There’s more to South Africa than pinotage and chenin

Two online wine tastings remind Peter Ranscombe about the diversity of South Africa’s grapes.

THINK South Africa, think pinotage, the weird offspring of cinsault and pinot noir that’s become the country’s flagship red.

Or perhaps it’s chenin blanc that springs to mind, the Loire stalwart that’s found a new lease of life in the Cape.

Either way, there’s far more to explore in South Africa than its signature red and white, as I was reminded over the past two weeks during a pair of online tastings organised by Diana Thompson at Wine Events Scotland.

Both sessions starred De Wet Viljoen, the winemaker at Neethlingshof in the Stellenbosch region.

Last week’s tasting featured his 2020 Neethlingshof Estate Gewurztraminer (£12.50, Wine Events Scotland), a variety more at home in the Alsace region of France.

Neethlingshof grows all the grapes it uses – a rarity in South Africa – and is the largest estate producer of Gewurztraminer in the country.

It’s a really intriguing style – you’ve got all the lemon sherbet, peach, and rose Turkish delight aromas that you’d expect from Gewurz, but then slightly riper fruit flavours than the Alsatian version.

What they do have in common though is great acidity, balanced here by an almost undetectable seven grams of residual sugar per litre of wine to add balance.

From Alsace to Argentina

Neethlingshof is also South Africa’s biggest single estate producer of malbec, a variety that was associated most closely with Cahors in Southern France in the past, but which has now hit its stride as Argentina’s standard bearer.

The aromas from Viljoen’s 2019 Neethlingshof Estate Malbec (£15) were straying from damp earth and barbecued meat into burnt rubber territory, a note I’d tally with pinotage more than malbec.

It’s much fruiter on the palate though, with raspberry, red plum, and blackcurrant paired with sweet vanilla and dark chocolate.

It was a big hit with the tasters tonight, with its smokiness reminding me of Marks & Spencer’s Zebra View malbec of old.

Malbec will also be one of the grapes under the microscope next month when Thompson’s winemaker series continues with Dona Paula in Argentina.

While Viljoen clearly has a talent when it comes to South Africa’s more unusual varieties, he’s no slouch when it comes to the country’s greatest hits either – I was really impressed with both his other reds tonight.

His 2019 Neethlingshof Estate Pinotage (£15) was a chocolate-lover’s dream, with the dark chocolate, vanilla, blackberry, and black plum aromas all replicated on the palate, and joined by a dusting of mocha.

Its tannin structure was really interesting too – quite grainy and drying, yet ideally suited to barbecued meat.

Harvesting optimism

The 2016 Neethlingshof Estate Shiraz (£15) was a real treat and a steal at the price.

Those extra years ageing in the bottle have helped its chewy tannins to integrate with the concentrated bramble and the sweeter vanilla, cinnamon, and dark chocolate.

Its best feature was the lovely violet note on the nose, with black fruit aromas dominating over the touches of wood smoke and damp earth.

South Africa hasn’t had its troubles to seek during the pandemic, with bans at various points on domestic and export alcohol sales.

That’s why its was so encouraging to hear Viljoen’s optimism over the past fortnight as he begins harvesting his grapes and producing the first bottles of his 2021 vintage – his sauvignon blanc went into bottle today.

Roll on the happier times that lie ahead, particularly so Viljoen’s can return to Murrayfield to watch more rugby.

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, whisky, and beer reviews in his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.