Celtic Wine in South Africa’s Cape Wine Scene
Image Credit Cécile Paul unless otherwise stated.
The Cape Winelands are blessed with a better than Mediterranean climate. Lush green vineyards roll over the coastal mountain foothills, spilling down to the hot African plains. Dusty hot summers give way to cool winter rains, this is spectacular wine country. The picturesque wine farms with their stately Cape Dutch manor houses sit perfectly into intensely cultivated landscape, drinking from both the sun and cloud, sheltered in spectacular valleys of rugged towering mountains. The first bottle of South African wine was produced in 1659 in Cape Town by then governor to the Cape Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company. Impressively South Africa currently ranks eighth in overall volume production of world wine production and South African wines are increasingly being recognized as some of the best in the world.
The Paul family’s story of wine in South Africa started when my eldest son Angus finished school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Unsure of what he would do next, but always with a creative outlook he considered a local career in brewing. At that point, family connections kicked in, and perhaps the allure of a better climate and the decision was made to pursue a career in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University, in the heartland of the Cape Wine industry. His family (us) were of course delighted, we’ve always thoroughly enjoyed wine and couldn’t wait for Angus to finish his 4 year degree and for the tasting to start! Over the following 5 or so years Angus would criss-cross the globe, from Sicily to New Zealand, Austria to Australia, deliberately hand-picking the most diverse and characterful wine estates to gain hands-on work experience as a cellar-hand over the Northern Hemispheres harvests during August and September. Likewise, he’d be back in South Africa or New Zealand for their harvests to do the same. It’s at this point that most young budding winemakers would find an assistant-winemaker’s position at a reputable estate, but entrepreneurship is in all our blood, and Angus set off on his own journey to make his own wines under his own label.
Angus found cellar space at Karibib Estate, a small hilltop wine farm immediately west of Stellenbosch, in the heart of the winelands. Angus Paul Wines is squarely focused on South African Wine heritage and produces wines that could only have from the Cape. Angus believes that unique quality in wine comes from ‘care and terroir’, which makes wine unique from country to country. Rather than solely relying on standard ‘international’ varieties e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, he also works with grapes that have a strong root in South African history and identity, particularly Chenin blanc (one of the first 5 grape varieties to be brought to South Africa) Muscat and the local cultivar Pinotage. Chenin Blanc has always been a ‘workhorse’ variety in the industry, recently becoming South Africa’s ‘most celebrated wine producing grape’ on account of the unique local style of production, the improved viticulture & winemaking and the vast supply available from the old vineyards still producing top quality fruit.
Angus uses Chenin Blanc grapes for all his Premium Single Vineyard white wine production: The grapes for On A Flight of Furious Fancies and Barbary Fictions are both sourced from ancient vineyards, the wines are made with minimal intervention in the cellar and aged in oak barrels for 10 months. The ‘entry level’ Mesas white blends Chenin Blanc with Muscat. Chenin Blanc is also used in his premium sweet wine (straw wine) Hespers where he blends it with Muscat.
Angus uses Pinotage, a South African grape variety for his flagship red wine Transient Lands, supplied from the best vineyards in the Western Cape to produce an elegant (not too heavy) style of Pinotage, aged in oak barrels for 10 months. Pinotage is also the grape of choice in his Mesas range, a very light and fruity fresher alternative rendition. The Pinotage grape, though a recently developed variety, has forged a strong connection between Angus and the land (it is a cross being Cinsault Noir and Pinot Noir). He also makes with Muscat Blanc, Semillon (also 2 of the first white grape varieties to be brought to South Africa) as well as Cinsault (red) which has been another ‘workhorse’ variety in South Africa for centuries. These grapes supplement his Mesas wines.
Angus has made 3 vintages of wine at Karibib Wine Estate. He sources most of his grapes from the Stellenbosch region as he finds its Mediterranean climate, ancient granitic soils, hot summers, cool winters and rolling coastal topography very suitable for many of the grape varieties he works with. Occasionally he will get Pinotage from neighbouring regions such as Stanford and the Paardeberg (Swartland). The winemaking is all ‘natural’ or ‘minimal intervention’ He believes in careful practices, that the less manipulation the better; this ensures that the grapes hold their quality and that there’s not much that needs to be added to it in the cellar. The only ‘ additive’ he uses is the bare minimum of sulphur dioxide to protect the wine in the bottle and ensure a sound, stable product reaches the customer. The flagship wines are all recommended to have a year or two maturation before opening and can be stored for up to 10 years, conversely, the Mesas wines should be enjoyed now!
Angus Paul Wines are sold at boutique wine shops (including Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport) in South Africa and are exported to and distributed in Europe, and in particular in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. (See STOCKISTS in Europe and beyond at the end of the article.)
Watch the video of the 2022 hand bottling of Mesas Pet Nat:
On A Flight of Furious Fancies . A rush of white pome fruit exits the glass along with salty sea spray notes and confected fruit – think yellow gummy bears! A mineral or flinty character sits beneath the fruit like chainmail, awaiting. The palate is razor sharp; linear but coating in leesy creaminess. It is a wine of some length, its lingering saltiness is something we think is becoming quite signature to the area (Polkadraai Hills).
