South African vintners understand they're behind the times and working to catch up. As more than one winemaker told me on my recent trip, the isolation and economic sanctions brought about during the nearly 50 years of apartheid that ended in 1994 had grave repercussions.
"You can't make wine if you don't know what the rest of the world is doing," Duncan Savage, winemaker at Cape Point Vineyards in the Western Cape, explained during a tasting of his and others' wines. His wines, particularly the whites, have fared well in Wine Spectator reviews over the years. They were on the flinty side to my taste, clean and refreshing, but short on the kind of fleshiness I find more appealing.
South African winemakers say they feel as if they're in a state of limbo. "It's as if we're in the New World of the Old World, or part of the Old World in the New World," explained Savage.
Two trends brought up by the winemakers I met with caught my attention. One is their emphasis on making long-lived wines, a European tradition that is considered by many to be the best measure of a wine's greatness. Going hand in hand with that thinking is their penchant for wines with low pHs. The whites typically taste tart, even shrill, to me. With reds in particular, the tannins are crisp and edgy. No one talked much about supple textures or ripe tannins. It reminded me of the move afoot in parts of California in which vintners aim to keep alcohol levels between 13 and 14, and sometimes reach down to the high 12s.
The trouble with aiming to make wines that last 40 years isn't the goal but often the technique. Low pH, high-acidity wines may last forever but many seldom offer as much pleasure as wines with more fruit and textural generosity. For a 25-year-old winemaker, making a wine that ages decades might seem compelling. But the modern winemaking styles recognize a riper balance, not low pH or high acidity, as a better marker and result in wines that can be enjoyed earlier and age just as well. The key is how long the window of enjoyment is open, not how long it takes to open.
While low pH, high-acidity wines are less to my liking, I admired what the winemakers were aiming for and, one way or another, the market will tell them how successful they are.