Small volume, big ambition

Since at least 2014, South African vineyards have been dominated by the same seven grape varieties. According to SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems), in descending order of area they are: chenin blanc, colombard (mainly distilling), sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, pinotage, chardonnay.

Consigned to the other end of the official lists are columns for Other White Cultivars and Other Red Cultivars. These account for 3.1% and 3.6% respectively of vineyard area.

Seemingly insignificant in number, they hide some potentially exciting gems, either new or re-discovered. Quantities are currently limited by available fruit or winemakers cautiously testing the market but a few are available internationally.

The meagre 2.53 ha assyrtiko commands has received perhaps a disproportionate amount of social media attention. This renowned Greek white, particularly from Santorini, captured the attention of both Gary and Kathy Jordan in Stellenbosch and Chris and Andrea Mullineux in Swartland; these high-profile producers were the first to plant the variety and release the first two local bottlings in 2022. The wines, favourably received, show the variety’s natural high acidity and citrus, pithy character, which suggest a promising future in our warm climate.

From Greece to the Italian island of Sardinia and vermentino, which was introduced to South Africa by Italians Michaela Sfiligoi and Attilio Dalpiaz under the Ayama label. In 2021 they started Nomoya wines, where vermentino is also part of the range. Spread quite widely across the winelands, the variety’s 12 ha has attracted two other producers: Sakkie Mouton Family Wines Sand Erf in West Coast Koekenaap and Italian-owned Morgenster in Stellenbosch. Both Nomoya and Sakkie Mouton’s wines enjoy intriguing herby, saline distinction.

Austria and grüner veltliner are closely linked. Thys Louw’s love of Austrian white wines, grüner in particular, persuaded him to undertake the red tape of importing vine material and establishing it on his family’s Durbanville farm, Diemersdal. After scoring an immediate hit with his maiden 2013, Thys was encouraged to plant more. A little of the 6.69 ha is grown further afield in Elgin and Paarl.

Palomino rules the Spanish vineyards of Jerez. In the early 20th century it was a major player here too; today only 106 ha remains across the Cape. A few adventurous winemakers are giving it a new lease of life. In Olifants River, John Bouwer’s Gedeelte Wines includes 23 Palomino, a local take on the Spanish original, with its flor veil providing a salty, nutty tang. Francois Haasbroek’s Blackwater Pleasure Garden is made from a 1937 block in Ashton, while Skerpioen, one of Sadie Family Wines celebrated Old Vine series, is a Swartland field blend of palomino and chenin blanc.

Carmenère is native to Bordeaux, but probably most associated with Chile today. Curious as to its potential, the Smuts brothers of Lozarn Wines in Bonnievale, trialed and now regularly bottle a varietal red and rosé carmenère. The balance of 12 ha currently makes its way into blends.

Italian varieties in South African vineyards reflect an enthusiastic Italian wine community. Sangiovese’s 71 ha is shared from Robertson, via Stellenbosch to Hemel-en-Aarde valley. The late Giulio Bertrand of Morgenster was among the first to introduce sangiovese in his Tosca blend. This has been joined by a few varietal wines, often taking on the grape’s sour cherry, savoury distinction.  

These varieties are more than names on labels, they very often have an authentic taste of the original with a South African slant. Something to celebrate even when they are minnows in the vineyards.

- Blog by Angela Lloyd