Elusive flavours all part of the appeal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 10:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 10:55am

South African wines seem to have an ambiguous reputation among Hong Kong wine lovers, and Chris So is convinced it’s undeserved.

Wine lovers informally canvassed by the South China Morning Post said high-quality South African wines are hard to find and their flavours can be unfamiliar, even “gamey”.

A candidate for master of wine, So has just returned from a second trip there and is convinced its wines have potential in Hong Kong. He spent three weeks following winemaker Richard Kershaw from harvest through the winemaking process at his Elgin Valley estate in the Western Cape. This will be Kershaw’s second harvest at his own estate, having been a consultant winemaker previously. Here he focuses on the familiar chardonnay and syrah varieties.

South Africa is best known for chenin blanc and pinotage for historical and cultural reasons. Brad Gold, marketing manager at award-winning Boschendal estate in Franschhoek, says that South Africans are rugby fans who like standing round the braai (“barbecue” in Afrikaans), drinking brandy made from chenin blanc wines. Some winemaking families can trace their origins back to religious French refugee families that settled more than 300 years ago.

However, the country has increased the diversity of its offerings in the past 20 years. It still has the most plantings of chenin blanc in the world, but also grows significant quantities of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Pinotage is now the third most planted red variety behind cabernet sauvignon and syrah and ahead of merlot. According to Michaela Stander, a market manager at industryowned promoter Wines of South Africa, farmers are now also planting grenache, sangiovese and tannat. She also says the winemakers, especially in the Swartland region, are moving from Bordeaux-style blends to Rhone-style red blends.

Even pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and cinsault, should be more familiar in Hong Kong, says So. A well-made one “will be very coffee-like. One that’s not made well will taste burned or of toast.”

Names such as Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof or Meerlust might be a mouthful, but So argues that with many English names appearing on labels, it’s no surprise that locals are unfamiliar with South Africa’s regions and wine styles.

Although other fans may argue that South African wines will not take Hong Kong drinkers out of their comfort zone, there are elusive flavours.

Boschendal’s CJR shiraz – named for the statesman Cecil John Rhodes, who used to own the winery – has hints of rooibos tea and a local shrub called fynbos. There is also a herbaceousness on the palate that Gold says resembles a South African herb called buchu. “It’s not a mintiness, but a freshness. It’s not green; it’s far from being unripe.” To be fair, these elusive flavours are balanced with the far more familiar dark fruits, white pepper and leather that are typical of shiraz. Although certainly not a “fruit bomb”, the wine packs a respectable almost 15 per cent alcoholic punch.

Boschendal also offers a series of sparkling wines made by the Methode Cap Classic, a South African styling denoting fizz that is fermented in tanks and then in the bottle, spending at least two years on lees. The 2008 Grand Cuvee Brut sampled is 60 per cent chardonnay and 40 per cent pinot noir and has been three years on lees. It has a fine mousse, soft texture and a mouth-coating style. It has a typical champagne-style flavour profile of almonds and brioche, but an unexpected richness.

So hopes more familiarity with wines such as these will persuade importers to expand their portfolios and bring in better wine from South Africa. The South China Morning Post is sponsoring a South African wine event on Monday. Contact Maggie Mak ( for more details