My fourth trip to the Cape since the mid-1990s was a revelation. I wasn't expecting such a major shift in attitude and quality. Clearly, South African producers have received the message that just showing up post-sanctions isn't good enough. What I saw this time was a much more determined industry that is measuring its progress against its international rivals and not the farm across the valley - and the results are exciting.
It was the white wines that really impressed me. Clearly, producers have the potential to improve the image of South African wine on the international stage by leading with their whites and following with their reds.
In this case, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and some promising Rhone-style blends may be what's required to capture the imagination of consumers, rather than many of the uninspired red wines that have made their way to Canada.
Certainly syrah is a viable grape for Cape producers, although I'm surprised to see so many wineries employing the "shiraz" moniker versus "syrah", given the current movement among North American palates to abandon, cheap, entry-level shiraz labels, regardless of their origin.
Blends both red and white seem quite promising and while I can hardly believe I'm saying it, merlot appears to have a bright future with its relatively low alcohol and fruit and acid balance. Unfortunately, we saw little if any pinot this time, leaving us to reserve judgment on the finicky grape.
As for South African pinotage, it essentially remains an enigma. Notwithstanding some excellent individual bottlings, there are simply too many uneven examples to judge what good pinotage is and what it should be worth. To call it a signature varietal of the Cape seems an injustice to the many emerging blends and solo grape varieties made about South Africa. For me, pinotage is like Chilean carmenère - a curiosity at best, but not a variety you want to hang your hat on. That said, I did sample some tasty pinotage rosé. Go figure.
On the bright side, consumers should embrace the Wines of Origin or W.O. appellation system used in South Africa. It's reasonably concise using mostly three levels of names to quickly bring you to the origin of the wine. In fact, I get the feeling we may like it more than South African producers who, for some strange reason, choose to put the most important information about their wine (i.e. where it comes from) on the back label instead of on the front of the bottle for the whole world to see.
If soil and site is your only point of difference, why put it on the back label? South Africa's three-tiered geographic markers (regions-districts-wards) need more exposure and should be readily seen on front labels and maps. I reinforce this by relating that I get three main questions about wine from my readers: How much is it? Where does it come from? And where can I buy it?