Jamie Goode on Italian grape varieties in South Africa

By Jamie Goode | 2 October 2018

It's hard to travel to Italy and not to fall in love with it. There's something unique about the country, and this extends to its wine regions. One of the appealing factors, I guess, is that Italian wines aren't all that easy to 'get'. They are an acquired taste, and these often end up being the most enduring tastes. The first time you try a Barolo, made from the Nebbiolo grape, you wonder what the appeal is: these wines are often pale in colour, with fierce tannins, and a beguiling mix of savoury flavours as well as some fruit character. And Sangiovese, the grape of Chianti, can be angular and firm in its youth, sometimes verging on rustic. Yet these tastes, initially challenging, can be quite addictive. Italy also has a fabulous range of unique varieties, and from top to toe of this long thin country there's an almost bewildering array of wine regions, each with its own personality. I've mentioned Tuscany and its Sangiovese, and Piedmont and its Nebbiolo. But Piedmont also has Dolcetto, Freisa and Barbera, and then there's the Veneto with Corvina and Rondinella, and Campania with Fiano and Aglianico, Sicily with Nerello Mascalese, Nero d'Avolo and Frappato, and Puglia with its Primitivo (aka Zinfandel). This is just scratching at the surface.


It's not surprising then, that when South Africa's wine industry began to open up and winemakers started travelling, that some of them would find their way to Italy, and then come back itching to see how Italian varieties would fare if planted in the Cape winelands.


However, there is an issue with the key Italian varieties. [An exception here is Pinot Grigio, but I don't know if we can really consider this to be an Italian variety, because Pinot Gris is grown widely across the wine world and with some success.] Everyone around the wine world wants to grow Nebbiolo and Sangiovese in particular, but these varieties have proved tricky travellers. They just don’t seem to deliver anything interesting outside their homelands. Can South Africa do better than the likes of Australia and California?


Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson was one of the first to try Italian varieties. In 1989 he imported Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. 'This was the first importation of these two varieties into South Africa,' says Finlayson, 'and it was an official importation with all the government certificates.' Previously, quite a few winemakers had been implicated in an organized illegal importation effort to bring Chardonnay into the country, which ended up with an official judicial commission. 'In 1987 the government initiated a white paper enquiry in to the illicit importation of vinifera (Chardonnay) plant material,  the consequence of this enquiry,  known at the time as the Klopper commission, was a revision of the quarantine regulations surrounding the import of bud wood changing the situation from 10 years to 2 years assessment period for official importation. This opened up the system.' Finlayson continues:  'I planted the first small vineyard of these varieties in 1994 and finally managed to take a wine to market from vintage 2001, which was our first bottling of the Hannibal blend,' he recalls. 'The Sangiovese works very well here in the Hemel-en-Aarde, so long as the March ripening is not troubled by rain (it's very susceptible to botrytis). Nebbiolo is more of a challenge in that it is susceptible to wind damage as well as sunburn.'


Since then, nursery owners the Bosmans have brought in 11 varieties from Italy, with climate change one of the considerations, and have released the first South African Nero d'Avola. Still, though, Italian varieties are truly niche in South Africa, making up just 1% of plantings in the Cape. This includes 367 ha of Pinot Grigio, which makes the biggest contribution, although this is not strictly an Italian variety. The other significant varieties are Sangiovese (70 hectares), Barbera (32 ha), Nebbiolo (26 ha) and Primitivo 24 ha.


There are some really nice wines emerging from these varieties, and these are some of my favourites.


Morgenster Vespri Vermentino 2018 Swartland, South Africa
Whole-bunch pressed and fermented in stainless steel. Exotic and lively with intense citrussy fruit and some nice spiciness. There's a bit of grapefruit here as well as a hint of green tea and mint. So zippy and expressive with lots of personality and freshness. Very appealing. 92/100


Bosman Family Wines Nero d'Avola 2015 Wellington, South Africa
The only Nero d'Avola in SA. 3 hectares planted: it took 14 years after bringing it in until the first commercial release (this wine, 6000 bottles made). Fermented in tank and aged in old oak. Bright, juicy and lively with nice berry fruits. There's some freshness here. It's juicy and attractive with good acidity. Uncomplicated but tasty with nice brightness. 88/100


Idiom Zinfandel 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Concentrated and dense with nice compact, stony, grainy blackberry and black cherry fruit. There are some herb and tea notes, too. There's a silkiness and fleshiness to this wine, and it handles its ripeness really well, finishing fresh. 91/100


Arcangeli Nebbiolo 2016 Bot River, South Africa
Made in 500 litre barrels, with a stainless steel lid that can open and close. Whole bunch. 'I wanted to make a wine with infusion and not extraction,' says Krige Wisser. Very natural with a total sulfur of 16 ppm. Taut and complex with a savoury, spicy, waxy edge to the compact raspberry and cherry fruit. Floral rose petal and herb overtones. Nice grippy structure. Primary and dense with lovely focus to the wine. Serious effort. 93/100


Du Toitskloof Nebbiolo 2015 Breedekloof, South Africa

Deep sandy loam soils. 26 Brix harvest, rotor tanks, cold maceration for 3 days, then inoculated, fermented at 24 C. This is a fruit-driven yet elegant style of Nebbiolo. Very approachable with sweet red cherries and plums, with a really silky texture and some liqueur-like richness. There's some nice waxy, spicy complexity, too, with great balance and integrated structure. The tannins have been managed really well. 90/100


Morgenster Nabucco Nebbiolo 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
First planted in 1999, with two clones. Nebbiolo has brittle canes that break quickly in wind. It also has low basal bud fruitfulness so needs to be cane pruned. Lovely freshness with pure, sweet black cherry fruit. Dense and compact with nice purity and good acidity. Lovely grippy structure. Primary still, even after five years, with pure fruit. Vivid and linear. 91/100


Idiom 900 Series Barbera 2012

One of the varieties that's easy to work with and it always has lots of colour. 40% new oak, 24 months. Nicely dense and sweet with fresh black cherry and blackberry fruit. Lovely acidity with a slightly bitter twist. Nice focus here with good acidity and nice brightness. Lovely sweet and sour character with pure fruit. Impressive with plenty of impact, but also balance. 91/100


Idiom Sangiovese White Label 2015
Concentrated, dense and spicy with lots of tannin, well integrated oak, and vibrant blackcurrant, blackberry and damson fruit. Powerful and convincing with real impact and a nice bitterness on the finish. Good acidity, and nicely savoury. 92/100


Domaine des Dieux Sangiovese 2015 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
No new oak here. Convincing style: quite dense and grippy with some sweet and sour character. Vibrant red fruits with some plum and a bit of tar and herb complexity. Good structure with some damson bitterness on the finish. Structured with high acidity, showing good varietal character. 90/100


Dalla Cia Teano 2014 Western Cape, South Africa
Supertuscan-style blend. 12 barrels (4000 bottles). 30% Sangiovese with the rest Bordeaux varieties. Ripe and concentrated with tar, blackcurrant, damson and plum. Grippy and grainy with some chalk, gravel and tar, with a twist of herbaceousness. Finishes drying and firm. Nice balance: ripe and fruit forward but with good savouriness. 92/100

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