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)

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