Thursday, 3 July 2008

Out of Africa ...

It has been a while since the Club President has graced South Africa, much has changed.

Drinking South African wine used to feel almost like a charitable act. In apartheid years it was competently industrialised, but no one drank it in this country for fun. To celebrate liberation we tried to overlook earthy reds and fairly fresh whites in the name of progress. The white wines, all agreed, led by Sauvignon Blanc,crept ahead of the reds. Then in the mid-90s came the shock (I can still remember it) of a totally convincing Chardonnay. Then more surprising still a Pinot Noir better than California’s. Then a series of Cabernets cleansed of earth and iron, juicy, full of ripe currants: the very thing.

I missed the action on the ground, I’m afraid. Shamefully I stayed away for 20 years.I hadn’t much enjoyed my early visits, and there was too much to keep up with elsewhere. South America, not to mention Australasia, loomed larger. I found out just how much I was missing in March this year.

We rented a little house on a big beach in Walker Bay, long famous for its whale-watching (the monsters jump so close inshore they can soak you with their splashes) but only recently famous for its wines. The Walker Bay coast, and the Hemel en Aarde valley leading inland, are Africa’s first Côted’ Or: the grapes of Burgundy ripen here, seawind-cooled, to the same racy, pitched-upflavours. Go-faster acidity is the secret; fresh when they are new, long on the palate, and keeping them zinging until mellowness sets in. Few seem to avoid the corkscrew for that long.

My corkscrew was busy day and night. I Googled before the trip to find a wine merchant with a good range and found The Wine Village in Hermanus. John and Erica Platter, who have helped me for nearly 30 years with my Pocket Wine Book (their own annual guide is South Africa’s standard work) came down from Durban to show us the ropes. My brother, son and other friends from England lent their palates to the task. We hardly found a bottle of wine we didn’t want to finish.

Yes, there are well-established classics. The classic of Walker Bay is Hamilton Russell, the pioneer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard Finlay son is equally established and respected and their neighbour Newton Johnson, we found, makes Chardonnay at least as well as either. They have to keep pedalling hard, though, with half a dozen serious challengers on their doorstep. Nor are the Burgundian grapes the only ones to benefit from the sea-cooled conditions.Cabernet Sauvignon finds it too cool, but Cabernet Franc, the key grape of St Emilion and the Central Loire, finds its brighther by/minty flavours here. And one surprise was to find a farmer whose father came from Madeira growing Verdelho to make what almost amounts to Vinho Verde. Super-fresh white with a prickle at a mere 11% of alcohol was precisely what we needed for our lunches in the shade.

The most famous vineyards of the Cape lie across the mountains inland from Walker Bay, round Stellenbosch (which feels the sea wind from False Bay) and, higher in the encircling hills, the achingly fashionable St Helena of South Africa, Franschoek. Never having crossed the formidable Coast Range before we set out inland in a direct line north for Franschoek, to find mountain mists among crags worthy of Macbeth. The long windingpass brings you steeply down to a settlement devoted entirely to the stomach: cafes and restaurants without number.There is a Napa Valley air about the fields,but the farms, immaculate, their curving gables pipe-clayed like a Royal Marine’s helmet, have no rivals for crisp and seemly beauty. Nor has their setting of raw rock: crags stark against the sky or trailing long tresses of white clouds. Franschoek has a smattering of French names: Dieu Donné, Cabrière, LaMotte, Mont Rochelle, L’Ormarins. The flavour of Stellenbosch is resolutely Dutchand its manor houses earlier in date, most of them, than the châteaux of the Médoc. Meerlust, Rustenberg, Stellenzicht,Mulderbosch, Neetlingshof, Blaauklippen, Rust en Vrede are the future Rauzansand Pichons and Léovilles, I like to think,of the Cape.

Their destiny, I feel pretty sure, is Cabernet tempered by Merlot: the Médoc recipe. Like Napa wineries they routinely partner it with generous, well-oaked Chardonnay. Somemake fine Syrah; almost everyone feels bound to plant some Pinotage. Pinotage is the Cape’s own cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, prolific and pungent. One example I tried, expensively pruned for a small crop and raised in French oak, smelt of Turkish Delight, geraniums, ginger… ‘Paint’ is the conventional more humdrum comparison. It has its enthusiastic constituency, certainly,but I fear it does South Africa no favours.

The other grape that the country can almost call its own, so much has it planted and so thoroughly is it integrated, is Chenin Blanc. As the nation’s workhouse white before more alluring alternatives came along (and before Chardonnay even had an entry visa) it was used for Cape sherry, brandy and brews of allsorts – often under the nom de verre of Steen. Happily there is still lots of it, because a careful winemaker can easily make it into the sort of fresh but four square white perfect with fish, and a talented one canfocus its stony white-fruit character assomething deeply satisfying. My view won’t please lovers of Sauvignon Blanc, but after the nasal assault and the gooseberry acidity of these fashionable creations, Chenin brings you back to oenological essentials: balance, mouth - filling substance, andharmony with food.

A surprise, to our party, was how far the Cape has progressed with its champagne method (if I’m still allowed to say that) bubblies. ‘Méthode Cape Classique’ is the official formula. We found at least half a dozen that pressed all the right buttons, a process with no pain at all, either gastronomic or financial. The most we ever paid for any wine, and that a mature vintage of one of the Cape’s finest Cabernets, was £35.

If there is one iconic estate that every visitor should see it is Vergelegen, one of the closest to Cape Town and the country property of the first Dutch governor, Simon van der Stel. The 17th Century mansion, its furniture, its gardenand park with magnificent trees epitomizes the early civilization of the Cape. The modern winery, sparkling white above its vines overlooking False Bay, epitomise the future.And the wines, from bubbly to Chardonnay to what tastes to me extraordinarily like claret, send out a clarion message: South Africa has arrived.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President

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