Ninety-nine percent?

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

Ninety nine percent: If that doesn’t say it all? (And raise some questions, too.) This week we get to try a new wine and learn about its origins while drinking and enjoying. So, let’s give it 100 percent and see what we come up with.

Our journey this week takes us to South Africa. The South African wine industry dates back to 1659 when the Dutch East India Company set up a trading post and supply station in what is now Cape Town. Jan van Riebeek, a Dutch surgeon, was a manager at the station. He was responsible, too, for planting vineyards and producing wines. These wines were intended to help sailors on the ships that sailed out from Cape Town to ward off scurvy. Not your usual reason for making wine, but not totally unique either. I’m sure some of us have heard of the medicinal qualities of wine. Right? Anyhow, the first harvest was in 1659.

In the 18th century, much of the wine made in South Africa was exported to England. Constantia — a 1,900 acre estate just outside of Cape Town — was an early success, making superb wines. Despite the ups and downs at this estate, the early reputation of South African wines was established.

By 1859, almost 1 million gallons of South African wines were sent to England, and the Cape Town area had a period of prosperity that lasted until the 1860’s. These export numbers dropped drastically, though, by 1865, to about one 130 gallons. A treaty between France and England lowered the tariffs on French wines going into England. So, yes, their numbers went way up and South Africa lost out. Then, in 1866, phylloxera hit the South African vineyards and it took 20 years for them to recover.

During that 20 years, many grape growers switched to growing orchards and alfalfa. (Alfalfa was used to feed the massive numbers of ostriches, raised for their very fashionable feathers.)  Those who did replant chose high yield varieties, and, by the early 1900’s, more than 80 million vines were planted. And the result? What is called a “wine lake.”  Loads of cheap and not-so-great wine — not considered a good situation. So, in 1918, a co-op (KWV) was started, and its members worked on rules and regulations for growing, winemaking and pricing to help the wine industry re-establish itself. Eventually, toward the end of the 20th century, with the end of Apartheid, South African wines were once more selling around the world and investors were coming into their wineries. The abundance of high yielding varieties was replaced with better quality grapes and better wines returned.

In 1973, South Africa’s “Wine of Origin” (WO) laws were passed. Some of these laws were based on the French “Appellation d’Origine Controllée,” although there are no rules in South Africa about what grapes can be grown where. In addition to establishing areas, these regulations also controlled the accuracy of labels.

Further, four categories of wines were established. Geographical Units were the largest and most generic category. Regions were a bit smaller, then districts and, finally, wards. Wines from a designated ward have the most unique expression of the “terroir” where their grapes were grown. Very similar to other European rating systems, and even to the United States’ AVA system. The smaller the area the grapes come from, the more specific the wines’ flavors and textures, and the more we pay per bottle.

Today, South Africa produces about 300 million gallons per, a number that keeps them in the top ten producers in the world.

Our wine this week comes from the “West Coast” region. Here, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the country, winds, rains and moisture all play a part in the wines made here. While originally known more for bulk wine production, “wine lakers,” in recent years producers here have focused on making premium wines. One hundred percent.

Our region, in the West Coast Unit, is Swartland. Jan van Riebeek, the manager of the original Dutch trading post and supply station in Cape Town, called this western area “Het Zwarte Land,” the Black Land, because of the Renosterbos plants that grew all over the hillsides here. (These “Rhinoceros bushes” are dark colored flowering plants that are related to daisies.)

After the rains, that are mostly in the winter, the large numbers of  bushes appear dark, especially from a distance. They have fine leaf-hairs that cling to their leaves when they’re wet. The wide plains of Swartland are a source for much of the wheat grown in South Africa. The vineyards here start on the plains and move up into the foothills. Vine growing and winemaking in Swartland is relatively young. Conditions are dry and there is minimal irrigation. There is a Swartland Wine Route, like many other wine areas of the world, and the oldest South African hotel, the Royal Hotel, is here.

And, even though younger than most other regions in South Africa, some of the producers here have organized and sponsored the “Swartland Revolution.”  Having grown in stature over the last two decades, and developed wines with variety and complexity, there are now enough wines here to hold a weekend event to showcase them. Hence, the Swartland Revolution.

One of the founders and supporters of the revolution is our winery for this week — AA Badenhorst. Their family wines are made and aged on Kalmoesfontein farm. Two cousins, Hein and Adi Badenhorst, own the property. They come from Constantia where their grandfather worked for 46 years at the Constantia Estate. Both their fathers also worked at the estate. The cousins have restored an old cellar on their Swartland farm that was last used in the 1930’s.

Adi grew up picking grapes at Constantia and worked also in vineyards in Bordeaux, the Rhône and Stellenbosch. In 2008, he bought  just under 150 acres in Paardeberg in Swartland with his cousin Hein. Most of their vines, mostly old bush vines, were planted in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They were Chenin Blanc, Cinsault and Grenache. Now, they grow their grapes sustainably in three different types of granite soils. The vines are not irrigated. Grapes, both red and white, are handled as whole bunches so they do not crush or de-stem.

The white grapes, ours for this week, are transferred immediately into old casks or concrete tanks for fermentation. The Badenhorst Curator White is a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon. Fifty-four percent Chenin, 30 percent Chardonnay and 15 percent Semillon. It is pale medium yellow in color, with aromas of lemon candy, peaches and nectarines, flowers, honey and anise. This wine’s texture is silky with lush finish from the Chardonnay. A great wine for summer evenings, light foods, Asian flavors, sushi, salads, seafood. For $8.99.

But wait! Go back a second. Adding 54 and 30 and 15 only equals 99. That’s only 99 percent of the Curator. What’s wrong? We’re missing a piece of our wine. But, no, we just misplaced it. The last one percent of The Curator was used to make something else — a lovely fragrant soap with special skin softeners. The soap’s yours for $4.99.

So, we do have a full 100 percent. And then some! Enjoy.