Under African Skies: Savory vino from South Africa

When I think of Africa, cool mists settling on the skins of grapes doesn’t exactly enter the picture. I see frickin’ hellish heat and arid plains, and I figure if a grape were introduced to this place, it would immediately be condemned to raisin hell. But this picture is all wrong. Classifying the entire continent as a big sauna would be like saying Colorado’s weather is the same as Georgia’s. South Africa is much cooler than the central African deserts, and it’s situated at approximately the same latitude as Australian wine country. This place is a wine oasis.

It’s also the next big hot wine area.

South Africans around the southwestern coast have made wine since 1659, but it wasn’t until the abolition of apartheid in 1994 that their wine began arriving on the international scene. Before then, they rarely made table wines, choosing instead to convert their fruit into distilled alcohol or grape concentrate. After a few years of meager exporting success — due mostly to the lackluster quality of the wines — they joined the rest of the world and began planting varietals that winos clamored for, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Then they hunkered down to produce good juice. In 2002, they unveiled a cooperative marketing group called South African Wine & Brandy Company to promote the country’s wines, and it seems to be working. I’m seeing more South African wines on store shelves, and as Americans realize the good value, their popularity should grow even more.

South Africa has much to offer. They label their wines much like we do, by varietal like Cabernet Sauvignon, and they have a distinctive earthy quality. Rarely will a South African wine shoot a monster fruit burst in your mouth, but that’s OK. It tells us they want to be different and explore what the grapes are made of. South Africa also has some special treats. They bottle Chenin Blanc as “Steen” or “Stein,” featuring a flowery nose and nice, stern acidity. Steen also becomes a delicious sweet dessert wine, bottled as “Late Harvest.”

As early as 1925, South African winemakers developed an entirely homespun grape varietal called Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (or Hermitage in France). Since then, South Africans have loved Pinotage as Americans love their Zinfandel. But it’s something of an acquired taste. Pinotage is similar in body to Pinot Noir, but it carries a unique dirt-like flavor. You pretty much either love it or hate it.

There are over 260 wineries in South Africa’s wine country, and that number grows every day. Notable appellations, or wine areas, to look for on South African wine labels are Paarl, Cape Town and Stellenbosch, all located on the southernmost tip of the African continent.

Recommended Wines

Neil Ellis 2002 Stellenbosch Chardonnay Wow … is this stuff dee-licious. Oaky and buttery without being overly bold, with green apple and peach floating in the mouth long after the sip has disappeared. Easily as good as a $40 California Chard. Beautiful. $16. 4 stars.1/2.

Goats do Roam 2002 Western Cape Ragging on France’s Cotes du Rhone name, this South African blend uses similar red grapes in this mix. Whiff the strawberry jam aroma on this wine, then dive into the soft, cherry flavors. Great value at $10. 3 stars.

Fairview 2002 Pinotage If you’ve tasted and hated Pinotage in the past, stick your tongue out for this one. Not as earthy as typical Pinotage, featuring dark baked cherry and sensuously smooth tannins. $16. 3 1/2 stars.


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