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South Africa Diary: Back to the Cape

Six years later, a return visit to South Africa's vineyards and wineries
Photo by: Jaco Le Roux
Helderberg Mountain looms over Stellenbosch, the Cape's premier winegrowing region.

Posted: Jan 16, 2013 12:30pm ET

Update: To follow James Molesworth's entire South Africa trip, including his tasting notes from each winery, see the day-by-day listing at the bottom of this page.

I'm loading up on espresso in the Swiss Air lounge, waiting for my flight to Johannesburg and then on to Cape Town. It's my first trip to South Africa since 2007, and it's safe to say things have changed since then.

The country's vineyard base has grown 20 percent since 1994, when the end of apartheid brought new opportunity to a wine industry that has a long history of production but had been cut off from the world during the country's politically difficult times. South Africa's wine exports have continued to grow, setting a record with 417 million liters of wine sent abroad in 2012, according to Wines of South Africa, the non-profit organization responsible for promoting the country's wines. Much of that is bulk wine, but there's also growth in the premium bottled wine category. Despite the number of growers dropping since my last visit, from 4,000 to 3,500, the number of operating wineries has crept up, from 560 to 582, according to South Africa Wine Industry Information & Systems, a wine industry–funded body which tracks statistics.

Total exports to the U.S. continue to hover around 1 million cases—small vis-à-vis other countries or even individual labels such as Australia's Yellow Tail—but there's plenty of good wine to choose from if you're willing to dig around in the marketplace.

Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc continue to lead the way in general for South African wines, along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. These blue-chip varietals should be familiar to American wine lovers, making exploration of South African wine relatively easy. Regulations on production, including origin and grape blends, are strict as well, so when you see something listed on the label, you know what you're getting. The most difficult thing about South African wine might be trying to say Boekenhoutskloof three times fast. No worries though if you can't. The wine is good.

If you're new to South African wine, you can get caught up on with our ABCs of the Cape. And you can reference my tasting report from last year to get caught up on the best South African wines currently in the U.S. market

I'll be traveling around the Cape for the next two weeks, visiting wineries throughout Stellenbosch, the Cape's wine center, as well as Paarl, the frontier-like Swartland, lush verdant sector of Constantia and out to Walker Bay and beyond. They drive on the left side of the road on the Cape, so I've hired a driver. That way I can focus on the vineyards and the people behind the wines rather than fiddling with a GPS. For the next few weeks I'll be out in the vineyards kicking the dirt and getting to know what goes into the wines, technically and spiritually, via the producers who put the hard work in. So follow along here on the blog for notes on the producers I visit with, along with my Twitter and Instagram feeds for additional snippets, pictures and occasionally witty one-liners. As always, if you have questions, post them here or to my forthcoming blogs and I will try to get back to everyone in due time.

I'm excited for this trip. In the words of Rakim, "It's been a long time." Not only can't I wait to see how things have changed, but I'm looking forward to my first kudu steak in a few years. As they say on the Cape, it should be lekker good.

James Molesworth's South Africa Diary

Get tasting notes and more from each winery James Molesworth visits in South Africa by following his WineSpectator.com members-only blog.

Day 1: Thelema
Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth made his first stop in South Africa at Thelema to tour the vineyards and taste with winemaker Rudi Schultz. In a video, Schultz explains how the cover crop works in the vineyards.

Day 1: Bartinney
Following his visit to Thelema, Molesworth crossed the road to Rose Jordaan's Bartinney winery on Banhoek Mountain, where winemaker Ronell Wiid continues improving the wines at this up-and-coming Stellenbosch winery.

Day 1: Reyneke
Johan Reyneke gives Molesworth and up close and personal look at his estate's biodynamic techniques, including the old barrels full of e-mail-eating earthworms.

Day 2: Glenelly
Molesworth begins his second day on the Cape with a visit to May-Eliane de Lencquesaing's Glenelly, where the young operation is improving by the vintage under the winemaking skills of Bordeaux-trained Luke O'Cuinneagain.

Day 2: De Morgenzon
De Morgenzon winemaker Carl van der Merwe thinks the South African wine industry is too concerned with following trends and says the Cape will only succeed by leading the way with the distinct wines it makes best, Chenin Blanc and Syrah in particular.

Day 2: Raats Family Wines
Vintner Bruwer Raats is experimenting with viticultural techniques seen nowhere else on the Cape.

