The Best New Wines from South Africa

My extensive tastings of new releases from South Africa in March and April were a bittersweet adventure.  As long-time subscribers know, I am a fan of South Africa's wide range of wine grapes and styles, which parallels the Cape Region's extraordinary biodiversity (there are reportedly more plant species in Table Mountain National Park than there are in the entire United Kingdom).  But when Wines of South Africa, the wine export agency of the South African wine industry, cut back on its marketing efforts in the U.S. a few years ago, American importers of South African wines were left largely to fend for themselves, some far more successfully than others.  Happily, Wines of South Africa opened its own office in New York City at the beginning of 2012 and has resumed its marketing efforts here.

Then, too, there has always been an unwillingness on the part of the mass market to spend serious money on South Africa's top bottlings (i.e, more than $20), even though these wines can offer excellent value in the context of European and California wines of comparable quality. Following the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the competition in the U.S. market among most wines above $20 has been more cut-throat than ever, as these wines are not viewed as collectibles and are thus essentially interchangeable to most consumers.

Limited availability of some of the best South African wines is also a factor in the U.S. market.  In my recent tastings of new releases from South Africa, my first in just over two years, I discovered that many importers have simply stopped bringing in the top range of bottlings from some of their suppliers for the simple reason that they don't think they can sell them through to consumers.  Or they have selected one or two but ignored the rest, choosing to focus on less-expensive bottlings that can offer very good value but are unlikely to provide real excitement to cosmopolitan enophiles.  (It must be noted, however, that a number of top producers--or even their American importers--have introduced new entry-level wines for economic reasons, and these can be terrific values.)  Various high-quality producers whose wines I have reported on in the past now have very spotty or no representation at all in this market.  Some importers have also fallen behind on bringing in new vintages.

Another constraint on the excitement quotient of my recent tastings was the fact that a high percentage of current releases are from the 2011 and 2010 vintages, both of which are of widely varying quality and neither of which is stellar.  Two thousand eleven was a very uneven growing season that began with a cold, rainy flowering but also featured extended drought and heat in January and February, which sapped a lot of wines of natural acidity and resulted in rather tropical flavors in many whites.  Many wineries struggled to manage their irrigation water, while in some areas, periods of humidity triggered rot.

The 2011 harvest was mostly early and took place in a rush, with many varieties ripening simultaneously.  In the key Stellenbosch area, wines from Bordeaux varieties are often high in alcohol and relatively low in acidity, due to warmer-than-usual nights during the weeks prior to the harvest.  But varieties that are often plagued by greenness tended to do well, as the warm summer weather burned off much of the pyrazine content, the compounds responsible for green pepper and green bean elements in many wines, especially those from red Bordeaux grapes.

The 2010 growing season was also a roller-coaster.  An irregular budburst was followed by very cool October and November weather that delayed vine development.  Windy conditions affected potential crop levels at the flowering, by sizable percentages in some areas.  As it was difficult to get into the wet vineyards to spray in November, many growers battled downy mildew through December.  Then favorable summer conditions and the generally small size of the crop allowed for ripening to begin to catch up.  There were some heat spells during the summer, including a sharp spike during the first week of March, and the summer was characterized by unrelenting winds, with sunburn further reducing the potential size of the crop and some wineries running out of irrigation water.  Most of the fruit ripened, helped by looser bunches and smaller berries, with cooler weather during the very early days of the harvest helping white grapes retain good flavor intensity.  White grapes picked later tended to make flatter wines.

Some late arrivals from 2009 underscored my earlier impression that this vintage was one of South Africa's finest of the past 20 years, especially for red wines.  I had several opportunities to taste 2009 bottlings next to their siblings from vintage 2008 or 2010, and the 2009s impressed with their aromatic complexity, density and depth of material and ripe tannins.  The best of the 2009s are wonderfully complete and satisfying wines--and well worth seeking out.

All the wines in this article were tasted in New York in March and April.