There are hundreds of grape varieties that can be made into wine – and many dozens across the world that are – but here in South Africa we deal in only a handful. The reasons for this are manifold; we didn’t start with much choice in indigenous varieties, the ones we use now were shipped in by boat by the colonialists, and in the modern age when they could arrive swiftly we are wary of plant disease and new varieties spend years in quarantine.
Even though our grape gene pool is pretty small to begin with, some are disappearing from the scene. Like zinfandel. It was never a variety that was planted in swathes, but it certainly had a place in the line-up. Today, the John Platter Guide lists four producers who make zinfandel in South Africa: Zevenwacht, Blaauwklippen, Glen Carlou and Idiom. Glen Carlou made one for the Cape Winemaker’s Guild and not as a regular range wine, so we can discount them, which leaves us with only three wineries that make zin.
Walter Finlayson is credited as being the champion of zinfandel in South Africa. Working at Blaauwklippen in the late 1970s, he proposed it as a blending partner but it soon took on a life of its own, and Finlayson won the first ever Diner’s Club award in 1982 with a 1980 Blaauwklippen Zinfandel.
“Taking a life of its own” carries more than a metaphoric meaning when it comes to zin, for it’s a wine with a savage side – often described as having an “animale” quality. It has a meaty, savoury dimension under its abundant red fruits, like a beast hiding beneath a berry bush. Put this with a red grape that’s got gentle tannins and high natural acidity and you have a variety that you either love or leave.
Zinfandel ages remarkably well because of this firm acidity, and at Blaauwklippen, where they never stopped making it, the older vintages (even a 1987) are still lively, while the current release 2005 is a wine of multiple dimensions (spice, sun-dried tomato, blackberries) and certain acidity. This characteristic also lends the wine to successful food pairing, of course, and it’s a natural for meats.
Blaauwklippen see a prominent place for zinfandel in their future, aside from its regular spot as a red wine, they have released a White Zinfandel 2007 and a Noble Late Harvest Zinfandel 2007. White zin is no stranger to the American palate, but there it’s often a dreary white. Blaauwklippen’s is perfumed and fresh with “Turkish Delight” nuances. I enjoyed it. Their Noble Late is more challenging to my palate, rich and very savoury, with a little too much of the animale for me to tame.