Tuesday, April 23, 2013

South African Wines—Too Funky or Worth Exploring?

Viticultural history in South Africa is a roller coaster of success vs. disaster. The signature grape, Pinotage, is about as controversial a grape as ever.

South Africa’s history of wine production began in 1659, when the Dutch East India Company ordered the founder of Cape town, Jan van Riebeck,to make wine to help fight scurvy among the sailors during their voyages along the Spice Route. In 1685, the Constantia Estate was founded for that purpose. The estate fell into disrepair in the early 1700s but was rebuilt in 1778 when Hendrik Cloete purchased it. Soon this estate’s wines were famous throughout the world and coveted by the likes of Napolean Boneparte, King Louis Phillipe of France, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. The rest of the country’s wine production was largely unsuccessful, however. High-yielding inferior grapes such as Cinsault were planted in huge numbers, and by the early 1900s, some producers were dumping unsold insipid wine into rivers and fields. Apartheid and the resulting worldwide boycott of South African goods didn’t help the situation. The country’s wines were basically nonexistent in the foreign marketplace.

When apartheid was lifted in the 1980s, South African wines expressed a renaissance. Many producers adopted new technologies and planted well known varietals such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc (called Steen). This replaced Cinsault, which now comprises less than two percent of total plantings. Red varietals have exploded. In the late 1990s, less than eighteen percent of the grapes produced were red; now about half are.

The red wines from South Africa have had a reputation for being very rustic and course. New techniques have resulted in a more international fleshy style. However a certain earthiness remains that signifies a South African Cabernet or Syrah. This is not at all unpleasant, in fact I really like some of them, but if you’re new to South African wine you may find them a bit unusual. American consumers will frequently come across wines called “Cape Cross” or “Cape Blend.” These are usually blends of Syrah or Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinotage, and they are often really good wines.

As for the white wines, Sauvignon Blanc does very well here, with a flavor profile roughly between a California and New Zealand expression of the grape. Wines made from Chenin Blanc, known as “Steen,”  rival the Vouvrays of the Loire Valley.

Now, for the controversial “love it or hate it” grape—Pinotage. In 1925, Abaraham Izak Perold crossed the very robust Cinsault (known as Hermitage in South Africa) with Pinot Noir, a grape that produces great wines but is very difficult to grow. He planted four seeds in the residential garden and promptly forgot about them. The plants were rediscovered several years later. The first wine was made in 1941 and Pinotage was born. After a Pinotage wine won the Capetown Wine Show’s championship in 1959, the first label with the word “Pinotage appeared in 1961.

Pinotage typically has a characteristic flavor profile of smoky bramble, dark fruit, and earth. Aromatics of banana and tropical fruit are common. However, the acetone aromas turn some people off. This can result in very unusual descriptions. My colleague Jessica once said a badly made Pinotage smells like “Beaujolais Nouveau and a tire got together and had a baby.” I would add that the baby is lying in a manure pile.

I’ve got you all wanting to run out and get a Pinotage, right? Before I start a war with South Africa, let me say that if you choose carefully, Pinotage can be a really neat, funky, geeky wine that I enjoy a great deal. Pinotage adds a smoky earthiness to Cape Crosses that makes these wines very interesting.

Anyone with an interest in wine should experience a good Pinotage. Barista 2011 is just such a wine. Rich aromas of chocolate, coffee, plum, and mulberry with a hint of Maraschino cherry carry through to the flavor profile, with the addition of a bit of vanilla and butterscotch. The smoky earthiness reminds you that this is a Pinotage (a very good one.) This wine is a bargain at $17.99. Another good Pinotage to try is Painted Wolf Guillermo 2010, with lots of ripe blueberry and mulberry, spice, and bramble. The tannins are ripe and the finish quite lingering for a Pinotage. Again at $17.99.

Stellekaya is a great producer in Stellenbosch. I especially like their blends. The Cape Cross (fifty percent Merlot, thirty percent Pinotage, and twenty percent Cabernet) is aged in French oak for twenty months. With wonderful aromas and flavors of mint, fresh and stewed fruits, and mulberries, it’s done in a fleshy new world style but still funky because of the Pinotage in the blend. They also do a blend called Hercules (fifty percent Sangiovese, twenty-five percent Merlot, twenty-five percent Cabernet Sauvignon) which is like something out of Tuscany except the Sangiovese component is a bit fleshier and rounder. Earth, red berry, and supple tannins make this full flavored wine worth trying. Both are $21.99. 

Not to be lost among the big reds are the very well done whites. For a prime example of Sauvignon Blanc, look no further than the original great estate of South Africa, Groot Constantia Langoed Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Wonderful flavors of gooseberries, guava, and green bell pepper follow a typical grassy herbal nose. The background minerality is reminiscent of a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc like a Sancerre from the Loire Valley, but with more fruit. $22.99 may seem a bit steep until you try it and realize it’s worth it.

So don’t forget South Africa. The country is producing better and better wines and the good ones are worth the effort it takes to find them. Ask your local wine guy (or gal) about the best of the bunch.

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