South Africa has produced wines in the area of Cape Town since the 17th century, but the country's significant place in the U.S. market is far more recent. During the era of apartheid, trade sanctions imposed on imports from South Africa kept these wines out of the U.S. and many other markets, with the effect that local South African winemakers had little incentive to produce wines that could compete in a global setting, and had limited experience with new developments in the world of wine. In fact, during apartheid most of the country's grape growers sold their fruit to co-ops, who turned it into distilled alcohol on the one hand, and sherry and port on the other. With the end of sanctions in 1991, the U.S. market was suddenly flooded with mostly low-end, mediocre wine from South Africa.
Little more than a decade later, the quality of South African wine has soared, thanks in large part to widespread replanting of virused vines and grafting over new vines onto virus-free rootstock. Replacing virus-weakened vines has enabled grape growers to producer riper fruit that is less likely to show the green or tea-like flavors that plagued South Africa's wines in the past. Then, too, a new generation of winemakers has benefited from more extensive contact with the outside world, and the country's producers now know what they must do to compete in an international arena. Today, South Africa is the world's number eight producer of wine, supplying everything from crisp, vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs to structured, serious Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends. The best of these are satisfying and characterful wines that are midway between Old and New World in style.
Rich and dry, with aromas of wild flowers
Seafood, mountain cheeses
Like its conventional blending partner Marsanne, Roussane is most frequently associated with the northern Rhone Valley. It joins Marsanne as the only white varieties grown in the appellations of St. Joseph, Hermitage, and Crozes-Hermitage. When blended, these two varieties produce rich, full-bodied white wines that reach their finest expression in the appellation of Hermitage.
Some Rhone producers are also making single-varietal Roussanne, generally under the vin de pays classification. While more stringent than the vin de table classification, this allows producers to grow grapes that don't necessarily correspond to appellation regulations. Choosing wines from this classification requires extra care, but some of the top producers make wines that are equivalent or even superior to AOC wines. Here, we recommend single-varietal Roussane from Domaine Cuilleron.
Roussanne is not grown widely outside of the northern Rhone, in part because it's not an easy grape to cultivate, especially for quality. Not only are yields irregular, but the grape is also especially sensitive to mildew, rot, wind, and drought. Combine these obstacles with the limited recognizability of the grape in the marketplace, and it becomes clear why plantings of Roussanne are limited.
Still, we're encouraged by some of the efforts to cultivate the variety in California, notably in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Here, winemakers like Alban Vineyards and Qupe Cellars are making dry, rich and aromatically complex Roussannes. Other California producers are using Roussane as a major blending wine, like Kongsgaard, who evenly mix Roussanne and Viognier to make one of the best Rhone-styled wines outside of the Rhone. We also sometimes stumble across single varietal Roussanne from Australia - one notable name is d'Arenberg.
Roussanne pairs well with seafoods and with mountain cheeses like cave-aged Comte and Gruyere.