Focus on South Africa

A whirlwind trip to South Africa at the end of August (late winter in the Southern Hemisphere) gave me a chance to view this dynamic, spectacularly beautiful wine-producing region firsthand. The pretext for the trip was the opportunity to judge South African wines for the annual South African Airways Wine List Selection. In the midst of and just following this three-day event, I was able to squeeze in visits to a number of the top producers in Stellenbosch and Paarl, the epicenter of Cape wine production, before crossing this sprawling country in search of "the big five" (and I don't mean Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and Haut-Brion). Even your intrepid correspondent manages to escape wine reviewing now and again, although I should note that the superb game park I visited with my wife had a very well-stocked, below-ground cellar from which guests could select their dinner wines. It's tough living in the bush.

While many of the hundreds of wines clamoring for recognition at the wine competition were unexciting-if not dilute, herbaceous, oxidized, overacidified, short, squashed by oak, or some combination thereof-my visits to the better wine farms of South Africa allowed me to observe first-hand the seriousness of purpose and the sophistication of the top estates and their winemakers. I was also surprised to discover just how inexpensive South African wines are in the local market. In Vaughan Johnson's wine shop in the tourist-covered Waterfront district of Cape Town, very few South African bottles cost more than the local equivalent of nine or ten bucks. This is partly due to the fact that the South African rand is worth only a fraction of what it was even a decade ago. While these wines are obviously considerably more expensive for U.S. wine lovers, owing to our three-tier system of importer, wholesaler/distributor and retailer, the best of them offer excellent value Stateside, and it is possible to find outstanding bottles in the $20 range.

On the following pages, I have provided brief profiles of the producers I visited at the end of August, as well as notes on their current or upcoming releases. I was able to retaste many of these wines in New York in January and February. Following the producer profiles are notes on scores of additional recommended current releases I have tasted in recent weeks.

South Africa's best varieties and blends.Here's a synopsis of the categories of South African wine likely to be of greatest interest to wine consumers outside South Africa:

Sauvignon blanc: Already very good and moving up fast, with the best examples closer in style to those of the Loire Valley than to white Bordeaux or oakier California versions. Wines in the no-oak style can approach New Zealand sauvignon in quality, flavor intensity and verve, and they're less expensive.

Chardonnay: Why not? Everyone else does it. But in my experience, relatively few South African chardonnays offer real excitement. Hamilton Russell and the Vergelegen Reserve come to mind as notable exceptions (the former chardonnay was most recently reviewed in Issue 101).

Pinotage: Some growers seem to be forming doubts about this quintessential South African cross between pinot noir and cinsaut developed at Stellenbosch University in 1925, but the best of these wines are as distinctive as any Cape wines. The grape is also perfectly suited to the Mediterranean climate of the Cape. While there are still too many dry, baked, high-toned, old-school versions closer to bad Southern French cinsaut than to fresh pinot noir, internationally minded estates have been extremely successful at updating their pinotage to retain primary fruit character without sacrificing their distinctive rusticity.

Pinot noir: Winemakers in South Africa, as in so many other places, have embarked on the quest for the holy grail, and I'm not sure why. Sure, there's an enormous diversity of terroirs and microclimates in the southwestern corner of South Africa, and the cooler spots, particularly Walker Bay, are no doubt well-suited to pinot. But South Africa already has its own fascinating but maddening variety in pinotage.

Merlot: No way. Most of the varietal bottlings I've tasted to date are weedy and/or vegetal, and there's already too much merlot in this particular solar system.

Shiraz: Way. The best of these are concentrated, distinctive and fresh, and they are more likely to be aged in a high percentage of French oak than their counterparts from Australia. From the top producers, these are varietally accurate, concentrated, gamey-yet-suave wines that are unlikely to be mistaken for syrah from France, California or Australia. They are distinctly South African.

Cabernet sauvignon: South Africa produces numerous world-class bottlings of cabernet sauvignon, often blended with bits of merlot and cabernet franc. With their notes of currant, plum, tobacco leaf, leather, cedar, fresh herbs and mint, these wines can be distinctly claret-like. From very ripe years, they show superb richness, complexity and depth of flavor, with more than enough material to buffer their oak component and tannins.

Proprietary red blends: Many of South Africa's elite bottlings (such as Warwick Trilogy and Kanonkop Paul Sauer) are classic Bordeaux blends. A recent development that's currently gathering steam is the category called Cape Blends, meant to showcase South Africa's best pinotage fruit, in combination with so-called noble red grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and syrah. Currently these wines contain between 30% and 70% pinotage, but the minimum pinotage component is expected to be reduced to 20% or 25%.

Recent vintages. South Africa has enjoyed a string of very warm growing seasons since the last cool year, 1997. The best in this string for red wines are 1998, 2000 and 2001, all of which produced smaller-than-average crop levels. 1998 and 2000 each yielded a host of very rich, deep reds bursting with fruit, but my early tastings of 2001 suggest that these may possess at least as much structure and concentration for bottle aging. Similarly, 2001 also produced more aromatically interesting white wines than the three previous harvests, but 2002, a mixed year for red wines owing to an extended heat wave and some rot, is better still.

One of the best things about South African wine for this taster is that, at the top levels at least, they more closely resemble European wines than examples from the New World. The best reds, for example, generally show rather suave textures and harmonious acids and tannins; they are rarely made from overripe fruit dangerously low in acidity; relatively few are freakishly high in alcohol or overextracted; and they clearly display their regional character.

Prices for South African wine remain moderate in this country, greatly helped by a still-favorable U.S. dollar/South African rand exchange rate. There are stunning values in the $10 range, and shockingly good wines to be found for $20. Only a relative handful of South African wines sell here for more than $30, and most of these pricier bottles number among the finest examples of Cape wine.