Western Cape, South Africa. My first trip to South Africa has been nothing short of astonishing, and I have just been here less than a week. From the time my plane was just about to land at the Cape Town International Airport, I was already captivated by the unparalleled aerial beauty I saw from my window seat. One thing that was so obvious from the onset was how much space there is in this country. South Africa is a huge country with a land mass area of over a million square kilometers, four times the size of Philippines. Yet the population is just 50 million, or half of our population.
This is autumn time now, and the locals consider this the best time to visit the country. Fortuitously, I arrived a day or two after some heavy rains, and very low temperatures, but since my day 1, I have been treated to incredible weather of nice sun and cool temperature, and tantalizing sceneries beyond any stretch of one’s imagination.
Learning from the best source
I am traveling with my friend David `Dave’ Jefferson, a very smart American businessman (Stanford graduate) who owns vineyards in both California’s top-end Napa and Sonoma viticultural areas. Dave also owns a vineyard in Breedekloop, Western Cape, called Silkbush, and produces wines under their own label, and for other highly reputable wineries in the region. Dave is a very experienced South African traveler, having been coming to Western Cape for two decades now. He eventually bought the Silkbush property in 2000. Dave not only serves as my invaluable company and benefactor in this trip, but he is also the chief architect of my itinerary to fully explore and understand the Western Cape wine region in this packed 12 day visit. Dave gives me so much fresh perspectives from an outsider point of view looking in, and my learning curve is just going north so fast now. I feel already super comfortable when I meet the local winery owners, the vineyard managers, and winemakers because of my almost by-the-minute constant crash course from Dave. The knowledge of South African wines I have now on my 6th day is mind-boggling … and all the credit goes to good old Dave!
The wine industry in South Africa
South Africa has over 100,500 hectares of land under vine, with production just above a billion liters. There are now 582 wineries, 50 percent more than its number in 2001. While total production is up 32 percent from 10 years ago, local consumption has actually been down by around 12 percent in the decade. Wine per capita consumption is 6.97 liters, down from previous per capita of around 9 liters in 2001. The silver lining however is that South African wine export has been extremely good, with export growth more than doubling since 2001, and export is now a substantial 43 percent of total wine production. From my local groceries ocular, bulk of the retail wine prices are at between ZAR30.00 to ZAR40.00 (ZAR meaning South African Rand, the local currency equivalent to roughly PhP4.50 to a ZAR) or PhP135.00 to PhP180.00. These are incredibly cheap stuff, yet much more drinkable than probably all the best selling generic wines in Manila priced even higher. The cheapest bottled wine I saw is just ZAR19.00 (PhP85.50). But box wines, made from 1 liter tetra and the 3 liter bag-in-the-box are now also becoming bigger than ever as seen in its’ almost 25 percent allocation of wine shelf space. The highest priced wines in the shelves are over ZAR100.00 (PhP450.00) only. Supermarkets do not carry many premium wines at higher prices, but you see a lot of these ZAR100.00/bottle wines more in the Wine Cellar Doors and Winery Tasting Rooms especially across the Stellenbosch district, renowned for some of South Africa’s best wines and vineyards.
Red wine production has increased substantially in the last two decades due to high demand for red wines, which jumped from a small 15 percent share of production in 1990, to a much larger, yet still seemingly inadequate 44 percent in 2011. There had been a major glut of white wines in the market a few years back, and many whites ended up being sold at below cost prices in bulk for both domestic `fire sale’ and cheap bulk export. But this problem is more under control now, with lesser whites being produced, and export demand picking up. The different varietals or cultivars as the locals call it, have been ever changing in the vineyards. At present, Chenin Blanc or also known as Steen, is still the most planted cultivar by far, accounting for 18 percent of all vineyards. Yet this is already down from its 22 percent share in 2001, due to uprooting in several vineyards to plant other cultivars. Another white cultivar, Colombard is second, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz (not called Syrah here), Chardonnay and South Africa’s very own Pinotage in 6th spot. Several other cultivars are being grown, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Cinsault among reds, and Viognier, Semillon, and Muscat d’Alexandrie (Moscato) for whites.
To be continued …. next week, I will write more of my wine tour, the wine regions, the wonderful wine people I met and of course the wines I enjoyed. As they call it here in South Africa, I am just a besoeker, meaning a visitor in Afrikaans (official local language), but with plenty of stories to share!
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I am a proud member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. You can also follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/sherwinlao.