What’s old is new for one South African wine

By Celia Strong

The featured wine of the week is a white that’s been around for a long time, but now introduces a new version. So, what’s old is truly new. So, let’s kick into travel mode, and off we go to South Africa.

The wine industry in South Africa dates back to the time of the Dutch East India Company and the supply station that they built where today’s Cape Town is located. The person put in charge of managing that supply station was surgeon Jan van Riebeeck. Part of that managing included planting vineyards and making wines that were used to help ward off scurvy. All the sailors coming ashore from all the spice route trading ships that stopped at the station were not always healthy.

The first harvest and crush were in 1659. Van Riebeeck’s successor, Simon van der Stel, worked to improve the quality of these wines. Also, he bought 1,900 acres just outside Cape Town, and established the Constantia wine estate. This is generally considered to be the first winery of South Africa. Unfortunately, when van der Stel died, the estate deteriorated drastically, but was revived in 1778 when it was bought by Hendrik Cloete. The excellent reputation of Constantia at that point gave most of Europe a positive attitude toward South African wines and the industry grew quite a bit for almost 100 years. But, phylloxera infested their vineyards in 1866, and many growers gave up winemaking.

For a while, orchards and alfalfa fields were developed, and large ostrich farms, for ostrich feathers. When grapes were replanted, high producing varieties like Cinsault were more prominent. (We must remember this variety from the Rhône Valley was crossed with Pinot Noir, in South Africa, to make their unique, red variety Pinotage.)

By the early 1900s, there were more than 80 million vines planted again, creating what is known as a “wine lake,” too much of usually not too good juice. Some growers even dumped juice and wine into rivers and streams. What saved things was the KWV, a co-op formed by the South African government which ended up setting prices, yields for vineyards, and other controls.

For most of the 20th century, South Africa’s wines did not get much attention, partly because of inconsistent quality, partly because of inconsistent availability, and partly (to say the least) as a response to their Apartheid system. Toward the last 10 to 20 years of the 20th century, when Apartheid was discontinued, wine markets around the world opened to South African wines. “Flying winemakers,” as they were called, spent time in their vineyards, bringing with them knowledge, skills and experience and more sellable varieties like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

In 1990, only 30 percent of the grapes grown were made into wines. The rest were used for making brandy, grape juice or thrown away. In contrast, by 2003, 70 percent were used to make wine. We are now seeing the great results of all this progress.

In 1973, the Wine of Origin legislation, WO, was written as a control for label accuracy and regions for South African wines were established. Skipping to our region for this week’s wine, we can look at the Stellenbosch region. This is the second oldest region in South Africa and produces about 14 percent of the country’s total wine. Stellenbosch is located about 28 miles from Cape Town, and vineyards were first planted there in 1679. The Helderberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch Mountains surround the region. (And, sort of, helped name our wine.) The climate is influenced by nearby False Bay. Their summer growing season (January, February, March — Southern Hemisphere is the opposite of ours) has temperatures that hold around 68 degrees — a temperature that is just a bit warmer than in Bordeaux, France. Soils in the vineyards are decomposed granite on the hillsides and sandy, alluvial loam on the valley floors.

Backing up for a moment, Stellenbosch is the name of a region, and a town. The town Stellenbosh was founded in 1679 by Governorn Simon van der Stel. The name “Stellenbosch” actually means “(van der) Stel’s bush.”  The town grew quickly, due in part to its location on the banks of the Eerste River. In 1682, it became an independent local authority, with a magistrate with jurisdiction over 97,000 thousand square miles. Besides lots of oak trees that were planted to decorate the city, there was also system of furrows from the river designed to run water into the town. It seems the Dutch settlers were skilled in hydraulics.

Some Huguenot refugees settled in Stellenbosh in 1690, planted vineyards and, soon, Stellenbosh was the center of the South African wine industry. The first school was opened in 1683. And the oldest girls’ school in the country was opened here in 1860. A gymnasium, established in 1866, became Victoria College and then the University of Stellenbosch in 1918 — all fairly progressive except for the Apartheid system.

During the second Boer War, 1899 to 1902, the town of Stellenbosch was one of the British military bases. The expression “to be Stellenbosched” came to refer to officers who were re-sent out from here when they had not distinguished themselves in battle the first time. Eventually, this expression referred to any soldier who was forced into a second chance to prove himself, from anywhere, not just Stellenbosch. I wonder if its was ever a phrase for wine?

Our Stellenbosch wine is called Blouberg. See the “berg” ending in the name? The name refers to the blue tinged mountains (bergs) that surround the area. We have the Blouberg white wine, a blend of 60 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 20 percent Sémillon and 20 percent Riesling.

The first thing you notice about this wine is its different bottle shape. Same size, 750 ml, just a neat shape. Partly, this unique bottle is meant to let us know that Blouberg is meant to be a fun wine. Easy drinking and yet versatile and appealing to both new and experienced wine drinkers. They say it was inspired by Portuguese Vihno Verde — a crisp, light bodied, almost spritzy white wine.

This wine is made from grapes that are grown throughout the Western Cape, in a variety of soils that include decomposed granite and Kroonstad. The vines were planted in 1992 and 1994, and they grow on south and southwest facing slopes. These grapes are harvested by hand and the juice is started fermenting for five days on their skins. Then, they are pressed and fermentation is finished, without the skins. Malolactic fermentation follows, and 10 percent of the wine is aged in oak.

Blouberg white is known for its slight greenish tinted color and it lovely lemon nuances. (Sémillon does that.) Dry but not puckery, it is great for sipping and pairs well with foods like Asian dishes, sushi, light seafoods, salads and white pizzas.

So what’s old and what’s new? A long time ago, Blouberg white was made from Chenin Blanc-Steen in South Africa. But new is good. Really, new is better. So come to the new!  And be “Stellenbosched!” For $8.99. Enjoy.

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