Increasing the varietal spread

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

The 2014 harvest is just around the corner; it’s an opportune moment to have a look at what’s new in South African vineyards, some of them coming into cellars this year.

Eight varieties continue to dominate, headed by Chenin Blanc with, in descending order of importance, Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage and Merlot. These account for just on 83% of the 100 093 hectares of national vineyard.

Despite such dominance, there are many other varieties which add greater interest to the spectrum of our wines out of proportion to their small plantings.

One white variety, keenly awaited by Rhône fans, joining others this year is Marsanne. This is the third of major white grapes grown in both northern and southern Rhône to be introduced here; the others are Viognier and Roussanne. Both of the latter are well-established but Marsanne will add to the palette of flavours, especially in the so-called Mediterranean-style wines. It shouldn’t be a surprise to read the Swartland and its adjoining ward of Voor-Paardeberg are where Marsanne has been planted on two sites, covering just over four-and-a-half hectares. These two areas are among the best known for those Mediterranean-style whites. How Marsanne influences them remains to be tasted but, undoubtedly, it will be watched with interest.

In the past, South Africa has looked mainly to France with a nod to Italy and Portugal (mainly Port varieties) when considering new varieties; Spanish varieties have received scant attention. There’s a little Tempranillo but, until recently, no Spanish white varieties. Two years ago or so, that changed with the introduction of Albariño (or the Portuguese version, Alvarinho, as the grape straddles the northern Spanish/Portuguese border). This was at the instigation of the Newton Johnson family in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Although they are better known for their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, the Newton Johnsons have always liked Albariño, not least because its aromatics and freshness go so well with their favourite seafood.

Having gone through the lengthy and arduous process of finding, importing and growing the vines (they grafted over half a hectare of Syrah), 2013 saw the first harvest of Newton Johnson Albariño, all eight litres of it!

Just before Christmas, they invited a few media friends to share their maiden wine preceded by some Spanish examples from the Rias Baixas region that winemakers, Gordon and wife Nadia Newton Johnson, had selected.

Perhaps what surprised us most was Albariño’s ability to produce very different styles; from semi-sweet, everyday drinking, in blends, in a more oxidative style with extended lees contact to a botrytised, dry wine. Prices too were varied; from €6.90 rising to €36.90.

There was slightly more consistency in their flavour profiles: herbs, spice (though all were unoaked) and an unusual saline character.

They proved a useful preliminary to the local wine which, pleasingly, also showed some of the same herbs, spice and salinity.

But there are still hurdles to jump before we see any Albariño available from cellar doors or retail shelves. The Wine and Spirit Board’s technical committee and the Vine Improvement Association have to give a positive recommendation before application is made to the Department of Agriculture to add the variety to the list of those permitted for wine production as well as the Wine of Origin scheme. Judging by our experience, there shouldn’t be too many problems in obtaining technical approval; the Newton Johnson’s wine shows good typicity.

The good news is Albariño isn’t the only variety to be introduced to South African soil recently. Keeping climate change in mind, small quantities of Mencia from Spain, Assyrtiko, Xinomavro and Agiogirtiko from Greece were planted in the Swartland last winter. It will be another two or three years before they bear sufficient fruit to produce wine and then go through the process described above before becoming more widely available.

But it’s all good news for broadening the spectrum not only in South African vineyards but in the wines themselves.

– Angela Lloyd