Wine Opinion: Wellington, South Africa

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 9:22am

If someone mentioned wine from Wellington, how many of us would associate it with South Africa rather than New Zealand?

Until recently, Wellington was a ward of Paarl. But on September 21 it was officially demarcated as Wellington district, on the same level as Stellenbosch and Paarl.

Francis "Duimpie" Bayly, chairman of the Demarcation Committee of the Wine of Origin System in South Africa, says the distinctive terroir of Wellington differentiates it from Paarl and justifies the demarcation.

Wellington district has a little more than 20 producers, and, apart from co-operatives, most are small to medium-sized estates. The soil is mainly decomposed granite from Groenberg (Green Mountain), an extinct volcano. Vineyards in the foothills of the Hawequa Mountains benefit from the various niche climate areas created by the folds and valleys of the mountains. The range not only acts as a rain barrier, but also channels the southeasterly winds, known locally as the Cape Doctor, down the valleys. Summer may be hot, but there are cool pockets where vines are shaded from the strong afternoon sun. Some vineyards can be three degrees Celsius cooler than the valley floor. In 2010, it was named the "Top Wine Area" at the South African Terroir Wine Awards.

Wellington produces more than its fair share of award-winning pinotages, a unique South African cross between pinot noir and cinsault grapes. The rich chocolate-coffee style is popular among young consumers, while the more complex Cape blend - with at least 30 per cent pinotage, such as Doolhof Minotaur 2008 - appeals to more experienced drinkers.

Some have a love-hate relationship with the varietal. Dave Hughes from the Pinotage Association admits that producers in the early days did not know how to deal with it, and the result was a green and bitter metallic taste that has been likened to rusty nails. But Hughes maintains that pinotages these days are in much better shape and consumers should not judge them based on their history. Although I agree, I also think pinotage is an acquired taste. It has to go with the right food - robustly flavoured Shanghai or Beijing cuisines or, as South Africans prefer, the braai (barbecue).

If you are a cabernet sauvignon fan, try the Mont du Toit Le Sommet 2003, a blend of that grape, merlot and shiraz. At nearly 10 years old, the blackcurrant fruit is well integrated with the tertiary aromas of truffles and preserved eggs.

Wellington whites are fairly full bodied because of the hot summers. I like the barrel-fermented chenin blancs, notably Nabygelegen and Carpe Diem, which are structured without being too heavy. Those who prefer lighter whites will be pleasantly surprised by the refreshing Signatures of Doolhof Sauvignon Blanc at only 12.5 per cent alcohol. The vines are planted on a slope, and their only exposure to the sun is in the cool morning.

South African wine routes are famous, but most tourists stick to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Wellington town is not as vibrant as Stellenbosch and lacks the touristy atmosphere of Franschhoek. But it is tranquil and the scenery is spectacular.

Wellington is known as the cradle of South African wine. Not only do its 28 nurseries supply more than 90 per cent of vine cuttings to domestic producers, they also export to countries such as China and Uruguay. At a recent launch dinner of the Wellington wine district, each guest received a young vine to signify the new beginning.

The South African industry will always be dominated by big brother Stellenbosch, but I hope wine lovers will give its little siblings a chance.

Tersina Shieh is a Hong Kong-based winemaker and educator