New Wave of Italian Varieties in the Cape

Friday, 5 October, 2018
Graham Howe
Italian grape varieties are thriving in the Cape winelands, adding diversity to the national vineyard.

High on the slopes of Sir Lowry’s Pass, a tapestry of 17 varieties are planted in the terraces of Idiom’s  Da Capo Vineyards. Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Primitivo (Zinfandel) grow alongside an eclectic mix of Bordeaux, Rhône, Spanish and even South African (Pinotage) varieties. CEO Roberto Bottega, son of the South African Italian family which planted the first vines here in 1999, comments, Idiom is one of the leading producers of Italian varietal wines in South Africa.  It makes perfect sense for us to expand and take ownership of the Italian wine space in the country”.

Tastings of the new wave of South African Italian wines at Cape Wine 2018 under new/unusual varieties drew the crowds. A collection of top producers of Italian varieties in the Cape – including Ayama, Arcangeli, Idiom, Terra del Capo (Rupert Wines), Morgenster and Bosman Family Vineyards – attracted great interest. Roberto says Italian varieties are taking on an exciting new identity transplanted to the new world. “These wines are a breath of fresh air in a country where the French footprint is so strong – where fifteen French varieties account for some 80% of plantings.”

In late 2005 I attended an Idiom launch at Ellerman House. Patriarch Alberto Bottega explained the inspiration for the naming of Idiom and Da Capo Vineyards. Idiom, meaning a unique linguistic expression, is a metaphor for the expression of terroir in wine. Da Capo means “from the beginning” as well as “from the Cape”. Bottega recalls attending a concert by the Three Tenors. When Luciano Pavarotti asked which song they should perform as an encore, the President of Italy replied, “Da Capo”, meaning from the beginning! “When you finish a bottle of wine, you should also start again”.

The new tasting centre, deli and restaurant at Idiom is an architectural showcase with stunning views over False Bay – and a focus on all things Italian. Their Vinotria cellar offers tutored and comparative SA/Italian tastings of over 250 wines from 40 benchmark Italian producers and regional varieties from north to south, from the Bottega family’s native Friuli to Tuscany and Sicily. Roberto comments, “We have learnt a tremendous amount about the wines of Italy. These reference points have allowed us to monitor the progress, quality and style of the Italian varietal wines we produce, and better understand the potential of our Cape terroir”. Idiom’s Italian Festival in March 2018 drew 3000 visitors – and makers of top crus will lead tastings at a Prosecco Weekend in late November.

The late Giulio Bertrand, owner of Morgenster in Somerset West, was a pioneer of Italian grape varieties (and of 4,3 million olive trees) in the Cape. He has left a proud legacy, Morgenster’s Italian Collection – Nabucco (Nebbiolo), Tosca (Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot) and Caruso Rosé (Sangiovese) – which remain benchmarks of what Italian varieties can achieve in Cape terroir. At the launch of Morgenster’s Vespri Vermentino 2017 – sourced from a clone originating on the island of Sardinia - winemaker Henry Kotzé commented, Italian varieties do very well in South African soils and climate. Piedmont and the Cape are very similar – and Tosca is our take on super Tuscans like Antinori. The vision is to make Morgenster the world leader of South African Italian varietal wines”.

In an exchange of knowledge and skills, the winemaking team of Morgenster have spent time in the vineyards of Tuscany and Piedmont learning how to work these varieties.  Kotzé describes Morgenster Vermentino as combining the fruit-driven character of Sauvignon Blanc, the creamy texture of Chenin, the perfume of Muscat, the ripe peach and yellow fruit of Viognier and the spice and terpines of Riesling. He says Nebbiolo expresses a different style of Italian fruit to any other variety in South Africa. I left with a poignant memory of sitting next to Mr Bertrand over lunch, talking about sourcing unique clonal material from Italy to capture the big dusty, savoury, rosemary, sage and thyme quality of Nebbiolo. “I am a sailor at heart” he said of his last visit to Sardinia, calling Nebbiolo “his heartbeat”, adding “Vermentino will be the last of my Italian varietals at Morgenster”.  

