Monday, September 26, 2016

Vibrant, Value-Heavy Australian Wines from Wakefield

A kangaroo checks out the Wakefield Clare Valley Vineyard. Credit: Wakefield Wines
This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Earlier this year, I reviewed some new releases from Southern Australia's Wakefield. Well, I’m back to Wakefield again, and this reports includes some really solid buys from the mid-shelf offerings. If you’ve turned away from Australian wines generally, it might be worth turning to Wakefield wines specifically. These wines in this report are moderately priced and highly delicious, showing a stylistic trend toward brighter acidity and fresher fruit.

The Taylor family kicked off their winery in 1969, after scoring a 430-acre vineyard near the Wakefield River in Southern Australia’s Clare Valley region. These wines are known as Taylor’s in Australia but, due to trademark restrictions, they’re labeled as Wakefield in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Clare Valley wines all come from the Taylor family estate, where vineyards at more than 1,100 feet above sea level vineyards get plenty of sun but receive the benefit if large diurnal temperature swings. The St. Andrews wines come from the estate fruit grown in their terra rossa soil, while the Jaraman wines are blended with fruit from other sites.

And for those looking to splurge, Wakefield has some stunning high-end reds, the Pioneer Shiraz and Visionary Cabernet. I reviewed these wines in November 2015. Spoiler: they are amazing.

2015 Wakefield Pinot Gris - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $17
Pale lemon color. A brisk and salty appeal on the nose with floral perfume, orange peel, guava and melon — a lovely sniffer! On the palate, this is crisp and suave with bright acidity and vibrant minerality. Floral, herbal, seashell and flint notes accent the lemon, orange and guava fruit. Begs for oysters or a picnic lunch in a sunny field. Impressive stuff! (89 points)

2015 Wakefield Chardonnay Jaraman Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills - Australia, South Australia
SRP: $25
Light gold color. Aromas of green and yellow apple, almond, honeysuckle, white tea and notes of seashells. Plump and juicy on the palate but this sports surprising acidity and a fresh sense of minerals to contrast the honey and nougat richness from the French oak. Peach, baked apple and a spritz of lime mix well together in this well-balanced, vivacious Chardonnay. 51% of the fruit comes from Clare Valley, 49% from Adelaide Hills. (88 points)

2015 Wakefield Riesling Saint Andrews - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $40
Pale straw color. Gobs of white peach, papaya and fresh squeezed limes on the nose, and some chalk, mineral and floral perfume. Precise on the palate, packed with a stony mineral presence, but a waxy texture and lively fruit give the wine serious depth. Papaya, kiwi, peaches, lime juice, pretty fruit topped with river rocks, chalk, minerals and quinine. Lots going on here, but this will surely improve in the cellar. A gorgeous Clare Valley Riesling. (91 points)

2015 Wakefield Merlot - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $17
Juicy light purple color. The aromas are strong and ripe, but there’s nuance in the plum and black cherry fruit, and I get some menthol, earth and sweet violet notes. A fleshy but tart wine on the palate with refreshing acidity, medium-light tannins, and a bright mix of red and black cherry fruit – notes of dark roast coffee, violets, charcoal and eucalyptus. A bright and lively Merlot that tastes great now but could probably improve for a few years. (87 points)

2015 Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley

SRP: $17
Vibrant purple color. Aromas of cedar shavings, eucalyptus and black pepper accent the juicy red and black currant fruit. The palate shows fine-grained tannins and moderate acidity, framing this medium-plus bodied wine in a fresh package. Juicy red and black currants and plums mix off of loamy soil, eucalyptus, mint and espresso. Plenty of fruit but this has lots of freshness that make it easy and pleasant to sip, but enough to unpack for a few years in the cellar. Aged a year in 10% new French oak. (87+ points)

2015 Wakefield Shiraz - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $17
Deep purple color. A dark core of plum and blackberry fruit on the nose along with violets, loam and black pepper glaze. Silky and juicy presence on the palate with medium acidity and medium-soft tannins. Deep, dark black cherry and plum fruit but it maintains a tart edge. Notes of roasted chestnut, wet earth and pepper add some complexity. Fun, tasty stuff for near-term drinking. I like the more vibrant and less roasted appeal. (86 points)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Brief Guide to Age-Worthy Wines

Credit: Todd Paul. Wikimedia Commons
It's a question I get often from friends. They want to know what wine they can buy and bury for 10, 15, 20 years.

