Rickety Bridge: Blazing new trails for South African wines

Even though South Africa produces more wine annually than all but six other countries, including more than Chile, New Zealand and Germany, its wines remain a bit of a mystery, especially in North American and the Caribbean.  

South Africa is considered “New World” when it comes to wine, but it’s by far the oldest of the New World, having produced wine for more than 350 years.  

There are a couple of reasons why South Africa wine remains largely unknown in North America. Distance from the market is one. The South African government’s policy of apartheid and the international trade sanctions it prompted is another.  

Although apartheid officially ended in 1994, it took South Africa a while longer to gear up for export production. In the meantime, it missed the global explosion of wine consumption, particularly in the United States, where in the 40-year period between 1960 and 2000 the annual consumption of table wine increased almost tenfold, from 53 million gallons to 507 million gallons.  

New World wine producers like Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile were all able to gain strong footholds in the American market before South Africa was ready to export on a significant basis. 

Now, however, South African wines are gaining more attention, even here in the Cayman Islands. Although some view the wines as a bit stuffy because of their reliance on Old World style without the vibrancy of New World fruit, the Franschhoek Valley winery Rickety Bridge and its young South African winemaker, Wynand Grobler, are shaking things up by producing elegant wines that are geared for the international palate.  

Innovative wines  

Last month, Grobler, along with Rickety Bridge owner Duncan Spence and sales and marketing manager Andrew Harris, visited Grand Cayman to meet with restaurateurs and to host a winemaker’s dinner at the Westin Beach Resort’s Beach House restaurant. 

Spence, who has a number of business interests in England and in South Africa, almost reluctantly became the sole owner of the winery in 2000. He set out to modernize the winery and raise the standard of the wines it produced. In 2007, he convinced Grobler to join Rickety Bridge. 

“Duncan said I could do whatever I wanted to,” Grobler said, adding that the ability to try new things was a key factor in his joining the winery.  

Much of his winemaking goes against the usual way of doing things, at least in South Africa. 

The Paulina’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, for instance uses no sulfites, is barrel fermented – as opposed to fermentation in stainless steel tanks – and then aged for five months in French oak casks, a rarity in most New World versions of the wine. 

“The oak rounds off the massive natural acidity,” Grobler said. “You still have a fresh wine, but not as sharp. You also have a wine with a lot of personality.” 

Creating good Pinotage was also a challenge for Grobler. 

Pinotage, the cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut grapes,is considered by most to be the iconic South African red grape. The wine is easy drinking with soft tannins and good acidity, making it very food-friendly. However, it often has a distinct aroma of tar or rubber that most non-South African wine drinkers find unpleasant.  

After discussing this with other winemakers in the region, Grobler said they determined that the key to good Pinotage was having a very specific fermentation temperature. Fermented too warm, it took on the rubber aromas; too cold and it smelled like bananas; but just right and Pinotage was able to shine. Rickety Bridge’s Pinotage does just that. 

“We realized that we should be treating Pinotage more like Pinot Noir,” he said. 

If there’s one grape at the Rickety Bridge winery that really brings out Grobler’s passion, it’s Shiraz. It’s not as common to find 100 percent single-varietal Shiraz in South Africa (as it is in Australia, for example), but Grobler wanted to create one at Rickety Bridge. The wine is very Old World in its style, with elegance, structure and complexity reminiscent of Syrah from France. In a blind tasting, most people wouldn’t be able to guess its South African origin. 

Single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines are also somewhat unusual in South Africa, but Grobler’s Rickety Bridge “The Bridge” is perhaps not only the best Cabernet produced in South Africa, but also maybe the best red wine made there period. 

The wine is made from grapes grown in a unique single vineyard situated on the steep slopes of the Dassenberg Mountain in Franschhoek.  

When Grobler found the vineyard after arriving, he decided to try and make wine from the small, bush-vine grapes growing there. 

“There were snakes and baboons in the vineyard. It was like the wild west almost,” he said with a laugh.  

After being aged in new French oak barrels for 24 months, the resulting wine soars with velvety complexity and elegance that has a finish that lasts for minutes in the mouth. 

All of the Rickety Bridge wines represent great value for money and most have retail prices under $25. Partially because of difficult growing location and partially because of the expensive maturation process used, “The Bridge” is easily the most expensive of the Rickety Bridge wines.  

However, put in context to similar quality wines made in other countries, “The Bridge” is still a bargain that offers a very unique and pleasurable wine experience.  

The Rickety Bridge team, from left, Duncan Spence, Amy McKee, Andrew Harris and Wynand Grobler at Agua Restaurant & Lounge. – Photo: Alan Markoff