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Everything under the sun

Published:  18 January, 2007

So how was it for you, this week's Mega Tasting of South African wines? Presumably you ate your fill of biltong and snoek pt, said howzit' to a few of the 280-plus producers flogging their wine, caught up on the latest industry skinder, and learnt that meetings promised just now didn't mean now,
this very instant' but rather in a little while' or sometimes not at all Being in the wine business, you presumably also enjoyed a dop or three (hopefully without too much of a babbelas the next morning).

Moving back to the Cape after five years in London has involved learning the lingo all over again - wearing takkies instead of trainers; stopping at red robots instead of traffic lights; and finding that lekker is the simple descriptor that winemakers most want to hear after a tasting of their wines. And this, you realise, is South African English, never mind any of our other 10 official languages. It's not for nothing that we're called The Rainbow Nation' - and also not for nothing that Wines of South Africa (WOSA) chose variety is in our nature' as its theme for the Mega Tasting.

With more than 9,600 plant species, 70% of which are endemic, the Western Cape is the smallest and the richest of the world's six great floral kingdoms. The same conditions that support this remarkable biodiversity can in turn support a large spectrum of wine varietals and styles,' is WOSA's argument.

The so-called Biodiversity & Wine Initiative is all well and good, particularly when it comes to conserving some of the Cape's most vulnerable natural habitat that might otherwise be targeted for vineyard expansion. But do international markets really buy that it is biodiversity that makes us different from any other New World country where Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz and Riesling can be found right next to each other? It seems highly unlikely that God Almighty would have given producers all the terroirs of Europe on a 40-hectare property,' points out Eben Sadie, whose handcrafted Columella and Palladius wines make a strong argument for Mediterranean-style blends. The truth is that producers have become victims of their own greed. If the market wants something, they make it. Varietals have become brands, which means people want to drink a wine labelled Sauvignon Blanc even though it tastes like battery acid'

Hopefully most of the wines you tasted this week were better than that, thanks to viticulturists and winemakers learning to handle their fruit; indeed, a percentage of every bottle sold goes towards industry research and development. But I'd far rather it went towards finding other suitable grapes for our climate than investigating the effects of shading on Sauvignon Blanc in an area where it shouldn't be planted in the first place,' says Sadie.

As one of South Africa's greatest proponents of terroir, his arguments are well thought out (he's currently compiling a guide for biodynamic viticulture in local conditions) but extreme (like I said, he's currently compiling a guide for biodynamic viticulture in local conditions). But others believe biodiversity explains our ability to plant everything under the sun. Massive mountain ranges coupled with oceanic influences from all angles explain why microclimates may differ so radically within the Western Cape, which is roughly only

the size of Bordeaux,' says Gordon Newton Johnson of Walker Bay winery Newton Johnson. And to say we have a variety of types to play with is an understatement. In our vineyards alone, seemingly sterile, organic-lacking white sandstone soils change suddenly into duplex soils with organic, dark sandy soil

on top and heavy reddish clay below, which then change into deep, gravelly yellow Tukulu soils or stone la Chteauneuf - all within a 20-minute walk!'

He goes on: Our challenge is to understand all these components and harness them. The more we embrace the non-homogenous character of our terroir, the further we will progress in establishing our identity. With minimal intervention, more complex, expressive and intriguing wines will follow. Unlike those seen elsewhere.'

The point, perhaps, is that biodiversity is South Africa's USP but it's early days. In the meantime, we can at least start developing a new visual language around our winelands,' insists WOSA CEO Su Birch, and we already believe that the words "variety is in our nature" will appeal to people on a visceral, emotional level. Even if they aren't particularly interested in terroir, they are very interested in things like genetic modification and are looking for foodstuffs and beverages that are more natural or have greater authenticity. Over time, our biodiversity message will build into an image that is extremely powerful.'