There is no debate: the best wines in the world can age (and improve) for a decade-plus.

So if you're looking to cellar some bottles for an anniversary or birth year of a child, I have some suggestions for you. 

Click here to read my suggestion on Snooth, as well as suggestions from a bunch of wine writers around the country.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wine Reviews: International Grab Bag

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

It’s time for another grab bag of wine reviews from all over this great big sphere of ours. This batch includes wines from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Italy and Southern France. We’ve got some serious values in here, as well.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2014 Robert Oatley Chardonnay Signature Series - Australia, Western Australia, South West Australia, Margaret River
SRP: $17
Light gold color. An almost Sauvignon Blanc-like element of grapefruit and cut grass on the nose, and I get some lime and a salty/chalky quality. Bright acidity on the palate with a medium-body and a slight rounded feel. An interesting mix of grapefruit and lime with bruised apple, almond and caramel. Notes of salt and flowers on the finish. A bit simple, but a pleasantly different style Chardonnay, one with a foot in both camps. 12.5% alcohol, this sees some time in 20% new French oak, no maloactic fermentation. (86 points)

2014 Robert Oatley GSM Signature Series - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $20
Vibrant purple color. Smells of juicy raspberries, black cherries and plums, with sweet flowers, black pepper glaze and eucalyptus. Medium-bodied, some grip to the tannins, medium acidity. Juicy, rich but vibrant – plum sauce black cherries and raspberry jam mixed with pepper, eucalyptus, loamy soil and clove. Fun stuff, very tasty but quite structured and juicy. Cedar and vanilla blended in nicely. 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvedre, this spends 9 months in French oak. (87 points)

2014 Robert Oatley Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Series
- Australia, Western Australia, South West Australia, Margaret River
SRP: $20
Light purple color. Smells of plums, juicy black cherries and currants with notes of smoky charcoal and eucalyptus. Juicy fruit and texture with fine tannins, buttressed by pleasant acidity. The black and red currant and plum fruit is vibrant, not baked or candied, and the fruit is topped in spicy tobacco, roasted red pepper, eucalyptus and charcoal notes. Integrated elements of cedar and mocha. A very nice wine for the price. (87 points)

2015 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc Gran Reserva Serie Riberas
- Chile, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
SRP: $17
Pale straw color. Bursting aromas of lime, white peach and pineapple – nice kick of nettle and honeysuckle with some sliced cucumbers and lemongrass notes. Crisp acidity keeps the lips smacking with this medium-bodied wine. Lime and lemon peel, tangerine, papaya – so much fruit and it’s all bright and crunchy. A bit of chalky minerality to this wine that is quite attractive. The white pepper, cucumber and sliced jalapeno notes are woven in well to the package, and no high-octane grassiness here. From Ucuquer Vineyard near the mouth of the Rapel River. (86 points)

2014 Concha y Toro Carménère Gran Reserva Serie Riberas
- Chile, Rapel Valley, Cachapoal Valley, Peumo

SRP: $17
Deep purple color. Rich plum and roasted fig aromas on the nose. The fruit is deep with sweet, saucy notes, and a sense of pine forest and rich soil. Medium-bodied palate with light grip from the tannins, medium acidity keeps it quite fresh. Fruit flavors: plum skin, blackberry, blueberry, deep and saucy fruit. Notes of sweet basil and wet leaves, some coffee and vanilla accents too. Structured but accessible stuff with lots of flavor and deliciousness. Good Carmenere for the price. From Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley, includes 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. (86 points)
2014 Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Serie Riberas
- Chile, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
SRP: $17
Medium purple color. Nose of bright red and black currant fruit laced with tobacco, clove, eucalyptus, vanilla. Full-bodied with some tannic grip and medium acid, and it all combines for a velvety feel. Rich black currant and blueberry fruit but silky-smooth. Pretty texture and lots of spice and herbal notes (pine, tobacco, mocha, vanilla). Gets prettier and prettier with air. Impressive stuff for the price. From the Palo Santo vineyard.

