South African Diversity

by Everett Hutt
July 27, 2009

Most of the time, I dread business trips; although I get to travel to top destinations, such as Buenos Aires, Dubai, Tokyo, Milan, and Birmingham, UK — well perhaps not the last one — I almost never get the time to see anything. And when I’m stuck in hotels or running between business meetings, the meals can often be just as uninspiring. This being said, when the trip takes me to wine-producing or wine-loving countries, I often make some great discoveries.

Such was the case on my recent business trip to South Africa. I was there for a mere four days running between meetings. Still, I managed to taste, either via glass or bottle, at least a dozen wines, mostly at business dinners.

What struck me, as always when I go to South Africa, is the diversity of the wines made there. Most South African wines I have tasted outside the country seem targeted to compete with Australian or Argentine wines. While there is nothing wrong with this, as there is certainly a large market for that, the diversity I found when merely tasting at hotels and restaurants showed a broader range of styles.

Take, for example, the 2006 Constantia Rhine Riesling from Buitenverwachting. This lovely light wine tasted of green apples and had only 11% alcohol. For R125 (South African rand) a bottle (~$16), it was light on the pocketbook, too. Similarly, the 2007 Paarl Lifestyle Sauvignon Blanc from volume cooperative KWV was a pleasant surprise. It too was light and fun with notes of dried straw followed by a crisp aftertaste. Perfect for quaffing on a hot day, and at R112 (~$14.50), it was a steal!

The 2007 Stellenbosch Chardonnay from Jordan (sold as Jardin in the US) was priced higher at R180 (~$23) but also aimed higher. I have been tasting Jordan wines since the late 1990s and am always impressed with their combining of flavor cues from both California and Burgundy. In this case, the initial impression is of a butterscotch richness, which mellows out quite suddenly into a ripe apricot finish. This bottle will improve with age.

The diversity in red wines was just as striking, even if the price tag was usually much higher. I have always been a fan of the South African grape Pinotage, a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault created in 1925. In the immediate post-Apartheid years, South African wineries made a play to make this the signature grape of South Africa. It did not pan out, but you can still find many original wines made from it. An example is the 2004 Rijk’s Private Cellar Pinotage. This red wine had tight tannins that were just starting to smooth out. It oozed flavors of blueberries and blackberries. A highly original wine, priced accordingly at R300 (~$39).

There are also interesting variations on more internationally known varietals. The 2004 Meerlust Stellenbosch Pinot Noir (R300 or ~$33). Meerlust is one of the most well-known wineries in South Africa, and it is a large exporter. I would highly recommend you pick up this silky smooth Pinot that has wonderful flavors of fresh cherries. Perfect now, should be even better with a few more years of bottle ageing.

Finally, I was very pleasantly surprised by a celebrity wine from golfer Ernie Els. He has clearly done himself right by partnering with Jean Engelbrecht and top winemaker Louis Strydom. The 2004 Engelbrecht Els Proprietor’s Blend has a Bordeaux-style base of 50% Cabernet, 12% Petit Verdot, 5% Cab Franc, and 5% Malbec. The addition of 23% Shiraz adds a twang of power and depth, giving it’s blackberry taste almost a tinge of coffee flavor. But at R525 (~$68), it was by far the most expensive bottle I tasted.

So the next time you are in a wine store or at a restaurant with an extensive wine list, I highly encourage you to search out South African wines. Explore their diversity. Enjoy their (mostly) moderate prices. And take a chance on some of the lesser-known producers or grape blends if you can find them. You will not regret it.

Note: All wine prices quoted are for a bottle in a restaurant in South Africa.

 

Comments (2)

Kevin Karl

Jul 30, 09:19 AM

Thank you, Everett, for looking at this under-appreciated wine region. South Africa is making some really great wines, especially sparklers. In the US, I have seen Graham Beck pretty frequently and it is certainly a good value.

Cheers!

Courtney Cochran

Sep 3, 12:20 PM

Enjoyed this! I find that the Bordeaux-style reds and Sauvignon Blanc (also a Bordeaux variety) are the best wines I taste from South Africa. They strike a fine balance between Old and New World styling – a feat I only find in wines from this country!

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