I thought for a long time that South African wine smelled and tasted like dirty elephants, zebras and giraffes bathing in a warm watering hole. Maybe South African wine consumers thought we might just buy that earthy shit, but I didn’t – until the funk started floating away. Gone are the rhinoceros dung and antelope hoof aromas, replaced by delicate fruit, oak and florals. Perhaps it’s time to introduce South Africa to your watering hole.To be honest, South African grapes don’t grow where the elephants roam. They grow in a much cooler climate — around the southwestern coast — at a latitude similar to Australia’s. South Africa has been making wine since 1659, but it wasn’t until apartheid’s abolition in 1994 that their wine scene began to flourish. Before then, vintners 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 aroma U.S. consumers couldn’t get over — winemakers clued in and started producing wines we’d want to drink, using grapes like cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
You might have seen a grape variety on South African labels called pinotage. It is entirely a homegrown invention, a cross between pinot noir and cinsault (hermitage in France), created around 1925. With its unique dirt-like flavor, it’s much to blame for the funk reputation in South African wine. To say the least, it’s an acquired taste when 100 percent of the bottle comes from the grape, but a little bit can lend an interesting earthy characteristic. Blends of it with syrah and merlot can be gorgeously silky and delicious.
An oft-snubbed grape variety embraced in South Africa is chenin blanc, or “steen.” Chenin blanc, long regarded as a white-trash varietal used in cheap jug wines in California, has a flowery nose, gushing white fruit and firm acidity in South Africa. Steen also becomes a delicious sweet dessert wine, bottled as “Late Harvest.” Steens are fantastic for newcomers to wine, and to drink with spicy foods of any sort. Trusted labels are KWV and Ken Forrester.
Like California, South Africa is getting to know its soil and its possibilities. The country has four main wine regions and 17 districts within those regions (like our American Viticultural Areas). Following the French concept of terroir— that each district’s soil, climate and topography yields grapes with a unique style and flavor — South African winemakers plant specific grape varieties, then blend to create liquid masterpieces. On the label, you’ll see the region or districts listed, and these serve as guides for purchasing. Within the Coastal region lie the Stellenbosch and Paarl districts, known for their chardonnay, shiraz (syrah), cabernet sauvignon and, increasingly, sauvignon blanc. Breede River Valley region has the Robertson Valley, which is hitting its stride with shiraz and cabernet. But in the coming years, you’ll see more and more of these designates, so follow the trail out of the funk.