N.V. Ruffino Prosecco - Italy, Veneto, Prosecco
SRP: $12
Pale straw color. Aromas of: bright white and yellow flowers with some sugar cane, white peach and guava nectar. A tropical and floral cocktail of flavors (white peach, pineapple, guava, lime) topped with honey and perfume. Some fresh acidity keeps it vibrant. Simple, fresh, tasty, entry-level Prosecco. (85 points)

2014 Ruffino Chianti - Italy, Tuscany, Chianti
SRP: $10
Smells of tart red fruits (strawberry, raspberry) along with some menthol, tobacco and pine sap. Medium-bodied with soft tannins and fresh acidity. The red apple and cherry fruit is light and crunchy and backed up by some tobacco and pepper. A simple but pleasant entry-level Chianti, this is nice for the price. (85 points)

2011 Caiarossa Pergolaia Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $25
Deep ruby color. Aromas of smoky meat on top of crunchy plums and currants, and I get some tobacco and earth, too. Fleshy but tart approach with dusty tannic structure and bright acidity. Tart plums, spiced cranberry sauce, the fruit mixes nicely with non-fruit complexity: smoke, tar, tobacco, grilled herbs. Very nice now but likely even better in two or three years. A pleasant rusticity but this is not a simple wine. Sangiovese with 10% Cabernet Franc and 3% Merlot. This spends 12-16 months in old oak and then aged in concrete until bottling. (88 points)

2011 Caiarossa Caiarossa Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $65
Vibrant light purple color. Smells of cool berries (blackberry, blueberry, red currant) along with lots of charcoal, smoke, tar, leafy tobacco and some vanilla coffee. Structured tannins, dry but not harsh, moderating acidity keeps it vibrant. Tart red and black currant along with lots of crunchy, juicy plums. Loaded with tobacco, sage, pepper, lots of complex earthy elements. Cedar and roasted coffee woven in very well. Elegant despite significant concentration. Long life ahead. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Alicante and Syrah. Aged 18 months in 35% new French oak. (91 points)

2015 Ferraton Père & Fils Côtes du Rhône Samorëns Blanc
- France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
SRP: $14
Light gold color. A bright and floral-driven wine (dandelion, honeysuckle, nettle) with some lemon-lime and apricot. Medium-bodied with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and some moderating acidity. Pear, lime and apricot mix with notes of honey, nettle and sea salt. A plump texture but nice cut and vibrancy to the wine. Not the most complex wine but good stuff for the money. A blend of 60% Grenache Blanc and 40% Clairette. (86 points)

2015 Ferraton Père & Fils Côtes du Rhône Samorën Rosé - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
SRP: $14
Pale salmon color. Clean and fresh on the nose with red apple peel, wild raspberry and rose hips. Bright and clean on the palate with vibrant acidity and crunchy fruit (red apple, white cherry, strawberry), along with a hint of white pepper and cut grass. Simple but vibrant stuff. A blend of 75% Grenache with some Syrah and Cinsault. (85 points)

2014 Ferraton Père & Fils Côtes du Rhône Samorëns Rouge
- France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
SRP: $14
Juicy black cherry colored. Peppery and earthy on the nose with some incense sticks and smoke to accent the red and black cherry fruit. Medium-bodied with mild tannins and medium acidity. A chewy but smooth texture lays out for the black cherry and strawberry jam flavors. Notes of incense smoke and grilled herbs add a bit of spice. A blend of 85% Grenache with some Syrah and Cinsault. (85 points)

2015 Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc - New Zealand, South Island, North Canterbury
SRP: $16
Pale straw color. Smells of ruby red grapefruit and limes topped with white pepper, fresh laundry and crushed chalk. Plump but bright and crisp on the palate. Lemon pith, ruby red grapefruit and kiwi, the fruit is juicy but tangy. Notes of lemongrass, white pepper, chalk and honeysuckle. Tasty and quite complex for the price. Another solid bottle from this producer of reliable and inexpensive wines. (87 points)

2015 Mt. Beautiful Riesling - New Zealand, South Island, North Canterbury
SRP: $22
Lemon-lime color. Brisk and bright on the nose, with wildflowers, chalk, bright limes, lychee and juicy orange, too. The palate is balanced between sweet fruit and bright acidity. A light-bodied wine with an understated approach, but it’s clean and clever and has some exciting flavors (orange, lime, lychee) and notes of chalk, minerals and honeycomb. Lovely clean texture and minerals on the finish. Very impressive for the price. (89 points)

2014 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc The Brothers - New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough
SRP: $22
Pale yellow. Bursting aromas of ruby red grapefruit and nectarine, backed up with green pepper, green onion, hops and floral perfume. Crisp acid throughout but a round profile, this wine has integrated flavors of ruby red grapefruit, orange and lime. Great mix of bell pepper, nettle and hops along with honeysuckle and daisies. A classic style, but this is more than typical, it has loads of character with a clean, chalky and mineral-laden finish. Really interesting stuff, worth a shot for those who think all Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs taste the same. (88 points)

