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Cape Crusaders

Some recommended Cape Blends:

Meerlust Rubicon 2000:
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc.

Mulderbosch “Faithful Hound” 2002:
42% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, 8% Petit Verdot.

Warwick Wine Estate Trilogy 2002:
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc.

Black Rock Red 2004:
76% Shiraz, 14% Carignan, 10% Grenache.

De Toren “Fusion V” 2002:
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 14% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot.

Beyerskloof Synergy 2002:
37% Pinotage, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot.

Warwick Wine Estate Three Cape Ladies 2001:
the “ladies” in this case are 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Pinotage, and 29% Merlot.

Villiera Cellar Door Cape Blend Merlot/Pinotage 2002:
70% Merlot, 30% Pinotage

Rust en Vrede Estate Wine 2001:
53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Shiraz, 12% Merlot.

Radford Dale Gravity 2003:
47% Merlot, 27% Shiraz, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Stellenzicht Rhapsody 2002:
60% Shiraz, 40% Pinotage.

By Jim Clarke

While most of the New World is devoted to selling varietal wines based around a single grape, some producers in South Africa are trying to rally around the idea of marketing a blend. They’ve already agreed on three points: the wine’s red, the name is “Cape Blend,” and the grapes come from…the Cape. The rest is kind of up in the air.

Those behind the idea face a Catch-22. They want to have a name for these wines that conjures up something distinctive in the imagination of wine drinkers, something evocative of the wine’s origins. But, as in much of the New World, no one wants to restrict winemakers with excessive regulation, which would limit their choices when making and blending their wine. Given a lot of freedom, even if all the winemakers who choose to make Cape Blends make wonderful wines, will they possess an identifiable, distinctive character as a group?

In recent history South Africa has been known for Pinotage, a varietal developed in 1925 by Professor A.I. Perold by crossing Pinot Noir and the Southern Rhone blending-grape Cinsault. It tends to make a chewy, tannic, medium-bodied wine with pungent fruit aromas. Given its already-existing association with South African wine, many feel that Pinotage should constitute a reasonable percentage – say 30-70% - of any “Cape Blend”-labeled wine.

The problem is that not all of the would-be “Cape Blend” producers feel Pinotage merits inclusion, whatever its name-recognition value. Under apartheid, South Africa’s vineyard management techniques lagged behind those developing elsewhere, and Pinotage has the hardiness and resistance to viruses to survive with little assistance. But for it to make a good wine, more careful work in the vineyard is needed. There have been improvements in Pinotage quality since the end of apartheid, but you can say the same for South African Cabernet, Chenin Blanc, and other varietals as well.

Some feel Pinotage still hasn’t – and may never – catch up. The Winery of Good Hope, for example, produces several different lines of wine, with nary a drop of Pinotage among them. Managing Director Alex Dale is quite vocal about his dislike for the grape. He makes a few wonderful blends – the Radford Dale line has Gravity, a Merlot (47%), Shiraz (27%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%) blend, and the Black Rock label, a Shiraz (76%), Grenache (10%), Carignan (14%) blend; are these inadequately Cape-like to merit the “Cape Blend” title?

Inventing a regionally-based blend is an attempt to make up for lost time. Pinotage could be a unifying element; at the moment Cape Blends include Bordeaux-style blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and/or Petit Verdot), Rhone-style blends (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault…), and “Aussie” blends like Cab-Shiraz.

There are three kinds of “brands” in the wine world: producer (“brand” in the usual sense), varietal (as in “Sideways weakened sales of the Merlot brand while giving renewed impetus to Pinot Noir”), and region, be it Oakville, Bordeaux, or Hunter Valley. Region and grape function as brands with consumers even though they are generally shared by multiple companies. In the Old World, varietal was rarely a brand, and in the 1920s France started codifying its wine laws, such that varietals were officially subsumed by geography. It was redundant to say, for example, a Burgundy Pinot Noir. If it’s Burgundy and it’s red, then Pinot Noir is a given. At the moment, however, many consumers aren’t comfortable with that, and that’s one of the reasons the French wine industry is pretty unhappy at the moment.

The New World has started with the grape, answering the question “What is it?” before “Where’s it from?” Merlot. Pinot Noir. Syrah. As vintages pass, we’re starting to find certain place-varietal combinations that we like: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir; Finger Lakes Riesling; Hunter Valley Semillon. But European-style regulation is a long way off. If someone offers me a red wine from Rutherford, I may assume it’s a Cab, but not because some part of the government says it has to be. Place is taking its place in New World wines, but varietal remains the primary focus of consumers.

With varietal marketing in the lead at the moment, it seems strange that South Africa would want to focus on regionality. Most Americans don’t have many preconceptions – or knowledge – about the Cape’s wines, apart from Pinotage, and perhaps, Chenin Blanc (sometimes sold by its local name, Steen). Right now I’d hazard that when an American buys a South African wine, it’s based on the varietal. Perhaps the Cape Blend category will instead preempt the varietal question. What grape is it? Oh, it’s a blend. Emphasizing geography and blends is also more common in Europe, and South African wines often have an appealing Old World style – leaner, with higher acidity. More food friendly and less over-the-top. To some extent the Cape Blend category acknowledges a European role model.

In the long run countries will have to turn to geography to market their wines. After all, New Zealand doesn’t own the name Sauvignon Blanc – anyone can try and grow it. But New Zealand does own Marlborough, where they make their wonderful wines from Sauvignon Blanc. South Africa has the Cape. Over time certain varietals – maybe Pinotage, maybe Cabernet, maybe Syrah – may win out in the blend and come to dominate as the grape most suited to the Cape. For now, the blend allows everybody to hedge their bets.

 



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  •    Published: July 2005


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