Foremost South African wine connoisseur, Patrick Durkin, strolls through the cool, musty interior of the wine cellar he manages in Johannesburg. He’s surrounded by bottles of the finest wines from his country’s Western Cape Province – the epicenter of African viticulture, the cultivation of grapes to make wine.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ve traveled around the world quite extensively,” he says.
Many international travel guides describe South Africa’s wine lands as among the most picturesque places on earth. Quaint old towns, established in the 1600s, are filled with whitewashed Cape Dutch style houses and surrounded by vineyards hanging heavy with lime green and purple grapes. The crops are sheltered from the wind by craggy mountains, sometimes capped with snow in winter. Fertile valleys are filled are with indigenous plants.
Accommodations throughout the wine lands during the month-long World Cup are sold out. Thousands of foreign football fans are staying here to support their teams “but also to take advantage of some of the best wine on this planet,” Durkin tells VOA.
Burgeoning reputation of SA wines
He says South African wines have in the past decade or so “literally exploded” onto the international scene, with many of the world’s top restaurants and cellars now stocking South African creations.
Wine exports from the country increased from about 50 million liters in 1994 to almost 400 million liters by the end of 2009, according to the statistical service South Africa Info. As a further indication of the growing international popularity of South African wine, the country’s wine sales to the United Kingdom earlier this year outpaced those of France for the first time.
In a statement lauding the achievement, Wines of South Africa UK market manager, Jo Mason, said, “In 1994 our producers wouldn't have dreamt of selling more wine to the UK than France, but now the wine landscape has changed completely.”
She added that UK consumers no longer “defaulted” to European wine and maintained that the quality of South African wine was “up there with the best in the world.” Mason pointed out that the success “coincided with a year where South Africa is thrust into the spotlight as (World Cup) host nation, which should ensure continued success for our wines, as visitors flock to the Cape or crack open a bottle while watching the game.”
Durkin insists that South African wines are particularly good because of the “great variety of climate” in the Western Cape. “It’s very wet and rainy in the winter, and then you get about three or four months of very, very good hot weather (in the summer),” he explains.
“The Sauvignon Blancs that are coming out (are exceptional) – the 2009 (vintage and) the 2010 vintage - lots of guava (flavor), as opposed to your grassy, greenie, figgy notes that you’re used to in Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.
Vineyards can be found on land just above sea level to mountainous areas. “There are not many countries in the world that are able to match our different climatic conditions down in the Western Cape,” Durkin says.
He says this “variable” weather is conducive to producing every variety of grapes, and therefore every variety of wine.
He points out that the past summer in the Western Cape was extremely hot, resulting in a bumper harvest of “excellent” grapes. These, in turn, have been used by farmers to make “some of the finest vintages ever produced in South Africa … Just in time for the World Cup,” Durkin asserts.
It’s not just the climate
Durkin’s convinced that diverse soil types in the Western Cape also contribute to the making of excellent wine. “We can match particular varietals (of grapes), with the correct soil types,” he says.
He adds that the skill of making wine is steadily improving because “more and more South African wine farmers are going into the art with a geological background.”
The only truly South African wine
Durkin advises visitors to South Africa to try as many of the country’s wines as possible, but he particularly recommends the country’s indigenous red Pinotage variety.
“It’s very unique to the country; it was produced here, it was made for the first time here – through a cloning of a pinot noir (grape) and a hermitage (grape), thus breaking away the noir part and putting the –age on the pinot. And there you go, you’ve got Pinotage!” he exclaims, laughing.
“Then you’ve got our Shirazes, which are fantastic. New World style, Old World style, we’ve got them all – lots of spiciness, lots of white pepper (flavor). Basically, we do all the wines.”
As a wine lover, Durkin’s looking forward to interacting with World Cup fans from other famous wine producing countries, like the United States, France and Australia. He’s sure they’re going to be “pleasantly surprised” by the high standards of South African white wines, in particular.
“Being a Chardonnay drinker for the last 15 years, I’ve actually swapped over to being a Sauvignon Blanc drinker purely because of the (high) quality of the wine coming out. And our Chardonnays – some of the best in the world,” he says.
Durkin maintains a World Cup football experience in South Africa is incomplete without a visit to the country’s wine lands.