, all with a steely core of freshening acidity vibrating up their backbones. Exactly the sort of stuff we love in the UK, and can’t get enough of from the Kiwis.
One of the things that is making these flavours possible is the cold ocean current called the Benguela current which runs up the west coast of Africa. It’s travelled all the way from the Antarctic. This helps cool down temperatures near the coast. Fryer’s Cove vineyard, 300km north of Cape Town, is right on the windy Atlantic coast, just a few hundred metres from the ocean, while the Darling Hills, about 75km north of Cape Town, are more like 10km inland, and wine producers say they still get cooling westerly breezes coming off the ocean.
Elsewhere, Elgin is about an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. It’s a natural bowl, surrounded on all sides by mountains, and is a heartland of apple and pear production. And now wine. With lots of sauvignon blanc. Elgin Vintners’ sauvignon blanc comes from fruit grown on the undulating valley floor, while Iona’s vineyards are higher on the southern-boarding mountain slopes, nearest to the ocean and both have pristine flavours.
Wind here is also a big feature helping to cool the temperatures, with the typical afternoon southwesterlies cooling the vine climate by 4-5°C up to 15km inland, depending on the local topography, which is pretty hilly. As the land heats up during the day, air rises, pulling in cool breezes off the oceans. But, to liberally mix metaphors, the proof of the pudding is in the wine: see what your think of these:
Majestic: Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Groenekloof, Darling Hills £9.99 when you buy 2 bottles
Stone, Vine & Sun : Fryer’s Cove, Sauvignon Blanc 2008, West Coast, £9.95
Tesco: Elgin Vintners Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Elgin, £9.99
Waitrose: Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Elgin, £9.99