Mesas Pinotage. Bright red fruits, sweet gum drops and mild spice from the grape stems. The palate is pure bouncy, juiciness; light of body, fresh and delectable. Serve chilled.
Mesas White. Muscat’s grapey signature proceeds from the glass, accompanied by a very distinct apricot yogurt character followed by citrus and stone fruits. The palate is bone dry with a mild phenolic grip that lends to the refreshment factor.
Hespers. Apricots, raisined grapes, honey, black tea and an undertone of lemon marmalade drift from the glass. The palate is lusciously sweet and concentrated, somewhere between wine and honey, however a fresh acidity keep the wine refreshing even throughout its long finish.
Mesas Pet Nat. Lots of juicy red and blackberry characters jump out of the glass with a clear grapefruit like note. The palate is fresh, fizzy and dry, with plenty of fruit character.
Barbary Fictions. The nose shows lemon grass, lemon zest, freshly cut apple and a suggestion of wild fynbos. The palate is fairly broad and rich, layered with citrus and stone fruit and held in check with a zinging acidity.
Rock Rabbit Canned Wine. Expect a crisp, fruity flavour to elegantly swirl around your mouth and delightfully nurture your taste buds with a local South African Chenin Blanc.
Fun Facts about Wine in South Africa:
What does a calendar year in the life of the Cape wine industry look like? Here’s a little crash course!
Late Winter/Spring (September/October): If growing a cultivar from scratch, an appropriate geographical spot is allocated, a clone and rootstock of the chosen cultivar (Chenin blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz etc) selected and the soil prepared and treated (after sampling) by ripping it apart to allow the young roots to penetrate.
Winter: Vines are dormant during winter, so this time is used for pruning (cutting back the wood growth from the previous year). Once temperatures rise, the new buds on the vines will open. This is called ‘budbreak’. From here it is off to the races. New shoots (branches) begin to grow and from them leaves, tendrils (for climbing, as it is a vine) and flowers emerge. In this time it is crucial to allow the vines to grow happily – prevent diseases (fungus), pests (deers, bugs) and Mother Nature (frost, drought, heat waves) affect the sensitive new spring growth.
Spring: As spring progresses the flowers are fertilised (the grapevine is a hermaphrodite and fertilises itself) and turn into tiny young fruits (grapes). As the season heads towards summer, these little grapes grow, the acids inside them (for protection) are metabolised into sugar and flavour. A key stage is called ‘veraison’, where the colour changes from dull green to purple, for red varieties, or bright green/yellow for whites.
Summer: Once the grapes reach a sugar level of around 200 – 250 grams of sugar per litre, they are picked. The stage of ripeness the grapes are picked is one of the most crucial stages in the creation of a good wine. In a two week period the grapes flavours change dramatically from fresh to heavily ripe. The corresponding wine will reflect that, so it is very important to pick the grapes at a stage of ripeness that fits the style of wine you want to make. The best way to make this decision is to taste the grapes and make a judgement based on that, but this takes experience.
Once the grapes are picked they’re processed appropriately to the final wine they will be made for:
1. White wines are made by separating the juice immediately from the skins (pressing) and for the fermentation to take place just as a liquid medium.
2. Red wines are made by crushing the grapes (and sometimes stems) together to produce a liquid and grape pulp medium called ‘must’. As the fermentation proceeds the must is mixed. Colour and tannin (texture and grippy-ness) are extracted. Once the extraction is satisfactory the grape pulp is separated (pressing) and a liquid wine remains.
3. Rosé is made the same as white wine but with a very brief (2-6 hour) maceration of grape pulp and liquid to extract a small amount of colour, red grapes must be used.
4. Pétillant Naturel (‘Pet Nat’) is made by taking fermenting wine (red or white) and bottling it just before fermentation finishes. Yeast produce alcohol and carbon dioxide whilst they ferment and this process captures the last bits of carbon dioxide in bottle to produce a sparkling wine.
5. Straw wine is a type of sweet wine (there are many) that uses the technique of dehydrating grapes to concentrate sugars and acids and produce a thick, highly sweet wine with a low alcohol content. Grapes are laid out in the shade or direct sunlight for a period of 2-4 weeks to slowly dry up.
6. Champagne is made using white wine and rose and adding yeast and sugar when bottling. This captures (like petnat) the carbon dioxide of the fermentation. The difference to pet nat is that champagne uses wine that has already been matured as still wine (in barrel or tank) which then goes through a deliberate second fermentation. Pet nat is only one fermentation, with no wine maturation in barrel or tank.
ANGUS PAUL WINES: IMPORTERS, DISTRIBUTORS & STOCKISTS
South Africa: Johannesburg (Toasted Barrels), Cape Town (Publik)
Cape Weine-Germany, https://www.capeweine.com
Cape Wine – Norway, https://www.capewine.no