2013 Giesen Pinot Noir The Brothers - New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough, Wairau Valley
SRP: $30
Light ruby color. Smells of juicy red cherries mixed with tart strawberries and raspberries. I love the rose hips and rhubarb spice elements. Surprisingly full and chewy on the palate (14.5% alcohol), but it sports moderate acidity and fine tannins. Gushing red cherries combine with raspberry jam and strawberry rhubarb pie notes. Spicy pepper, coffee and cedar, the latter is integrated quite well. Interesting in its bold posture and chewy approach, yet it shows vibrant red fruit. For those who like a bigger Pinot but don’t want those baked/black fruit elements. A lot of fun and a cool style. (88 points)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking for Crazy Value? Grab Some Garnacha

Grenache (a.k.a. Ganacha in Spain) is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. Long a staple in blended red wines of Spain and Southern France, this Mediterranean-climate-loving red grape is more and more frequently being bottled solo.

For both wine nerds and newbs, varietal Garnacha from Spain is a category of wines worth looking into. Garnacha is a dynamic grape, which is well-suited to refreshing roses, lighter style reds for early consumption, concentrated reds for aging, fortified wines, etc. Many of these wines can bring ridiculous value to the equation. It aint easy to find a thought-provoking California Cabernet for $12, ditto for Oregon Pinot, Aussie Shiraz, and on and on — but Spanish Garnacha has this price range covered.

Since the grape has such a long history in Spain, winemakers have tons of old vines from which to source bold, concentrated fruit. The Wine Economics Research Centre estimates Spain alone has more than 170,000 acres planted to Garnacha (and about 5,500 planted to the Garnacha Blanca). And the economics of scale and demand mean a lot of these wines are able to reach American shores with $8-$15 price tags.

Last year, I tasted through some solid and inexpensive Garnacha to celebrate Garnacha Day, one of those seemingly random days of the year when purveyors of wine deem it appropriate celebrate a certain type of wine. (No excuse needed.) On September 16, I did it again, celebrating #GarnachaDay with an online tasting led by Master Sommelier and Corkbuzz owner Laura Maniec and Master of Wine Christy Canterbury. We tasted through five wines, three reds and two whites (made from the white version of Garnacha).

Talk about quality to price ratio! These five wines should be on by-the-glass lists all over the place.

Ive posted my notes on the wines below.

2015 Clos Dalian Terra Alta - Spain, Catalunya, Tarragona, Terra Alta
Medium straw color. Bright and airy aromas of green apples, apricot and white peaches, along with cucumber, flower shop and sea salt. Crisp but fleshy texture, on the palate this shows crunchy green apples and pears with notes of cut flower stems, sea salt and raw almond. Very pleasant. (86 points)

Medium gold colored. Tons of aromatics: apricots, pears, glazed apple, honeyed tea, white flowers, almond and sea salt. Creamy, smooth texture but zesty acidity. Gorgeous fruit (white peach, apricot) along with honey, almonds, cinnamon. The oak influences are matched by wildflowers and sea salt. A long, plush wine but the acidity tingles on the finish. I’m usually a bit skeptical of oak in Grenache Blanc, but this one nails it. Delicious, complex, intriguing stuff. Insane value. (90 points)

Juicy ruby color. Smells of tar, coffee and cola on top of jammy raspberries and deeper black cherries. Medium-bodied, soft tannins, fresh acidity – an easy-drinking appeal but plenty of flavor: raspberry jam, black cherry, mixed in with cola, coffee, vanilla and charcoal. Fun, juicy, easy-drinking, crowd-pleasing stuff to drink early. (85 points)

2015 Altovinum Evodia - Spain, Aragón, Calatayud
Vibrant purple color. Lots of charcoal, grilled herbs, smoke and musk on the nose, along with rich black cherry and blackberry jam. Full-bodied approach, chewy tannins, medium/low acidity, a bold and saucy wine but full of flavors: dark, jammy fruit, roasted herbs, violets, coffee and dark chocolate. A gutsy, teeth-stainer but so delicious. You can spend twice this amount on similar wines and get a lesser wine. Crazy value. (87 points)

Rich purple color. Smoky nose – cedar, dark roast coffee, dark chocolate on top of currants and black cherries. A bold fruity wine but plenty of structure and earthy complexity. Good grip from the tannins yet bright acidity. Tart currant and black cherry with earth, a nice herbal kick, cola, sweet herbs, dark chocolate. Shows potential from improvement but delicious now. (88 points)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Winery to Watch: Virginia's Early Mountain Vineyard

If you’re driving between Charlottesville and Gainesville, Virginia, on Route 29, you’ll see signs for a bunch of wineries. This little sliver of Virginia is home to some of the state’s most exciting wineries.

