Like every other industry, the wine world has felt the sting of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, many reports note that we’ve been imbibing more since the pandemic took hold, but overall the effects of the coronavirus have been anything but positive for wineries. Most winery tasting rooms are shuttered, and staff have been laid off. Picking and tending to grapes becomes trickier when having to navigate heightened safety precautions. One of the key outlets for wine sales, restaurants, are either closed or operating at reduced capacity.
For South African producers, the coronavirus has had a crushing effect — and not the good kind of crushing that happens at wineries. The country’s grape growers and winemakers have felt the pain of the pandemic more than any wine-producing region — a pain that could have a lasting, devastating impact.
In March 2020, the South African government implemented widespread restrictions that banned the sale and production of alcohol, both for domestic consumption as well as for export. The thinking was twofold — that consuming alcohol increased the likelihood of socializing (and therefore transmission of the virus), and that alcohol-related illnesses would add strain on hospitals and health care workers. In early April, the government scaled back the ban to allow for exports to resume before lifting the ban completely in May. Then just a week later, the domestic ban was re-implemented, lasting until mid-August.
In late December of 2020, COVID-19 cases in South Africa spiked, resulting in the current ban on domestic alcohol sales introduced by the government, recently extended past the initial Jan. 15 deadline. In total three separate alcohol bans have resulted in 14 weeks with no domestic sales of South African wine and five weeks of bans on exports, a devastating impact on the country’s wine industry. In a recent Wine Spectator article, South Africa wine industry bodies estimate 80 wineries and 350 grape growing operations will close permanently, that 21,000 people will lose their jobs and that the industry has already lost US$400 million.
It’s a crushing blow to an industry that had already been playing catch-up with producers from other countries for the last three decades. Wine has been made in South Africa since at least the 17th century, with origins linked to the arrival of the Dutch East India Company. But while New World and Old World countries enjoyed the growing popularity of wine across the globe in the 20th century, South African producers were shut out of the boom.
It wasn’t until the end of apartheid in the 1990s that South African producers were able to both export their wines to other countries and access many of the advances made in the grape-growing/winemaking industry. Producers quickly adapted to the new-to-them global wine landscape, tweaking grape varieties planted in particular regions and implementing widely adopted winemaking techniques to catch up to the global market.
Broadly speaking, South African producers do well with a wide range of grape varieties. On the white wine side of things, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are particularly successful, and Semillon, Chardonnay and some Rhône Valley varieties do well in particular regions. For reds, producers have seen widespread success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage.
That latter grape, Pinotage, is somewhat of a South African success story. The grape is a cross between the Cinsault and Pinot Noir engineered in South Africa in the 1920s. Grape-growers lamented how Pinot Noir struggled to produce consistently in South Africa, so the grape was crossed with the highly productive Cinsault grape, and Pinotage was born. Much of the South African Pinotage that reached our market was, for the first many years, gamey, tarry and tart. These days, we’re starting to see much more well-made Pinotage hit our market, with reds that bring complex dark berry, smoky and peppery notes.
While they may not occupy a lot of shelf space at your local wine shop, the dire situation South African producers are facing right now is reason enough to give the country’s wines a try.
Wines of the week
Footprint 2019 The Long Walk Sauvignon Blanc (Western Cape, South Africa - $12.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Pale straw in colour, the grapes for this South African Sauvignon Blanc are sourced from the Paarl region. On the nose it brings grapefruit rind, gooseberry, fresh-cut grass and bell pepper notes; on the dry, light-bodied palate those components come through with vibrant acidity, additional green apple and lemon-lime notes and a crisp, steely finish. A solid value. ★★★ out of five
Trizanne Wines 2019 The Search white blend (Voor-Paardeberg, South Africa – around $20, private wine stores)
Made with the same grape varieties found in white blends from France’s Rhône Valley, this South African white offers floral, pear, peach and perfume notes on the nose, with a hint of honeycomb in there as well. It’s dry, medium-bodied and slightly rich, with peach and pineapple notes springing into the foreground, an underlying chalky note that works with the splash of acidity to provide verve and focus and that underlying honeycomb note working well with the slightly chewy, viscous nature of this wine. It’s unoaked, letting the fruit shine through, yet still retains plenty of complexity. ★★★★1/2
Nederburg 2018 The Winemasters Shiraz (Western Cape, South Africa - $14.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Made with Shiraz grapes sourced from the Darling, Cape Town and Paarl regions, this South African Shiraz was aged for 10 months in French oak before release. It’s deep ruby in colour, and aromatically brings black cherry, iron, plum and subtle savoury spice notes. On the full-bodied palate the earthy and savoury notes work well with the ripe cherry, raspberry and plum flavours, with modest tannins and a slightly warm, peppery finish. A solid Shiraz for the price. ★★★1/2
Escapade Winery 2016 Escapades Pinotage (Coastal Region, South Africa - $26.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
This South African Pinotage is deep garnet in colour, with black cherry, earth, savoury spice, white pepper and dark chocolate notes on the nose. It’s a chewy, full-bodied red that brings a vanilla and spice notes (from a year in small French oak barrels) that show quite well with the ripe cherry and raspberry flavours, avoiding the tarrier, astringent notes of lesser examples of the grape. Tannins are grippy and the finish is long; it’s a great example of the grape, and is especially appealing right now, as it’s on sale for $23.99 until the end of January. ★★★★
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.