What to Drink This Week: Wines of South Africa, guest-starring a Vuvuzela

We’re only a few days into the inaugural week of the World Cup, and it’s delivered all the excitement and baffling illogic that international soccer could ever promise.

To the North American sensibility, the world of futbol is a somewhat puzzling and obscure one.  Long periods of time move by during which very long passes are made and completed, intricate moves are executed, and then a defender comes in and punts it half a mile away.  Guys are falling down and clutching improbable parts of themselves with alarming frequency, only to be spurned by heartless referees who act as though they have seen such behaviour a thousand times (because, in fact, they have).  At the end of a half, it is entirely possible that a team has logged only a single shot, let alone actually made a goal.

To an audience that just made it through a hockey championship where more goals were scored in the series than any in history, and this all seems somewhat irregular.  To listen to the English commentators, imported from apparently the most critical broadcasting school on the globe, the players are exhibiting constant failure.  Over the course of a match, you can be guaranteed to hear one or all of the following:

  • “That simply should have gone in.  There’s no way he could have missed it. Huge disappointment there.”
  • “And he just didn’t make the shot.  Huge error on his part, that was destined for the net.”
  • “I bet he’d like that one back. Perfect placement, and he couldn’t deliver.  Huge letdown.”

It’s practically the stuff of a drinking game.  Take one every time you hear a criticism like the ones above, and you’ll be barely conscious before the end of the first half; chug every time you hear the word “huge”, and you may actually die.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.  But where to begin?  A search for authentic South African liquor leads only to a cane liqueur (boring) and a cream liqueur (oh Amarula, creamy booze of the elephants), neither of which feels particularly authentic.  No, to reach fully into the heart of South African history and enjoy a beverage that’s going to get you through another tie between countries you can’t QUITE locate on a map, you must turn to wine.

But I can’t take you on this journey alone, which is why I’ve enlisted the unofficial mascot of the 2010 World Cup of Football:  THE VUVUZELA!

No, despite how it sounds, it’s not the name of a part of the woman’s body that you are vaguely aware of but afraid to ask about — it’s the source of the constant, never-ending, omnipresent, ubiquitous droning noise that drowns out all reason and ambiance at every match of the World Cup this year.  Subject of controversy, the Vuvuzela started out as local color and has quickly ascended into a hot topic, one that has given players, fans, coaches and journalists all something to talk about instead of how the preliminary rounds haven’t been that interesting so far.

We here at Choosy Beggars heartily endorse the vuvuzela, because it represents everything that sports fans like to do when they’re at a sporting event:  cheer loudly for their team, irritate the shit out of everyone around them, and deafen the players.  Should they be banned merely because they accomplish these aims more efficiently than the fight songs one might hear at English Premier League games, or the thunder sticks one might endure at a match in Japan?  We say no, and salute African soccer fans for their innovation — it’s part of the mission of sports fans worldwide to be annoying, and they have simply set a new standard for all of us.

So let’s all welcome Vuvuzela, to help us on our trip through South African wines!

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Ha ha, we couldn’t have said it better.

History

So, funny story, did know that Cape Town was founded as a “refreshment station”?

Though the southern tip of Africa had been explored by the Portugese before the year 1500, it was the Dutch East India Company that brought a degree of industry to the area.  They established a small colony in the region as a staging area for traders re-stock their ships and push on into the sub-continent, constructed largely by slaves imported from regions that were on the trade route.  And, as with almost any other region that involves colonization and slavery, the seeds of the local liquor industry were planted.

Or, in this case, vines.  By the mid-1600s, the governor of the Dutch colony had already sipped the first wine from South African grapes, and was actively encouraging local farmers to plant vines to grow the scale of wine production.  The results varied, but things flourished under successive governors and then really took off when French Protestants started to show up in Cape Town, after having been driven out of France.  Along with their compatible religious practices, the French brought with them desperation and an active willingness to use whatever they could to start a new life — including their tradition in the growing and production of wine.

Not everything was exactly the same in southern Africa as in the lusher valleys of France (go figure), but the Huguenots’ skills became embedded in the local agriculture, and led to the traditions that produce the wine we drink today.

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Oh, that’s very true, vuvuzela!  How could I have forgotten:  the South African wine market really took off once the British annexed what was then called the Cape Colony, opening up the very lucrative and wine-friendly colonial market.  Thanks to the practice of mercantilism throughout the British Empire (which can be summarized as exports = good / imports = bad), wine from South Africa suddenly found markets across the planet, and given an advantage against products from entrenched competitors like the Italians and French.

