Pariahs no more: South African wine rebounds
By Mark Criden
Time was, calling South Africa a pariah was an insult to pariahs everywhere.
Grapevine in front of mountain. Shot near Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa.
Despite a 350-year winemaking historysettlers provided wine to Dutch East India Company sailors to reduce the risks of scurvySouth Africa has rarely been regarded as a source of great wine. Sure, there was a period in the eighteenth century when its famous Muscat-based dessert wines were the toast of Europe, but for the next 250 years, patchiness was pretty much the standard. During most of the twentieth century, winemaking was dominated by the largely mediocre KWV cooperative, whose principal objective was quantity, not quality. It was the place to come for rubbing alcohol or grape juice, and little in between.
And then there was South Africa’s other wee problem: global trade sanctions brought about because of the country’s notorious racial inequity. Apartheid, it turned out, was extremely bad PR for the South African wine industry. As pariahs go, South Africa languished as a viticultural backwater, its wines being objectionable on political as well as gustatory grounds. But fifteen years ago, apartheid fell and South Africa began a new era of winemaking. Although hardly complete, a quality revolution has swept the Cape’s wine trade, and it’s not hyperbole to suggest that South African winemakers are in the midst of a significant renaissance.
South Africa’s wine industry is moving forward with more bottlings and better overall quality each year. Winemakers now have much more exposure to global influences. A new generation of postapartheid winemakers has brought zest and vision for the wines they want to make. They have learned to better match grape varieties to specific sites. Now most of the country’s best winemakers use French oak to raise their reds and whites, with a resulting elegance that transformed the taste of top Cape wines. After working in virtual isolation for decades, their wineslike all South African producehave emerged from backwater to world-class in less than two decades.
So what are they like? Over the summer, some friends and I tasted through a range of wines from Cape Classics (see sidebar) and found that, at their best, South African wines exemplify a fusion of old and new world styles. The finest have the ripe, sunny fruit of Australia and California, with the reserve, complexity and structure of fine European wines. We found that the best come from the areas in the very southern tip of the country, where the fierce African heat gives way to a climate suitable for growing wine grapes, with moderating influences from the Indian Ocean to the south and breezes from the Atlantic Ocean to the west. There, the Cape Winelands are made up of more than sixty official appellations, with Stellenbosch and Constantia the best known wine-growing areas. Stellenbosch, a very mountainous region located east of Cape Town is home to some of South Africa’s most heralded estates. Constantia, just south of Cape Town, is South Africa’s “cradle of winemaking,” where the Cape’s most important vineyards were planted in the late 1600s.
Unlike Europe, though, with its emphasis on place as the determinant of wine quality, South Africa is a varietal-conscious wine country like California and Australia. In France, you’ll find Cote Rotie and Chambertin. In South Africa, like other new world wine regions, it’s Syrah and Chenin Blanc. While Cabernet Sauvignon has traditionally been South Africa’s premium red variety, Syrah is becoming increasingly important, along with the local hero, Pinotage (see sidebar). While South Africa produces all the classic global white varietals, including Chardonnay and Riesling, it’s Chenin Blanc, the great grape of the Loire Valley, that’s the most widely planted. Often called Steen, Chenin Blanc in the Cape generally produces dry, fruity, unserious wines, but it’s a versatile grape and in the right hands can be fashioned in a variety of styles including oak-aged and dessert wines. Sauvignon Blanc has also emerged as one of South Africa’s most successful wine grapes.
Although the country is the world’s ninth largest producer of wine, and as good as these wines have become, South African winemakers continue to operate in relative obscurity. It’s a great mystery why these bottlings are not more celebrated, but there’s little doubt that they have not exactly become a mainstream part of the American marketplace. Maybe it’s the lack of iconic winesengines for a wine area like Lafite Rothschild is for Bordeaux, or Mondavi is for Napa, the kind that raise the profile of an area in foreign markets. South Africa has no vinous superstars that stride the global stage. Maybeand this is a particularly American problemthey’re not expensive enough to connote quality.
Or maybe, just maybe, pariah status dies hard. It’s time to get over it. If you are seriously interested in good values today, at all levels on the quality scale, South Africa is an aisle you should visit. In fact, there’s a good case for suggesting that of all the new world wine nations, South Africa’s wines represent about the best value for your money.