One of my favorite stops is Early Mountain Vineyard, located just a few miles off of Route 29 in Madison County. The scenery is beautiful and the winery and tasting room is massive, shiny and new. Also, the food. It is good to eat.

I recently stopped by Early Mountain again, this time with my wife and little girl, for lunch and a brief tasting.

I’ve pasted my notes on the wines below.

2015 Early Mountain Chardonnay - Virginia, Madison County
Well-done Virginia Chardonnay. Smells of pears and flowers, a bit of honey on fresh biscuits. Bright acidity keeps the wine crisp but there's a pretty creaminess to the wine. Delicious crunchy pear and yellow apple fruit mixed with hints of honey and white flowers. Balances out nicely with a clean finish. Fermented and aged in old oak barrels. (86 points)

2015 Early Mountain Vineyards Rosé - Virginia, Madison County
Smells lively and floral with some spice and rose hips to balance out the tart red fruit. Fruit and juicy but crisp and nervy as well. Nice spicy kick and floral perfume notes accentuate the red apple and strawberry fruit. Quite pretty, most definitely refreshing. 77% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Syrah and 3% Malbec. (87 points)

2014 Early Mountain Vineyards Foothills - Virginia, Madison County
Smells of soft, warm red berries with a good dose of pepper. Smooth and silky on the palate, a combination based on medium-tannins, refreshing acidity and smooth red and black cherry fruit. Clove, pepper and earth round out the finish. A fresher style but still structured nicely. 60% Merlot, 40% Syrah, this juice sees a mix of French oak and stainless steel. (86 points)

2013 Early Mountain Vineyards Eluvium - Virginia, Madison County
Smells a lot spicier than the Foothills blend (the Petit Verdot really shines through). I get pepper, leather and earth on top of deep black cherries. Tannins show some grip, moderate acidity balances it out, and the fruit takes a deeper, richer route toward black cherries and saucy plums. Lots of savory spices and leather notes. Nice depth and concentration; I bought a bottle to cellar for a few years. 72% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak. (88 points)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

2013 California Chardonnay & Pinots - Delicious Now, Plenty of Life Ahead

I've been ranting about California's 2013 vintage for a while. I love 2013s from pretty much everywhere in California. In 2013, a cold winter was followed by a warm spring, that triggered early bud break in many vineyards. But the year was relatively calm and uneventful, spare a heat spike in late June and early July, the weather was consistent. On the Sonoma Coast, the days were warm and the nights chilled by cold Pacific breeze.Bibiana Gonzalez-Rave, winemaker for Pahlmeyer’s Sonoma Coast wines, called the vintage ideal, a “perfect 10.” And I’ve heard similar praise from winemakers from all over the North Coast.

I've reviewed lots of rocking Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs from 2013, and I recently revisited a few of them. These wines were stellar upon release and they're aging very slowly. Seems to me 2013 is one of those vintages that produced wines that are both immediately delicious but also structured for the long haul.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2013 Dierberg Chardonnay Dierberg Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
About 15 months since I first tasted this wine and it's progressing nicely. Aromas of apples, limes and peach nectar on top of honey, chalk and salted almond. The acidity sings, making the wine precise and crystal clean, but it sports generous texture as well. Pretty peaches, limes and tropical fruit notes blend so well with these notes of minerals, river rocks, and a Muscadet-like note of seashells and ocean spray. Still young with lots of complexity to unfold. (92 points) 

2013 Alma Fría Chardonnay Plural Sonoma Coast - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Pretty much same notes as the bottle I tasted in April. I find this to be a thrilling and delicious iteration of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. If you like minerals, chalk, oceanic elements and bright acidity in your Chards, this is for you. But it also sports plenty of ripe fruit flavors and a complexity of other elements that make it so damn delicious. Beautiful in its youth but evolution ahead. (94 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir English Hill Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Man this is absolutely delicious stuff. Complex as all hell but so pretty. Rich but layered with spice and herbal complexity. Long and thought-provoking while being so damned enjoyable to sip and not parse through it all (93 points)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

South African Wines are Gaining Ground by Offering Quality & Value

If you’ve spent any time talking with me about wine and travel, you have probably heard me rant about my love for South Africa. It’s an ethereal place. The coastline of the Cape Peninsula is obscenely gorgeous, the surfing is top-notch, and the wildlife in the country’s interior grassland preserves is stunning. My trip to South Africa was the most exciting of my life.