Arcangeli Vineyards in Bot River is the newest Italian venture in the Cape winelands. Originally planted as Feiteras Vineyards, where it won a reputation for its Verdelho, it has switched from Portuguese to Italian ownership. I caught up with winemaker Krige Visser (whose other well-known venture Is Mount Abora Vineyards in Riebeek-Kasteel) at Cape Wine 2018 – where he was showing Arcangeli’s maiden Romulus Nebbiolo – as well as their highly-rated Semillon and Verdelho (both rated 4,5 stars in Platter’s 2018 South African Wine Guide) – under the winery’s stylish new label.     

Ayama Wines in the Voor Perdeberg on the outskirts of Paarl is another Italian affair. Back in 2014, I joined Italian owners Atillio Dalpiaz and winemaker Michela Sfilgoi when we helped palnt the first Vermentino vineyard in South Africa. (We also enjoyed a fabulous benchmark tasting of Vermentino from its native Sardinia). The first commercial release of Vermentino in the Cape, the 2016 vintage was released in mid-2017. Michela comments, “Vermentino is a perfect match for our hot and windy terroir and long dry summers, with our clay and decomposed granite soils with low water retention. It creates powerful, aromatic white wines.” I loved the floral aromatics of Vermentino – the exotic Mediterranean flavours of figs, tomato, thyme and mint, and the salty Sardinian tang of the wine.

My learning curve in Italian varieties continued at Bosman Family Vineyards near Wellington, one of the leading vine nurseries in Africa. The viticulturist spoke about how they learned from working with grape growers in Italy and Spain to develop new, drought, heat and disease-resistant varieties to fight global warming. Cellar master Corlea Fourie led a tasting of the innovative Bosman wines. On the Italian theme, I enjoyed their maiden Nero d’Avola, a ten-year old project – the #1 Sicilian variety which thrives in arid, hot climates - a fragrant lifestyle wine with charming candied cherry and liquorice flavours. In early November 2018, they will launch a bold new premiere version of their Nero wine. We finished with a maraschino cherry and cinnamon twist of Dolce Primitivo made from sundried botrytis Zinfandel grapes – one of Matthew Jukes’ top three wines at a London tasting.

Back in 2002, I recall listening to Marchesi Piero Antinori, the guest speaker at the Nederburg Auction of Fine Wines. The legendary Italian winemaker called Nederburg’s Italian red 2001 “a very unusual blend” and took a few bottles back to Tuscany. I wonder what his countrymen thought of the brave new world experiment? It evolved into the Ingenuity Red Italian blend (a blend led by Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo). At a Cape tasting of his renowned Tignanello 1998 and Tenute Antinori 1997 (“the best vintage of the century”), the sixth-generation winemaker commented, “The wine cultures of the old and the new worlds are different but complementary. There is more emphasis on appellation and wine of origin in the old, more emphasis on grape variety in the new.”

Italian varieties may make up a miniscule proportion (under 1%) of the South African vineyard – but they are singing as sweetly and loudly as the three tenors. At least thirty Cape cellars have at least one Italian variety in their portfolio – most commonly, best-selling Pinot Grigio (inter alia big brands like Flat Roof Manor, Two Oceans, Nederburg, Overhex, Idiom). Watch out too for local producers like Altydgedacht (pioneers of a standalone Barbera since 1992), Anura (Sangiovese), Trizanne (Barbera), Bouchard Finlayson (the flagship Hannibal Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, etc blend), Steenberg (Nebbiolo), Du Toitskloof (Nebbiolo), Mount Sutherland (Nebbiolo) La Vierge (Satyricon Sangiovese), Merwida (Barbera, Pinot Grigio), Blaauwklippen (with their specialist signature range of Zinfandel, known as Primitivo in Italy) and Anthonij Rupert’s Terra del Capo series (Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio), are building the brand, making fine wines from Italian cultivars.  Where else in the world but Malmesbury would you find labels like Hofstraat Renosterbos Barbera with a bray – or Dagbreek Nebbiolo from Rawsonville (certified under the new alternative red/white variety?) 

 

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Idiom Italian varietals
Idiom Italian varietals



Da Capo Vineyards
Da Capo Vineyards

Morgenster Italian Collection
Morgenster Italian Collection

Ayama Vermentino
Ayama Vermentino

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