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Blends key to South African identity

The proliferation of blended expressions from South Africa has been hailed as a sign of winemakers’ confidence and quest to carve a distinct image for the country.

“Out of Africa always something new” read the t-shirts of producers who took part in this Cape Wine seminar on the country’s blends

Boosted by the recent rise in new varieties at their disposal, a new generation of producers is revisiting South Africa’s history of blended wines and creating fresh interpretations, both in terms of region and grape combinations.

Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards was inspired to create a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cinsault blend after tasting a 1961 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon thought to contain a considerable, albeit undeclared, proportion of Cinsault.

“If I can sum it up in one word, it’s ‘identity’”, he said of the desire to create this style of wine. “We’ve grown up to the point where we’re not looking anywhere else in the world now for permission.”

Adam Mason, winemaker at Marvelous Wines, echoed this drive to draw afresh on South Africa’s 350-year winemaking history. “A generation of winemakers has come through the ranks now who are being allowed to play and being allowed to access the cultural treasures of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he remarked. “They’re able to celebrate these wines in a way that would have seemed arrogant before.”

Showing his own modern interpretation of this heritage, Mason blends across both grapes and regions to combine Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Semillon, Viognier, Muscat d’Alexandria and Muscat de Frontignan from Helderberg, Piekenierskloof and the Polkadraai sub-region of Stellenbosch to create his Marvelous Yellow expression.

Marelise Jansen van Rensburg, who worked for eight years at Bot River producer Beaumont Wines before branching out on her own in 2013 with Momento Wines, tracked the relatively recent rise of this confident outlook.

“It was only in late 2007/’08 and ‘09 that people really started to punch in,” she remarked. “That’s when I was learning about wine so I really caught onto that.” Showing her own Chenin/Verdelho blend, she commented: “A Chenin-based blend to me is much more interesting than just a straight Chenin.”

Among the more established producers, Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslaar pointed to blends’ ability to fit changing consumer demand. “Nowadays a lot of wine has moved back to accessability,” he observed.

In line with this shift, he pointed to the brand’s longstanding Kadette expression, first made in 1985 and a blend of Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which retails in the UK for around £12.

“Pinotage really softens up a blend,” Beeslaar said of this South African twist on the classic Bordeaux combination. “It really gives earlier accessibility to a Cabernet blend and makes the wine approachable earlier.”

Another strong, longstanding advocate for his country’s blends is Bruce Jack, head winemaker for Accolade Wines in South Africa, who has spent the last 10 years developing this angle through co-fermentation of different varieties such as Shiraz and Malbec.

“Blending is the thing that’s most exciting thing in the wine industry after trying to pay back bank loans,” he joked.

Jack suggested that the nature of South Africa’s terroir lends an element of blending even when just a single grape variety is used. “Because of our diversified soil and diversified climate, every pocket of vineyard is different,” he remarked. “Diversity is our Achilles heel, but if you can embrace that then you actually start to make wines of great complexity.”

On this basis, Jack identified blends as just one tool in the country’s wider mission to express its individual identity. “The thing we’ve really got to do in South Africa and communicate to the world is that when it comes to the integrity of the wine we make, it’s actually about our own farm and our own climate,” he concluded. “The varieties and techniques are just incidental to expressing that.”

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