Then there are the wines, a plethora of options that are delicious, intriguing and often inexpensive. From adventurous but value-driven white wines to $20 Pinot Noirs that slay to exceptional, age-worthy Bordeaux blends — there is no shortage of exciting regions, producers and varieties to explore.

Muratie Estate in Stellenbosch is one of many impressive wineries with even more impressive views. Photo: IJB

Despite hundreds of years’ worth of winemaking history, South African vintners have endured a steep learning curve in the post-Apartheid era. As trade restrictions lifted, exports of inexpensive bulk wine poured out into the rest of the world. For most of the 90s and well into the 2000s, South African wines developed a reputation as being decent and cheap. For the average American consumer, many of the bottles they saw were South African riffs on the critter label wines that Americans had grown accustomed to chugging.

But this is 2016, folks. South Africa is firmly established as a source of some of the world’s most dynamic wines. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in quality as winemakers seek out old vines, experiment with interesting blends, and aim to translate their unique terroir into the glass. The viticulture and oenology program at the Stellenbosch University has produced an impressive group of alumni. And South African winemaking has transitioned from catch-up mode to the cutting edge of research and modernity.

And consumers are responding. Nielsen data recently found Americans bought 14% more South African wine in the last year. And they’re also willing to pony up for the higher-end wines — the Nielsen data shows the market value of South African wine sales increased 25% during the same timeframe.

Recently, I met with Jim Clarke, the U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa (WOSA), the national trade group that promotes South African wine to the world. The guy has my dream job, traveling back and forth between South Africa and American markets, conducting tastings, educational seminars and otherwise promoting the best that South African wine has to offer. I caught up with him during a Society of Wine Educators conference in Washington, DC, to chat about South African vino. Like me, he
’s excited to see more high-quality South African wines making it across the Atlantic to shelves here in the States.

If you’re new to South African wines, or planning to explore further, I’ve outlined four wine categories that I think deserve attention.

Chenin gets its due

Chenin Blanc has be the historical backbone of the South African wine industry. Most of these wines (which were historically referred to as “Steen”) were sourced from grapes grown in high-volume vineyards and produced as bulk wines.

But because of the grape’s important place in the history of South African wine culture, there are tons of old vines scattered throughout the Western and Southern Cape regions. There is more old-vine Chenin Blanc than any other variety in South Africa, some 2,500 acres of Chenin older than 35 years in the Western Cape. And this vine is resistant to leaf roll virus, which has affected many South African vineyards and caused many vineyard owners to pull out and replant.

From a new consumer’s standpoint, it’s difficult to peg “South African Chenin Blanc” as a cohesive category. Chenin in South Africa is produced in seemingly every style imaginable — we have Champagne-method Brut, zesty and mineral-dominated wines, creamier oak-aged styles, and unctuous dessert wines. So, if Joe & Joanne McWineConsumer pick up a random bottle of South African Chenin Blanc off a retailer’s shelf, what will they get? It’s hard to know. Although some producers stick to certain styles, and I’m seeing more and more labels that provide actual information about the wine. (From “Unoaked” to “Dry” on the front label or descriptions of style and production on the back label.) But I think the key to grasping South African Chenin’s potential is to recognize that diversity, and to celebrate it.

Chenin from its motherland (France’s Loire Valley) has a fiercely dedicated following for this same reason. Loire Chenin fans are enamored with its range of styles, because each style, appellation and terroir offers a unique interpretation of this expressive grape. The same thing is happening in South Africa.

With so much old-vine Chenin available, and many years of time spent focusing on making world class wines from these vineyards, I think South African winemakers have good reason to feel positive about the future of their Chenin Blancs. Now, if we can just get more of these high-quality Chenins to markets around the U.S., I think Americans are ready to dive in.

Sauvignon Blanc deserves love, too

During my trip to South Africa, I tasted a ton of wine. One of the biggest surprises was the amount of highly delicious (and inexpensive) Sauvignon Blanc. This grape doesn’t get the amount of wine nerd credit as Chenin Blanc, but there are lots of South African producers who are taking Sauv Blanc seriously and making compelling wines.

