South African Wine: Spot the Bontebok, go for an Ostrich ride or sip a cheeky South African Pinot Noir? Personally, I’ll opt for the latter every time!

I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa several years ago. It’s a fascinating and diverse country, where eleven languages are recognised as official, housing ranges from mud huts to palatial gated communities and 20% of the world’s gold is mined there.

Whilst I was there, I travelled a good portion of the main arterial highway through The Garden Route, a highlight for most visitors. It stretches from Heidelberg in the Southern Cape to Storms River Village on the Eastern Cape border.

I still have very vivid memories of a two hour trek in an open jeep trying to spot the elusive Bontebok (species of antelope found only in South Africa). However, I ended up encountering more close ups of Rain spider webs as we drove over bumpy scrubland, than I did of the elusive Bontebok. Big beauties which could clearly give you a heart attack if you’re scared of spiders, but apparently quite harmless, not that I ventured that close to find out.

Thoughts of my close encounter with an Ostrich at a local Ostrich farm, still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. This particular bird had an eye for anything shiny and I still remember it chasing after me for my necklace glistening in the sun.  Absolutely no encouragement from anyone whatsoever, made me want to straddle the beast and let it take me for a walk despite the eager line forming ready to experience the thrill of the ride!

For me, one of the most important features in South Africa is that it has the longest wine route in the world, the famous Cape Route R62. The impressive Cape mountain ranges offer a dramatic backdrop to the quaint fruit, farm and wine producing towns, and the traditional wine growing areas along the coastal zone are seldom more than 50 km from the ocean. The vineyards lie on the valley sides and mountain foothills, benefiting from the many different micro climates offered by the mountainous terrain and diverse terroirs. Cooling breezes blow in from the sea during the afternoon coupled with glorious sunshine makes for perfect coastal conditions and frost is rarely a problem.

Whilst considered a new world wine country, the wine making tradition in South Africa dates back over 350 years to 1659, this was when the first grapes were pressed and South Africa’s wine story began. However, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and 1990s when Apartheid was ended and the world’s export market opened up, that South African wines really began to experience a revival.

By 2003, South Africa owned 1.5% of the world’s grape vineyards and today, its annual grape production now regularly puts the country amongst the top ten wine producing countries in the world.  Most of the wine production in South Africa takes place in the Cape, particularly the southwest corner near the coastal region and unless you are already a convert you may not know this, but South Africa’s most well-known grapes are the white Chenin Blanc and red Pinotage.

Chenin Blanc is a grape originally grown in the Loire Valley – in South Africa it is also known as Steen and is an incredibly versatile grape. Whilst mainly dry wines are produced by volume, excellent off dry and sweet wines are also made.

Pinotage, is a South African creation and it’s a grape that’s often compared with Marmite, you either love it or hate it.  I happen to like it, a lot!

Developed in South Africa in 1926, it’s a grape that derives from a hearty pedigree. Its parents are a combination of Pinot Noir (providing lovely strawberry aromas in young wines), and Cinsault, the southern French grape which adds spice and body.

Going back to the parent grape of Pinotage a fine example of the Pinot Noir grape can be found in the delightful Pinot Noir Reserve 2013 from Cape Chamonix, Franschoek. The grapes were destemmed but not crushed, and fermented in wooden and concrete vats for around 18 days on the skins. The wine was then matured for 15-16 months in 228 litre French Allier barriques, with approximately 60% new oak.With notes of cherry, wild berries, crushed black pepper, cinnamon and violets on the nose. Intense in flavour, it has a silky texture and a long oak influenced finish, which will mellow with time. Simply superb!

What makes this wine even more special is the estate itself. Chamonix is a substantial 300 h/a estate in the trendy Franschoek valley of the Western Cape. It’s both a working wine farm and water bottling plant – a truly stunning setting, with a history stretching back almost 350 years, so it’s almost as old as the birth of winemaking in South Africa itself.

I didn’t make it first trip, but on my next trip to South Africa I will definitely pay a visit! I will put the Bonteboks and Rain spiders on hold, bid a fond farewell to the Ostriches and opt for a glass of Pinot Noir whilst basking in those stunning surroundings.

Published on 14/08/2015 / By Denise Hawes