South Africa is one of those wine regions that a lot of people have heard about, but few people–too few, anyway—have taken the time to discover and explore its wines. I’m a little bit in that category; I’ve tasted some of its stuff from time to time, particularly Chenin Blanc, which they sometimes call “Steen” locally, and of course Pinotage, a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir that was literally invented in South Africa in 1925. But I’ve never really spent much time thinking about South Africa except at an occasional tasting. And for a lot of people, SA is really just off their wine map, and that’s unfortunate.
Wine has been produced in South Africa probably since the mid-1600s, when vine cuttings from Europe were brought to the cape. But grape growing and wine production unfortunately didn’t follow a path of steady growth and improvement. Over the next three centuries, both good and bad wine was made, but South Africa really never became a major player on the world wine stage. In the early 1900s, a cartel called the KWV was formed and gained considerable power, with quotas on grape production and controls on prices. In the end, this really didn’t do the SA wine business much good and led to the production of a lot of, well, crappy wine. However, about 18 years ago the power of KWV was essentially stripped away, and the industry has really begun to flourish.
Today South African producers are starting to open up space on American shelves, and its winemakers and marketers are showing up here to showcase their products. South Africa, if I’m not mistaken, is the 8th largest wine producer in the world in fact. The country as a whole is making great strides—the really miserable, gamey offerings of Pinotage have tapered off to a trickle, and some great sparkling wines are coming out, as are possibly the best Chenin Blancs from anywhere. There are also some excellent Chardonnays, Rieslings and even Bordeaux blends being produced, some with the help of so-called “flying winemakers” from France.
I was able to enjoy some of these wines a few weeks ago with two producers from Stellenbosch Vineyards, from of course the Stellenbosch region, about 30 miles northeast of Cape Town. Here, in the “Bordeaux of South Africa,” the current winemakers trace their lineage back to 1690, including the land making up the Welmoed (courage) farm, named to commemorate Jacobus van der Heyden, its first owner, who stood up to the corruption of the Dutch governor of the day. Our New York hosts were Eduan Steynberg, one of the Stellenbosch Vineyards’ owners and its managing director, and Johann Diedericks, whose job it is to sell to American consumers. Although they were on a whirlwind tour, they both were clearly enjoying their time in New York.
Over the course of the evening at Manhattan’s Vareli restaurant, we tasted several wines:
– Four Secrets Sparkling Shiraz: a light, crisp, only slightly sweet sparkling wine. I’ve tasted a bunch of these from Australia, and this is decidedly different, and mostly better.
– Stellenbosch Vineyards Heyden’s White: Very crisp, the Sauvignon dominates, but the Viognier adds body and floral aromas.
– Welmoed Chenin Blanc: This is a tremendous, just outstanding Chenin Blanc and one of the best <$10 white wines I’ve tasted in a very long time.
– Stellenbosch Vineyards Bushvine Pinotage: Here they got past the smoky, too-earthy and way-too-gamey Pinotage wines I’ve tasted far too often from South Africa. Clean, integrated and well balanced.
– Stellenbosch Vineyards Heyden’s Red: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Solid blackfruit, moderate but integrated tannin and a nice long finish.
– Stellenbosch Credo Shiraz: A little deceiving. Much of this is Shiraz (Syrah), but there’s a good proportion (∼30%) of Merlot in here and the rest Viognier, yes, a white grape, that adds floral aromas. Powerful and balanced but not over the top.