Help pariahs atone. Buy these wines. Then stay tuned. In fifteen years, we’ll be praising North Korean Chardonnay.
Mark Criden is a nonprofit executive and the former chair of the Buffalo Branch of the International Wine & Food Society.
I’ve never tasted a Pinotage I liked, because I largely object to the flavor of baked banana in my reds, and wholeheartedly object to the aroma of burnt rubber. You may feel differently.
In 1925, Stellenbosch University viticulturist A. I. Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, thus creating the frankengrape Pinotage. For decades, South Africa tried to convince the world that the bitter brew this grape produced was an ideal engine for its wine industry, but the resulting coarse wine usually projected a pungency that smelled of paint and band-aids. These aromas can be tamed by a judicious soaking in oak barrels, but, really, why bother?
If you want to find out for yourself, you could do worse than the 2004 Kanonkop ($27) or the 2000 Warwick ($16).
|A dozen from the Cape
This summer, we had the chance to taste a mostly convincing selection of South African wines, courtesy of importer Cape Classics. Established in 1992, Cape Classics is today one of the leading importers of the Cape’s wines. With a few exceptions, this was an impressive, eye-opening experience.
1. According to legend, the Kanu was a mythical bird whose appearance in African skies signaled the blessings of a bountiful harvest. The 2007 Kanu Chenin Blanc ($10) was fresh and lively, a little floral gem that would excel with grilled vegetables and pasta.
23. Indaba, the Zulu word for a tribal leaders’ gathering, is a socially conscious estate, a portion of whose proceeds supports scholarships for students from formerly disenfranchised communities. The crisp, tasty 2007 Indaba Chardonnay, while not complex, had considerable appeal. Even better was the 2007 Indaba Shiraz, a smooth, supple, juicy red that would be a dead-on match for a bacon cheeseburger. Both run $10, and if I were Australia’s Rosemount, I’d be looking over my shoulder.
4. Buitenverwachting embraces a variety of holistic farming practices, and even allows free running baboons to perform a natural “green cropping.” Thankfully, no hint of baboon appears in the elegant 2007 Buitenverwachting Beyond Sauvignon Blanc ($12), a delicious white with a zesty, limey, minerally tang.
5. The heralded Thelema Mountain Vineyards has gained some acclaim as one of South Africa’s elite producers. Its 2007 Thelema Sauvignon Blanc ($19) was more complex than the prior wine, with lively, grapefruit-tinged minerality and a good, juicy finish. I’d love this with a fresh tomato salad.
67. Mulderbosch winemaker Mike Dobrovic, who imparts a little poetry into his winemaking, is a cult figure in South Africa. We tasted two poetic Dobrovic wines, the fabulous 2007 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc ($21), a very complex white that was firing on all cylinders. This serious wine shows how South Africa can be a source of world-class Sauvignon Blanc. The excellent 2004 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound ($22), a Bordeaux blend, while not subtle, was chock full of spicy, dark fruit flavors. This wine was a real crowd-pleaser and quite a mouthful for $22.
8. The 2006 Excelsior Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($10), while not complex, would be a fine burger wine. It was odd for a cabernet, with sweet pomegranate aromas, which, while pleasant, were not for the traditionalist.
9. We thoroughly enjoyed the 2006 Brampton Cabernet Sauvignon ($14), a plump, juicy, and loamy red that had quite a nice finish and amusingly smelled like black gold mulch. This would be great with grilled ribs.
10. Despite its reputation, and high praise from a variety of critics, we found the Bordeaux-inspired 2005 Rustenberg John X. Merriman ($30) practically undrinkable. Our bottle was out of balance, overly tannic, with aromas dominated by ammonia and vinegar. Maybe this was an off bottle, but it was a poor showing for one of South Africa’s most famed bottlings.
11. The stunning 2005 Rudi Schultz Syrah ($37) is a beautiful bottle, but too young for current consumption. The aromas are all raspberry and black pepper, with rich, chocolaty flavors and an endless finish. It’s fiercely tannic and needs several years in the bottle to resolve, but should be world-class syrah at the end of its journey.
12. Finally, the wine of the night was the 2005 De Toren Fusion V ($45), a stunning, world-class Bordeaux blend, complex, well-balanced, and silky, with a long, lingering finish. It’s easy to see why this bottling has become legendary with Cape aficionados. Although not cheap, this is an astonishing bargain for what’s in the bottle.
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