Unique South African Wine-Making Techniques

Published: 03rd February 2010
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New World wine-makers in the Franschhoek Valley are practising ancient techniques to produce innovative South African wines

South Africa has long been recognised for its superb wines, which have cemented the country's reputation as one of the leading wine producers in the world. The Western Cape, in particular, has an established history of viticulture dating back as far as the 17th century, to the time of Jan van Riebeeck. Since the earliest settlers arrived in the Cape, vineyards have been cultivated and wine has been produced to exceptionally high standards.

Today, there are hundreds of successful wineries around the country. In excess of 40-million cases of South African wine are exported each year, while more than 300-million litres are consumed annually on local shores. Given these phenomenal figures, it's essential for modern wine-makers to set themselves apart from the competition; to produce varietals that are unique and exciting, whilst maintaining the superior quality for which South African wines are known.

To this end, a handful of forward-thinking wine-makers are exploring New World viticultural methods in wine production. Moreover, they're also experimenting with ancient harvesting techniques, including desiccation, to produce unique wines of intense flavour, colour and concentration.

Producing modern wines through innovative viticulture and harvesting techniques
Some of South Africa's top wineries are found in the Franschhoek Valley, a region of the Cape renowned for its exquisite scenery and ideal wine-making conditions.

While many of the wine-makers here produce varietals according to long-standing methods, there are those that have taken a more proactive approach to viticulture - one that takes maximum advantage of the natural conditions of the valley. By understanding the climate of the region, which is mostly hot and dry, these wine-makers have been able to identify and plant varietals that fare best under these conditions. Moreover, some have returned to the ancient harvesting method of desiccation that is well suited to the warm climate of the Franschhoek Winelands.

Why the desiccation method is ideal for the Western Cape Winelands
To a great extent, modern viticulture was influenced by the ancient Romans and Greeks, the latter of whom believed that wine should be available to everyone - from peasants and slaves to aristocrats and royalty. For centuries, wine-making was informed by the techniques refined by these Mediterranean cultures. However, following the collapse of the ancient world, Mediterranean wine-making methods were largely abandoned, with wine-makers switching to techniques practiced in cooler European climates.

Many of these European techniques are still used today in South Africa. However, the Mediterranean techniques - long forgotten until recently - are even better suited to the local wine-making climate, which itself can be classified as Mediterranean. By growing grapes that flourish in the Cape Winelands' climate - primarily French varietals - and desiccating them on the vines in the same way that the ancient Greeks and Romans once did, wine-makers are producing classic local wines with distinctively South African style.

Essentially, desiccation is a practice that involves strangling whole bunches of grapes on the vines as soon as they ripen, rather than allowing the sun to dry them out. The stalk of each bunch is clamped on the vine, thus blocking the channels carrying substances to and from the grapes. The grapes subsequently dry out (as much as 40% of the water evaporates), and their natural sugars and acids become richly concentrated. The result is ripe flavours and colours, and fresh acidity.

Discerning drinkers are choosing wines harvested by the desiccation method
Until recently, wines produced by the desiccation method were largely ignored, primarily because a quality example did not exist in South Africa. However, pioneering wine-makers in the Franschhoek Valley have been experimenting with these techniques for some years, and are now successfully producing wines of intense flavour and colour; varietals that mature superbly and which are rich, concentrated and tannic.

When you visit Franschhoek in the Western Cape, you'll be able to experience the fruits of this innovative wine-making first-hand. A trip to the cellars and vineyards of the Franschhoek Valley, particularly in the region of the Museum van de Caab, will reward you with quality South African wines that are ideally suited to the region's fresh, outdoor lifestyle. Be sure to visit these cellars during your next trip to the magnificent Franschhoek Valley.

Solms-Delta produces highly-acclaimed South African wines that are renowned both locally and abroad. The innovative Franschhoek wine estate also features a gourmet restaurant, wine-tastings and tours, and picnics in its lush forest.

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