Day 3: Kanonkop
South Africa's signature red grape variety, Pinotage, makes a tough wine to love, but winemaker Abrie Beeslaar at Kanonkop is surprising critics with his pure, focused expressions of Pinotage.

Day 3: Rust en Vrede
Molesworth visits one of the Cape's top red wine estates, Rust en Vrede (now home to one of South Africa's best restaurants as well), and tastes a lineup of exciting Cabernets and Syrahs with winemaker Coenie Snyman and owner Jean Engelbrecht.

Day 3: Ernie Els Wines
Golfer Ernie Els' Stellenbosch estate continues to expand, with experienced Cape winemaker Louis Strydom overseeing the day-to-day operation.

Day 4: De Trafford
At the top of one of the Cape's most jarring roads lie some of its most compelling wines.

Day 4: Ken Forrester
An afternoon tasting Cape Chenin Blancs and Rhône-style reds with the charming, bow-tied Ken Forrester.

Day 5: Boekenhoutskloof
At Boekenhoutskloof in Franschoek, the most compelling wine comes from mutated 111-year-old Sémillon vines, which produce both red and white grapes.

Day 5: Anthonij Rupert
Johann Rupert's renamed L'Ormarins estate is making world-class wine.

Day 6: Mullineux
In the Swartland, a new brand of winemakers is shaking things up, including Chris and Andrea Mullineux.

Day 6: A.A. Badenhorst Family
Adi Badenhorst is a fun-loving, mutton chop–sideburned, pony-tailed cowboy with a hipster vibe, barrel chest and a constant, infectious laugh. If anyone embodies the free-wheeling spirit of the Swartland, it's Badenhorst.

Day 6: Sadie Family
Eben Sadie marches to his own beat, and his new lineup of single-vineyard wines are each unique on the Cape.

Day 7: Marc Kent
The Boekenhoutskloof winemaker has a new Syrah project in the Swartland's untamed Porseleinberg.

Day 7: Fairview
Vintner Charles Back's Fairview and Spice Route operations set an example for the South African wine industry.

Day 8: Bouchard Finlayson
In the cooler climes of Walker Bay, Peter Finlayson makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Day 8: Hamilton Russell
Anthony Hamilton Russell and winemaker Hannes Storm specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but continue to experiment in their own backyard.

Day 8: Ataraxia Mountain Vineyards
Chardonnay is the main attraction at Ataraxia as owner and winemaker Kevin Grant awaits his Pinot Noir vineyards to mature.

Day 9: Sijnn
Out to the boonies to see David Trafford's Sijnn project in the remote Malgas Ward.

Day 10: Klein Constantia
Klein Constantia, one of the Cape's most storied estates, is no stranger to change.

Day 10: Buitenverwachting
Lars Maack's estate offers some of the Cape's best values in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Day 10: Vins d'Orrance
Christophe Durand brings a French attitude to the Cape.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Ivan Campos
Ottawa —  January 17, 2013 1:30am ET
I'm interested to know how chenin blanc is doing. Although popular when made available in Ontario, typically in the $15 range, I have not found these to demonstrate much varietal typicity (too much oak in some instances?), particularly when contrasted with their Loire counterparts.

Oh, and while you're there, see if you can hit up a Carnivore restaurant, maybe come up with pairing ideas for the assortment of game meats!
James Molesworth
New York —  January 17, 2013 10:59am ET
Ivan: I'll be tasting quite a bit of Chenin for sure, as it's arguably the Cape's best white varietal. In the $15 range, try de Morgenzon, Ken Forrester and Raats Family - they are the leaders...
Jonathan Drake
Swiitzerland —  January 31, 2013 2:08am ET
We hear aout uneven ripening, due to large temperature variations in late February when it can get too hot for grapes. How significant have you found the differences between the hotter and colder regions . Eg Swartland and Hemel en aarde on fruit or wine quality? Both make excellent wines. Myth or reality?
James Molesworth
New York —  January 31, 2013 9:08am ET
Jonathan: You can't compare Swartland and Hemel-en-Aarde directly. One is a warm climate the other cool, with different soils as well. Thus the grapes that perform well in the Swart;land (Rhone varieties and Chenin) are very different from Hemel-en-Aarde (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). It would be the equivalent of asking what is better, Willamette Valley or Paso Robles? Too many variables...
Mr Tom Backofen
Orland Park, Illinois USA —  April 24, 2013 6:47pm ET
My wife and i had the privilege of visiting South African wine country last year, and it was a beautiful place. The area was filled with great food, wine and people.

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