Celebrating the Rainbow Nation of wine

May 22 2013 by Tersina Shieh

April was a busy month for South African wine in Hong Kong. To celebrate the country’s Freedom Day on 27 April, the South African Consulate-General and Wines of South Africa lent their full support to various organisations in Hong Kong, including the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), in hosting a series of South African wine activities.

The SCMP South African wine evening saw 15 of Hong Kong’s South African wine distributors present more than 130 wines from 36 wineries. Wines included both internationally acclaimed brands and lesser- known boutique names. Most were rated Platter’s four stars or above (for those who are not familiar with South African wine, Platter’s is the most comprehensive and authoritative annual South African wine guide. Five stars is the maximum Platter’s rating). The HKJC, on the other hand, selected 10 South African wines of different styles, to be served at its five venues, including the country club, clubhouses and racecourses.

Being a fan of South African wine, I went to most of these events and talked to guests and consumers. I found that about half had never tried South African wine. Some didn’t even realise that South Africa was a wine producing country. But they were curious and generally positive about the wines after trying them. In fact, the country itself drew a lot of interest and we ended up having lively discussions on South African themes, from landscape and nature to culture and people. It seems that South Africa is on the countries-to-be-visited list of quite a number of people.

Some people, though— and this includes a few in the trade and even some South African winemakers—wrongly and unfairly dismiss South African wine for various reasons, one of which is pinotage. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, a grape variety unique to South African. In the early years, pinotage often could be green and bitter, but with improved winemaking techniques and better understanding of the variety, today’s pinotages should be a pride of the South African wine industry. Its easy drinking style with moderate tannin appeals to all types of consumers. At the SCMP evening, many drinkers compared pinotages from different wineries, and agreed they liked the variety. Those who prefer rich wine were equally impressed by the more serious style of pinotage that shows depth and aging capability. The Rijk’s Pinotage Reserve 2008 tasted at the HKJC was one of the most popular wines among Bordeaux drinkers.

Chenin Blanc is another variety that attracted attention. It has crisp acidity and can be made into different styles, from sparkling and refreshing whites suitable for drinking during the summer, to complex, barrel-fermented food-friendly wines, to sweeter types. The Ken Forester Reserve Chenin Blanc (available from Kerry Wines) and Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc (available from Northeast) were particularly popular at the SCMP evening. Chenin Blanc is, in fact, a Loire variety, although not many consumers are aware of this, thanks to the French habit of not stating the grape variety on the wine labels. But it is in South Africa, where the variety shows its true self. Some 20 per cent  of the vineyard planting in South Africa is Chenin Blanc, far more than what it is planted in the Loire.

South Africa is also respected for its international varieties: Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler regions of Elgin and Hermanus; full bodied Chardonnay and Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch; and Syrah and Rhone-style wines, particularly those from Swartland. The wines made in the country are as diverse as its landscape and culture. The wines showcased in the SCMP and HKJC events impressed some of the most discerning drinkers.

South Africa Freedom Day commemorates the country’s first democratic post-Apartheid elections in 1994. It unites South Africans of all colours and backgrounds to celebrate democracy and freedom. Next year will be its 20th anniversary. It would be a perfect moment to introduce more of these wonderfully diverse wines to Hong Kong wine lovers. We are all looking forward to celebrating the Rainbow Nation and its wine.