published on: 02 February 2012
You can't help but be stunned by the visual splendor when walking around the Western Cape region of South Africa, in towns like Stellenbosch.
Immediately you see why this part of the African continent is so well suited for the wine making craft, which was recently my mission for "Inside Africa."
The mountain ranges here reach upwards of 1 500 meters, circling a valley of rolling hills packed with rich soil. Winds become funneled forces of nature, sending gusts of clay and other minerals over the landscape. This kind of weather and topography help give Western Cape grapes their unique taste... but to make really good wine people have to be smart.
I was surprised to learn special consideration has to be taken when deciding how rows of vines will be oriented, making the best use of direct sunlight for each individual grape. Decisions have to be made on what type of wine can be made from the variety of available vines. And choices have to be made on how much time each variety should live in the barrel before being bottled and sent to our neighborhood shops. It's much more complicated than stomp and sip and it takes a long time to learn.
Beyond the established vineyards are younger upstarts on the outskirts of tow, like the M'hudi winery. It's the first black-owned vineyard in the Western Cape and has only existed for about a decade, proving just how hard it has been for black South Africans to become integrated in such an established and expensive industry. This doesn't mean they weren't welcomed. Neighbors helped them learn all aspects of making good South African wine, popping over to help out from time to time.
The M'hudi vineyard is family run; Diale Rangaka is the father working as the marketing director while Malmsey Rangaka, the mum, is CEO. The college-aged children helped develop the brand, and the concept of an organic vineyard. They use no artificial pesticides, allow for natural growth outside of the vine and constantly walk the grounds squeezing grapes making sure they're on track for the season.
Running this vineyard is the realization of a dream for the Rangaka's, a family that didn't even drink wine when they took over the farm. Malmsey told me how she started by filling half of her glass with wine and the other half with grape juice, slowly decreasing the amount of grape juice over time. I told her how surprised I was to hear this and she chuckled, saying not to worry, "the wine has kicked out the grape juice!"
So how do South African wines taste? I'm far from a connoisseur so as controversial as it may be to say, what I tasted was just like other wines from France, Italy or Australia. However, the most common white wine, the Chenin Blanc, did taste more dry, crisp and clean than others, possibly a reason this choice is most popular with international drinkers. I cannot say I was a fan of a special South African blend of grapes that make up the Pinotage variety. It's a much more acquired taste; full and fruity with an almost bubbly texture.
Wrapping up my trip, and emptying my glass, I realize the defining element for South Africa's wines wasn't the mountains, the soil, the history or even the taste. It's the daily determination of vineyard owners and their staff (if they have them) to nurture each grape, be involved in each step of the process and learn from every seasonal challenge. It's an inspiring realization that natural resources don't define the people who live among it: it's their own drive, their own self-improvement and their humility in helping others.