Southern Right (part of the Hamilton Russell family of wines) makes a killer Sauv Blanc from Walker Bay (near the Southern Coast area of Hermanus) that retails in the U.S. for less than $15. Under their Ashbourne label, they release a Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend that is sometimes aged underneath the waves of the nearby ocean. This Sandstone blend is fabulous, and as a recent tasting proved, it can age very well. Further west, in the Western Cape region of Constantia, I found a bunch of tangy, mineral-driven, zesty Sauvignon Blancs. This cooler region (located on the Cape’s thumb-like peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and False Bay) boasts more Sauv Blanc than any other grape variety.

Groot Constantia is South Africa's oldest wine estate (dating back to the 1600s), and they produce a fine Constantia Sauv Blanc. Photo: IJB

There is a ton of variety in terms of style and region, of course, but overall, I find South African Sauv Blancs show a nice mix of tropical and citrus fruits on a frame of fresh acidity. They’re a bit brighter than a lot of wines from California, a bit more tropical than those from the Loire Valley, and they usually stay away from those pungent cut grass and bell pepper aromas and flavors frequently found in some wines from New Zealand. And the bang-for-you-buck equation generally favors the South African Sauv Blanc consumer.

African Bubbles Causing a Splash

Methode Cap Classique is South Africa’s designated sparkling wine. It’s made via the traditional Champagne method, and usually from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in cooler sub-regions, although Chenin bubbles can be quite delicious. The price to quality ratio of these wines blows a lot of California bubbles out of the water, especially in the usually dicey sub-$20 category.

These wines have seen serious growth in the U.S. market recently: imports are up more than 50% in from last year, according to South Africa Wine Industry Information & Systems. Nielsen data indicates that certain method cap classique labels have seen a five-fold increase in sales in the course of the last twelve months.

If you’re skeptical, check out Graham Beck’s bubbles, which are available in markets all over the United States. This producer crafts a wide range of MCC wines, but the entry-level Brut and Rose are absurdly good for the price. As you step up the quality ladder, the prices increase, but even the high-end South African bubblies outperform many similar wines from other New World regions.

Red blends – a South African specialty

The consumer focus on red blends has been fueled in large part by the overabundance of mass-produced, jammy, off-dry wines from California (think Apothic, Cupcake, etc.) But consumers also realize that the serious blended reds offer awesome juice.

Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and other Rhone varieties grow wonderfully in Western Cape spots like Swartland. These grapes are traditionally blended together to make juicy, earthy, peppery wines that pair wonderfully with grilled foods. In Stellenbosch and other regions focused on Bordeaux varieties, some of the best wines I’ve tasted are blends of Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, etc. South Africa’s traditional stalwart red grape, Pinotage, also features in many a tasty blend, adding a peppery, earthy kick.

Higher elevation vineyards in the sub-regions of Stellenbosch offer ideal growing conditions for Bordeaux red varieties. (Credit: WOSA)
Diverse soils and vineyard sites mean a lot of different grapes can find a niche within a relatively close area. And sometimes the best way to translate a sense of place is to blend multiple grapes from specific plots to create complex, age-worthy reds. At the highest end, these Bordeaux blends can compete with some of the best from other New World regions.

Some Tasting Notes

Below are some tasting notes on some South African wines I’ve tasted recently. Each wine is noted as either a trade sample or a bottle from my personal collection.

N.V. Graham Beck Methode Cap Classique Brut - South Africa, Western Cape
$12 (personal collection)
Solid sparkler for $12, which isn't easy to pull off. Light gold color. Smells of lemon curd, lime, salty-toasted baguette. Crisp and bright on the nose with apples, lemons and lots of chalk. Light, not too complex but very crisp and quite tasty. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (86 points)

2015 Fat Barrel Sauvignon Blanc - South Africa, Stellenbosch
$12 (Sample)
Medium straw color. An aromatic burst of white peach, guava, lime and green melon, backed up by white pepper, hay and honeysuckle. A bright and tart wine but it has a vibrant mouthfeel with juicy white peach, papaya, lime and melon flavors — the fruit is pure and lively. I get notes of honeysuckle, white pepper, hay and green tea as well. Finishes quite long and crisp. (87 points)