So, then there was Apartheid

Which had been built up over the course of the first half of the 20th century, eventually gaining the kind of international attention that led to boycotts that made the topic of this article increasingly difficult to obtain.  South African wine became, like so many other products of the country, something of a damaged commodity.

Aside from the raw politics, this was the result of two separate factors, closely inter-related but very important in their own right:

  1. The isolation of South African wine producers meant that they became relatively static in their techniques, technologies and skills in producing products of quality, and
  2. The marginalization of the product meant that more than a generation of people became disconnected from the concept of South Africa as a wine region.

When at last the apartheid legislation was repealed, rapid change hit the South African wine production industry.  Faced with an enormous amount of catch-up work in order to compete on the world stage once more, skills were acquired from vintners imported from around the world; at the same time, break-ups and privatization of the co-operative that had so long governed the industry meant that growers had to compete on quality rather than access to cheap grapes.

All of this simply to say that by the mid-90s, South Africa was in the minds of many a “new” wine region — despite having grown the product for nearly 300 years.

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You’re right, you’re right — enough history.  The real question is, what should you drink from South Africa?

Whites

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The wine, I mean!  Sheesh.

  • Chenin Blanc, which is also known as Steen, is the most prevalent and traditional varietal in South African white wines.  As a relatively neutral grape with high acidity, it’s to this day responsible for about a fifth of the wine that comes of the area.  Most of the modern wines you’ll see of this type will be fairly middle-ground, slightly sharp and crisp table wines — not dissimilar to the function that less expensive Chardonnays serve.
  • Speaking of Chardonnay, popularity of South Africa’s product is growing.  This is a combination of the relatively inexpensive brands available and the overall trendiness (now mercifully fading) of Chardonnay, but also because Cape Chardonnays do have a personality of their own.  Rather than simply faded whites, they frequently exhibit a strong fruitiness typical of new world wine, while still retaining some dignified restraint of the mother countries.
  • Sauvignon Blanc is the other big growing varietal on the South African coast, again finding balance between the new and old world wines.  While they aren’t all flowers and fruit the way one might expect from a really unpolished wine of the colonies, neither are they washed out.  They sit nicely between big flavor and wine you can actually drink without a headache.

Reds

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is the most common red varietal produced in South Africa, second only to Chenin Blanc, the workhorse white.  The focus of a considerable focus from growers to meet the growing interest in stylish reds, most South African Cabernets are still a bit… rough around the edges.  Flavors are strong, coming across as rather more new world than their vintners prefer.
  • Shiraz is the real growth category here, though, as more and more of these appear on the shelves.  Shiraz / Syrah blends are popping up in popularity, and already becoming the preferred red in a number of regions — the grape responds well to the climate of the area, and the richer flavor seems to suit the style of winemaking better.  One of our favorite (affordable) South African blends relies heavily on Syrah, and settles happily into wine with big flavor that doesn’t hurt your jaw.
  • Pinotage is the red varietal that is specific to South Africa, a blend of Pinot Noir and Hermitage (or Cinsaut) grapes.  Bred specifically for the South African climate, and ironically difficult to grow there, Pinotage is not universally-acclaimed:  many criticize its occasionally insistent aromas of acetone, as well as its ballsy earthy flavors, as being more than they care to take.  But if you’re interested in a wine that takes the term “full-bodied” and owns it like it’s got no other reason to exist, Pinotage is the one for you — and uniquely South African besides.

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Ha!  You’re right, vuvuzela!  Whatever the variety you choose, it’s important to realize that even while you’re sampling these so-called New World wines, you’re actually tasting the product of a rich history.  South Africa was producing wines back when Canada had a population of just 2,000 (we have grown well beyond 3,500 now that we have mustered a defense against constant moose attacks), and while the path has not always been the smoothest, they’ve reached a point today where there’s no end of worthy South African bottles to open.

The important thing is that you get out the corkscrew and start tasting, because believe us when we say this:  It will make these early games go a whole lot faster.

  • http://www.journeykitchen.blogspot.com Kulsum

    The first day of football, while I was in the kitchen and the macho watched the match, I was sure something was wrong with the damn TV. I called the macho in the kitchen and asked him if he would hear
    anything.
    Macho says ” Yeah the Vuvuzela”
    I say ” What kind of insect is that !
    Macho says ” Its not an insect ! ” rushes to the TV to catch onto the match.

    I was annoyed. HIGHLY. First the buzzing. Secondly the VUVuZELA!

    I can’t stand it. But then there is always something to remember such world cup by. This time it is
    “MUTED WORLD CUP” –

  • Jan

    Haha, I actually think they’re sort of fun. But I just came from a Japanese baseball game where I most certainly had two thundersticks (though not knowing the official term, I called them “swacky-things”).