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Cape embraces grape exploration

South Africa is seeing a dramatic rise in newly imported grape varieties as producers seek options that will secure the most sustainable future for their specific region.

Nico Spreeth, CEO of grape vine nursery Vititec, told a seminar audience at Cape Wine 2015 that following extensive work to clean up and propagate its existing plant material South Africa has brought in 60 new clones or cultivars since 2007.

This drive – part of a wider innovation drive over the last two decades – has been aided by a faster quarantine process, which now takes just one year instead of seven years as was previously the case.

These new arrivals include not only a significant focus on French grapes such as Sauvignon Gris, Caladoc, Counoise, Marsanne, Petit Manseng, Roussanne and Picpoul Blanc, but also varieties from across southern Europe in the form of Lledoner Pelut (a mutation of Grenache), Vermentino, Assyrtiko, Mencia, Albariño and Agiorgitiko.

Chairing the discussion, South African viticulturalist Rosa Kruger observed: “The challenge is to make sure we plant in the right place and don’t plant, say, Mencia in Swartland. But we have to be careful – who would have thought that Chenin Blanc from the Loire would do so well there?”

Noting considerable interest in Assyrtiko from producers in Stellenbosch, Kruger also stressed the potential for these new varieties in other areas, including some that have yet to build a reputation for high quality viticulture.

“I think some of the best sites in South Africa haven’t been planted – just look at the outstanding Grenache in Piekenierskloof,” she remarked. “But at the moment grapes are in competition with apples, pears and other soft fruit. This is pioneer work.”

The exploration of these alternative varieties, which is running in parallel with many South African producers’ drive to rehabilitate the country’s most historic but under-rated grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Cinsault, Grenache and Muscat of Alexandria, is already filtering into the commercial sphere.

Durbanville producer Diemersdal is seeking to develop its offer beyond the region’s Sauvignon Blanc focus with the release of a Grüner Veltliner, planted here in 2009, which the winery claims is the first commercial example of this grape in South Africa.

Meanwhile one of the country’s biggest producers, KWV, is using its experimental range The Mentors to identify grapes that could be suited to larger scale production. Leading candidates at the moment include Grenache Blanc and Petit Verdot.

Marco Ventrella, chief viticulturalist for the company acknowledged that Grenache Blanc was not a new variety for the Cape; however, he noted: “In the past it was taken for brandy production but we’ve found that Grenache Blanc holds its acidity fantastically well, especially in warmer climates.”

What’s more, continued Ventrella, “It ages well and seems to retain that freshness on the palate.” Describing Grenache Blanc as offering “a departure from the very aromatic Sauvignon Blancs and fruity Chenins,” he suggested: “It hits a real sweet spot of freshness with a mineral feel.”

At present KWV works with just nine hectares of Grenache Blanc, but Ventrella confirmed: “We’re planting more as we speak; it’s something we’d like to see more of.”

Viticulturalist Rosa Kruger sets the scene for the Cape’s exploration of new varieties

One producer taking a serious look at the potential for some of South Africa’s most recently arrived grape varieties is Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines in Swartland, who is vinifying experimental parcels of grapes such as Verdelho, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko.

He praised the stylistic versatility of Verdelho depending on soil or barrel influence, noting its particular advantage in Swartland where “we can pick before the heatwave so we don’t get that drop out of 3g/l acid.”

Turning to Assyrtiko, Sadie drew a parallel between the latitudes of Greece and South Africa, as well as the significant wind influence in both parts of the world. After just one vintage’s experience with the variety, he declared: “Assyrtiko is definitely a grape that is going to resonate with our soils, wind and sun.”

Sadie also praised fellow Greek variety Agiorgitiko, which he has planted near Paarl, as a grape that “ticks many boxes”, noting: “I love the texture”. Meanwhile he highlighted to potential for Mencia in cooler regions such as Elgin, suggesting: “Mencia is like Pinot Noir but with more tannins. It’s an amazing grape.”

Putting South Africa’s expanding palette of grape varieties into perspective, Sadie observed: “Europe is a really tiny place but there are 2,000 varieties that they need to make that small, diverse space come to life. That’s why we must push on with new varieties.”

He observed that a number of these recent arrivals were currently disappearing into blends while winemakers developed their understanding of their character and potential as a standalone expression.

“It takes time to know these grapes,” explained Sadie. “We should have done this a long time ago but there aren’t huge dollar signs on this so you need to do it out of conviction.”

Above all, he stressed: “You can’t plant what sells; you have to plant what belongs. It’s the only way for a sustainable future.”

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