Focus on South Africa

I am happy to offer extensive coverage of South African wine in the current issue, based on two dozen visits I made to some of the Cape region's top wineries during a brilliantly sunny late-winter week at the end of August, and on extensive tastings of new releases from these and many more producers in New York this winter. The pairing of South Africa with red Burgundy in the current issue is no accident. My objective is to provide serious wine drinkers with a range of affordable alternatives to the rare and expensive objects of desire featured each year in what some subscribers have come to call the IWC's Annual Swimsuit Issue.

I'm a great fan of the wines of South Africa. Although there's plenty of uninteresting wine being produced in the Cape winelands, some of which finds its way to this market, there is also a good deal of satisfying, characterful wine that's midway between Old World and New in style. These are serious, structured wines that work well at the dinner table-the kinds of bottles that lovers of French and Italian wines will enjoy.

And, they're generally very reasonably priced. On the following pages, you'll find everything from extraordinary values under $20 (probably the largest number of bargains of any category I've covered in the past year, with the possible exception of Spain) to world-class wines at very attractive prices. Although the U.S. dollar lost 40% of its value against the South African rand between my August 2002 and August 2004 trips to South Africa, prices for many South African wines have gone up on U.S. retail shelves at a more modest rate, thanks in part to pricing concessions made by Cape producers seeking to increase their share of U.S. wine sales. While this strategy has no doubt affected their short-term profits, the long-term wisdom of this approach seems clear: U.S. imports of South African wine have doubled in less than three years. South African wine was the fastest growing category of imports to the U.S. in 2004, as measured by number of cases, rising by 41%-this at a time when imports of French and Italian wines both declined.

The good news is not simply that South Africa offers an extraordinary number of values. It's that there are a vast number of choices in the $10 to $20 range that I can only describe as real wines: wines from estate fruit, made using classical methods, possessing the balance-and the track record-for aging in bottle. At the same time, however, there has also been a distinct trend toward bigger, sweeter and more flamboyant wines that can compete with today's monsters from California, Australia and Spain. This trend is partly due to the rapid pace of recent vine plantings: fruit from young vines frequently gains sugar early but must be kept on the vine for greater phenolic maturity. But many growers are intentionally letting their fruit hang longer in an attempt to scare any last vestiges of greenness out of their grapes-even at the risk of getting cooked fruit flavors and dangerously low acidity levels, and of turning out generically superripe wines with no site specificity or even regional character.

Below, prior to my producer profiles and additional tasting notes, a few words on grape varieties and recent vintages.

Grape varieties. The best white wines among my recent tastings of South African wine have been the Cape's solid, fresh sauvignon blancs and some surprisingly good chardonnays. As a rule, South Africa's sauvignons strike my palate as even more classically dry—and a bit less tropical—than New Zealand's, and as a rule they are also cheaper. South Africa offers many thoroughly competent chardonnays, including some lively, pure ones made without oak influence. It's hard to find better and more varietally accurate chardonnays anywhere else in the $10 to $20 range. These wines beat the pants off Australian chardonnays in this price range, many of which might as well be made in a laboratory. South Africa also produces food-friendly chenin blancs and rieslings.

Among red varieties, shiraz and cabernet are the most interesting. South African cabernet is widely made in a rather classical Bordeaux style, with the variety's tendency toward greenness frequently exacerbated in a problematic vintage like 2002. But I tasted many very suave bottlings with flavors of currant, tobacco leaf, cedar and spices—as well as some examples with distinct signs of overripe fruit. Cabernet sauvignon is frequently blended with other Bordeaux varieties—in fact, many of the most renowned Cape reds are classic Bordeaux blends.

Perhaps South Africa's most exciting variety these days is syrah (more often than not called shiraz in South Africa), with many new entrants coming on-stream, including some garage wines made in limited quantities. There is little question that the warm regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek can produce outstanding examples of this variety, and syrah is by a wide margin South Africa's fastest growing red grape. Interestingly, many distinctly Northern Rhône-style wines—i.e., drier and more refined wines with moderate levels of alcohol, noteworthy aromatic freshness and complexity, and sound structure, aged mostly or entirely in French oak—are being called shiraz on the label, leading consumers to believe they are getting superripe examples done in American oak. In fact, shiraz is now at a crossroads in South Africa, with some wines poised to cross over to the Dark Side: in South Africa in August, I saw a larger number of wines than ever before with high alcohol and thick textures from fruit picked extremely late. Some of these wines were more liqueur-like than varietally accurate and seemed to have no agenda other than sheer size and palate impact.

I've noticed that many estates in South Africa have developed inferiority complexes about their pinotages in recent years, with the result that pinotage's percentage of total plantings has actually declined slightly in the past few years. Sure, the old-fashioned wines are characterized by baked or cooked fruit flavors, or simply finish with a dusty dryness that today's new generation of wine drinkers won't accept. But the top producers have managed to introduce mid-palate sweetness of fruit without entirely losing the typical character of this cross between cinsaut (cinsault in French) and pinot noir that was invented in South Africa in the 1920s. The category called Cape Blends was dreamed up to showcase South Africa's pinotage, in combination with so-called noble red grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and syrah, but there continues to be active debate within South Africa over the role that pinotage should play in these blends.

Recent vintages. Cool conditions in October and November of 2003 resulted in a drawn-out flowering and uneven berry set, which in turn set the stage for a tricky 2004 growing season that nonetheless produced many excellent wines. A couple of heat waves, one in early January and another in mid-February, had a negative impact on the freshness and aromatic complexity of some white varieties, particularly sauvignon blanc. Some rain in early March further retarded ripening in many areas, but then most regions enjoyed a long, dry late summer and early fall, and there will be many well-balanced red wines with considerable complexity, moderate alcohols by today's standards and good structure for aging.

By most accounts, 2003 was one of South Africa's best recent vintages, producing full-bodied wines with considerable aromatic interest and serious structure. Slow ripening under coolish but dry conditions, with only a couple of short hot periods, widely resulted in full phenolic ripeness with sound but not extreme sugar levels and healthy acids. Rains in late March (there was actually flash flooding in certain spots, like Robertson) affected some late-ripening varieties, but a number of growers reported that the precipitation eventually provided more time for the grapes to ripen properly. The grapes in '03 were of average or smaller-than-average size, giving good color in red wines.

Two thousand two was the most difficult vintage to date of the new millennium, as substantial rainfall in December and January pushed back and drew out the flowering and triggered major problems with powdery mildew in many regions, some resulting in significant loss of crop.. The weather turned much better in early February. While the harvest was late, some of the later pickers harvested under hot conditions, with pHs rising and acid levels falling. Still, getting thoroughly ripe skins was often impossible and many big reds from 2002 show a distinct greenness. But normally early-ripening varieties often show good aromatic complexity and precision. Vintage 2001 witnessed a very warm and mostly dry late summer and harvest that produced concentrated wines with higher than normal alcohol levels.