South African wines definitely worth a taste
We have been writing about the wines of South Africa for years and have recommended looking for them, but it seems clear from our visits to wine stores that South African wines haven't caught on as quickly as wines from some other places.
While the amount of South African wine imported into the U.S. tripled from 2002 through last year, the figure is still pretty small and has been fairly flat for the last couple of years. And consider this: As recently as 1999, America imported more wine from South Africa than New Zealand. Now, New Zealand's exports to the U.S., by volume, are about double those of South Africa.
To be sure, South Africa is working against all sorts of odds. While it has a centuries-long tradition of winemaking, much of that effort went toward domestic consumption during the years in which the country was shunned. The industry has only begun to compete internationally, with better wines and more popular grape types, in the past 15 years or so.
South Africa's own special grape is the unusual Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which is distinctive but unlikely to set the world on fire. South Africa's most-widely planted grape is Chenin Blanc, which was traditionally called Steen there. American wine drinkers are unlikely to warm to a wine called Steen, but the name Chenin Blanc carries its own baggage because of all the cheap, sweet, charmless, generic American white wines called Chenin Blanc over the years.
So we wondered if American consumers are slow in embracing South African wines for good reason or if they're missing something. We decided to focus on South African Sauvignon Blanc, which is pretty widely available and which we've liked in the past. While we were at it, we decided to try a few South African Chenin Blancs to get a sense of the state of the art of that varietal.
Our verdict: If you are seriously interested in good values today, this is an aisle you should visit. We found the wines consistently good and consistently interesting. Winemakers all over the world are making good Sauvignon Blanc these days but these have their own, distinctive styles.
Sauvignon Blanc classically has smells of fresh-cut grass and juicy, up-front tastes of various tropical fruits, such as kiwi and passion fruit. The best of these, though, were more dramatic, with the most amazing tastes of bell peppers. Now, wait a minute. We know most people don't like green pepper in their wine. But have you ever had a really fresh, really ripe green pepper, the kind that bursts with sweet juice when you cut it? We have. That's what many of these wines brought to mind. They were juicy and bright, with significant varietal flavors.
Several had a hint of minerals and the kind of complexity -- interesting layers and different tastes depending on the temperature and the food -- that we look for in a fine wine. In wine after wine, the finish was long, clean, fresh and lovely. While even some good Sauvignon Blancs have exciting tastes at the front of the mouth and lively finishes but not much going on in the middle, many of these were complete, with interesting tastes from beginning to end. They also had a certain weight that made them more sophisticated than many other Sauvignon Blancs.
What's more, the prices were great; all of our favorites cost less than $20, and four cost less than $10. Our favorite, Southern Right, is owned by Anthony Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards, one of our longtime favorite South African wineries. The importer says the winery made about 10,000 cases of the Sauvignon Blanc, of which 3,600 cases were imported into the U.S. and distributed nationwide.
We thought it would be fun to move on to some Chenin Blancs to see how they compared. Our sample wasn't as large because we didn't intend to conduct a full tasting, but lightning struck early. While Chenin Blanc is a devalued name in the U.S., it's one of the world's great grapes when it's done right, especially in the Loire Valley of France, and can make luscious, long-lived wines.
To our delight, we discovered a wine that fulfilled that promise in our very first flight. "Seriously grown-up wine with remarkable clarity," we wrote. "Very crisp, dry and clean, but not lacking fruit -- especially green apples -- and minerals. Focused and extremely clean. Good for a fancy dinner party. Bright and confident, with an endless, clean finish." We rated this wine Delicious. It turned out to be Vinum Africa 2006. The price: $10.95. Outrageous. The importer says the winery made 3,500 cases of the 2006 Chenin Blanc, of which 1,500 were imported and distributed in 12 states.
A match for food
We found the Chenin Blancs beautifully dry, well-made and quite different from the Sauvignon Blancs. While Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and juicy and fun, Chenin Blanc has broader tastes, the kind of flavors to build a meal around as opposed to the kick-back-and-relax tastes of gulpable Sauvignon Blanc. As Dottie said about one: "It's soft, but just plain pleasing. It doesn't shout. It's comfortable playing second fiddle to food."
We also felt the Sauvignon Blancs would never be more charming than today, while the Chenin Blancs could age beautifully for a few years.
Not all of the South African whites were winners, of course. When you taste one, remember this word: focus. To us, the difference between the best and the rest was a clean, clear, crisp focus of flavors. If you taste one and the flavors seem diffuse and don't seem to go ping in your mouth, try another.
Still, throughout the tasting, we talked about how few of the wines were losers. The average level of quality, especially considering the price, was high. The wines were generally well-made and sometimes risky. They're worth more attention than they are getting from consumers.