Pretty much everyone agrees that the Cape wine industry is a vastly different proposition today compared with the 1990s. We take this for granted, having witnessed its achievements close-up and on an on-going basis over the period. It’s a little like being aware of – rather than tracking – the minutiae of your kids growing up. You’re certainly more conscious of change when your exposure to it follows extended absences. You don’t expect to recognise your cousin’s children – who have been living feral in the Appalachians – when you see them for the first time in two decades.
This is what happens to our sense of “foreign” wines – meaning, most particularly wines which were less known (or understood) when we first encountered them, and which have remained largely beyond our ken ever since. This is most obviously true of Central and Eastern European wines. There were very few to be found in South Africa before the Wall came down, and not many more now, 30 years later.
Spain isn’t quite as alien or exotic as Slovenia or Georgia, but it’s also not the heart of the Medoc. There’s been decent Rioja in South Africa for more than 50 years, and sherry has been part of the wine scene in South Africa probably since the British arrived for the Battle of Muizenberg. Today there are probably 150 different Spanish wines available, from three or four different importers. Sherry, sadly, has suffered the massive attrition. Once upon a time no decent establishment could operate without Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Now you simply cannot find it anywhere. Tio Pepe – the best known of the dry and delicate Finos – is still available, together with a range of all the special premium bottlings from Gonzalez Byass. There is also a small range from Lustau, while Douglas Green continues to source its own brand from a bodega in Jerez.
Very people South Africans give this most extraordinary of beverages the attention it deserves. Dry sherry evolves in cask under a blanket of white indigenous yeast (called “flor”) which converts it biologically – as opposed to oxidatively – from a young, slightly sour wine to a stony, nutty and intensely complex refreshing aperitif. Small though the market is, there are occasional supplies of “en rama” (unfiltered) and select single casks. Few cost more than R500, except for the richer, more intense styles – amontillado, oloroso and Pedro Ximinez – but then they will have been in cask for at least 30 years.
On the wine front there are several different brands from Rioja. These include Muga, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Riscal, (pretty much the original producer from a region developed in the second half of the 19th century by Bordeaux growers fleeing the plagues of oidium and phylloxera) and Beronia. All share in common the characteristically vanilla-and-coconut notes derived from American oak barrels, all are made predominantly from tempranillo grapes, all are savoury, dry and never heavier than medium-bodied. The same variety accounts for most of the reds from the Ribera del Duero, a region which is home to Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s truly legend wines. You will need at least R2k to buy a youthful example of the “Valbuena” and more than double that for the more famous “Unico.”
There are other regions (such as Priorat), styles (such as Cava) and a variety of cultivars fighting to get a look into the South African market: godello and mencia from Bierzo, grenache (known as garnacha) and tempranillo from old vineyards in the north, with some fine examples sold – literally for a pittance – at Checkers, and perhaps, most interestingly, albarino from Rias Baixas in Galicia. This last mentioned is Spain’s answer to Chablis: crisp, flinty and dry – the perfect accompaniment to prawns and oysters. Fresh and with lovely intensity, it has inspired several South Africa producers to plant experimental blocks and to give us an alternative to unwooded chardonnay and aggressively green sauvignon blanc.