A Taste of South African Wines

With a long history of winemaking in South Africa, it is odd to think of South Africa as also New World. But, in many way, South African wines are new to many of us in the US. That said, we will see more and more of them as imports have been growing. So, here is a little taste of what you might find from South Africa, which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing here.

South Africa has been producing wine for more than 350 years. It is one of the most prominent wine producing countries in the southern hemisphere and is the ninth-largest producer of wine in the world.

One can think of South African wine as the Old World meeting the New World. Despite is long history, South African wines have only recently begun to become more prevalent in the U.S., with double-digit volume growth in the past few years.

One of the most prominent grapes grown in South Africa is Chenin Blanc, their signature white grape. Originally from the Loire Valley in France, Chenin Blanc makes up 18 percent of the plantings in South Africa. South Africa has the most plantings of Chenin Blanc outside of France, and also grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and their own red grape, Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. As we begin to see more and more South African wines in the market, here are a few wines to look out for.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc was first brought to South Africa in the 1600s, where it was known as “Steen.” It is the perfect wine if you are looking for something between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Chenin Blanc is known for its diversity as it can be used for sparkling wine, still wine and dessert wine.

Spier Chenin Blanc 2017, Swartland – Founded in 1692, Spier is one of the oldest wineries in South Africa. The Chenin Blanc is sourced from Swartland in the Western Cape. About 50 percent of the wine is in stainless steel and 50 percent is in wood. The resulting wine has notes of apple, lemon and tangerine and delicate acidity that settles on the sides of the tongues.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2017, Stellenbosch ($16) – Ken Forrester began producing wine in 1994 and is at the forefront of the Chenin Blanc revival. The Old Vine Chenin Blanc comes from 38-year-old vines in sandy soils in the Stellenbosch region. The wine is barrel and tank fermented and spends nine months on the lees. The golden-hued wine has a bright nose of candied lemon, white flower and mineral notes. On the palate, it is full bodied with delicate acidity. This is a wine that has enough body for Chardonnay lovers, the intense aromas for Sauvignon Blanc lovers, and the freshness for Pinot Grigio lovers.

Mullineux Old Vines White 2016, Swartland ($33) – Chris and Andrea Mullineux established Mullineux Family Wines in 2007. Based in Swartland, the Old Vines White is made from 62 percent old vine Chenin Blanc blended with 15 percent Grenache Blanc, 11 percent Viognier, 8 percent Clairette Blanche, and 4 percent Semillon Gris. The wine has a soft elegant nose of citrus fruit and flowers and on the palate, it is textured but fresh with mineral notes.

Sparkling wines

South Africa produces traditional-method sparkling wine under the name Methode Cap Classique (MCC). This term was adopted in 1992 in response to the ban on the use of the words ‘Champagne’ and ‘Champenoise’ for anything other than the wine from the Champagne region in France. Methode Cape Classic wines are produced in different regions in South Africa and they are liberal about the grapes used in the blends.

Backsberg Estate Cellars Kosher Brut 2017 ($25) – Backsberg is one of the leading producers of kosher wine around the world. The family, Lithuanian Jews, arrived in Cape Town at the beginning of the last century. Owner Michael Back’s grandfather bought the property and beginning in the 1920s, the family produced bulk wine. From the 1950s-1960s, they shifted their focus to quality wine. The Kosher Sparkling Brut MCC 2017 is a blend of 52 percent Chardonnay and 48 percent Pinot Noir and spends 12 months on the lees. It is fresh and lively with delicate fruit notes.

Cool climate red wines

Pinot Noir makes up 1.4 percent of the grape planting in South Africa. It is found in cool climate regions where there is a coastal ocean influence, such as the Elgin Valley, Walker Bay and Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in the Cape South Coast.

Boschendal Appellation Series Elgin Pinot Noir 2016 ($36) – Founded in 1685, Boschendal is one of the most historic wine estates in South Africa. The Pinot Noir comes from one of the highest planted vineyard sites in Elgin Valley. It is a light-bodied wine with bright fruit notes of raspberry, red cherry and cranberry that carry from the nose to the palate.

B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir 2016, Walker Bay ($25) – A second label by Stellenbosch-based cousins Gavin Bruwer and Bruwer Raats, B Vintners is a brand that explores the vines within the Cape Winelands. The Black Bream Pinot Noir comes from Walker Bay and has aromas of tart cherry, wild strawberry, violets and cloves. On the palate, it has cool acidity and fine grain tannins.

Storm Ignis Pinot Noir 2015, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley– Located 75 miles from Cape town, Hemel-en-Aarde means “Heaven and Earth” in Afrikaans. The Ignis Pinot Noir is grown in a vineyard with round pebbles and granite and produces a wine with raspberry, wild strawberry and spice notes.

Sweet wine

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2014 ($99) – Vin de Constance is a historical wine and South Africa’s most iconic wine. A sweet dessert wine made from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains (Muscat de Frontignan), it rivaled Yquem, Tokay and Madeira in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in 1861. The land, an amphitheater with constant wind, was reinvested in 1980. This gorgeous late harvest wine is a bright yellow gold with a rich nose of citrus, apricot, ginger and baking spices and a creamy mouthfeel and zesty finish.

There is a lot of wine to discover in South Africa, a place where the Old World meets the New World. The cost of these wines is also a great value, which is an added incentive to seek them out and try them.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.