2013 Reyneke Sauvignon Blanc - South Africa, Stellenbosch
$28 (sample) 

Pretty gold color. Vibrant, intense aromas with lots of depth: peach, papaya, apricot, the fruit is layered with honeyed tea, mint and ocean spray. Plump and fleshy texture but precise acidity. Creamy peach and apricot fruit blends well with white tea, almond, cut floral stems, perfume, lingering minerals. A somewhat rare New World Sauv Blanc that will improve with time in the cellar. Long, lingering, refreshing but complex. Worth the money for sure. A biodynamic wine from the dynamic Johan Reyneke. (90 points)

2008 Ashbourne Sandstone - South Africa, Walker Bay
$20 (Personal collection)
About two years since I brought this bottle back from a winery visit in South Africa, and I think it’s gotten even metter. Nose shows green onion, bell pepper, sea salt, crunched sea shells, notes of anise and clove, too, all on top of white cherries, peaches and limes. Creamy texture but bracing acidity. Laser-beam style stuff. Tart green apples, limes, tangy peach. Complex elements of cucumber water, white pepper, sea salt, minerals, chalk and talcum powder. Wow. This is beautiful stuff – aging so nicely. Not tired by any means, but I would be hesitant to cellar this for more than two more years. Such a cool wine. Sauv Blanc with 12% Chardonnay. (92 points)

2014 Longridge Chenin Blanc - South Africa, Stellenbosch
$18 (Sample)
Aromas: salty, white tea, chalk, nettle and honeysuckle on top of lemon and quince. On the palate: bright, clean and zesty but not lean, as this has a pleasant sense of creaminess to balance out the vibrant acidity. Crisp green apples and lemon curd flavors doused in chalk, minerals, honey, white tea and candle wax notes. Deeply mineral-driven. Pretty and elegant but sports solid depth. Great stuff for the price, and I’d love to see how this ages over the next three or four years. Great bargain. (90 points)

2015 Bellingham Chenin Blanc The Old Orchards - South Africa, Paarl
$? (Sample)
Light gold color. Very pretty aromatic display: orange marmalade, honey, white tea, hints of oyster shell and crushed rocks. Medium-plus-bodied, a velvety and creamy texture but the acidity keeps the lips smacking and the feel of the wine is still refreshing. Orange marmalade, juicy peach, apricot nectar, cinnamon-spiced apple, and that’s all topped with complex notes of almond, honeycomb and sea shells. A popping, punchy but complex Chenin that could develop for at least a few years. (89 points)

2014 Badenhorst Family Wines Chenin Blanc Secateurs - South Africa, Swartland

$16 (Personal collection)
Light gold color. Pretty aromas of white tea, nettle, chalk and sea salt on top of lemon pie and apples. Fresh acid, waxy texture, lots of chalk dust, minerals and mountain stream flavors. Pure and zesty but shows plenty of lemon, apricot and papaya fruit. Quite complex for the price, and a great introduction to the quality of South African Chenin Blanc you can find for less than $20. This fruit comes from old Chenin Blanc vines (most planted in the 1960s and farmed without irrigation). The grapes come from the family farm and some neighboring fruit planted in granite soils on the north side of Paardeberg mountain in Swartland. (89 points)

2014 Delaire Graff Botmaskop - South Africa, Stellenbosch
$28 (Sample)
Dark violet color. Smells smoky and full of charcoal, some grilled herbs and menthol, all of it tossed with rich currant, blackberry and roasted fig. Full-bodied with some good grip to the tannins but tart acidity refines this bold red. Black cherries, tart currants, the juicy fruit is laced with menthol, mint, grilled herbs, charcoal and subtle vanilla. Juicy and tangy but maintains some mystique and near-term cellar potential. Very good stuff for the price. Cabernet Sauvignon with 21% Merlot, 10% Malbec and 6% Cabernet Franc aged 18 months in 30% new French oak. (89 points)

2013 Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies - South Africa, Western Cape

Juicy, deep ruby color. Smells of red and black cherries, juicy plums, and lots of smoke, charcoal, bacon fat and coffee. Fleshy and juicy on the palate but sports some solid tannins and medium acidity. Tart black currants meet pulpy cherries and red plums. I like the mix of smoke, tar, black olive, cola and charred meat. This blend works, as it shows lots of up-front Pinotage elements but I think the Shiraz and Cabernet flesh it out and keep the funky notes from dominating. Delicious now but will improve for two to four years easily. Aged 24 months in 22% new French oak. (88 points)