I was first introduced to wine at a very young age—six years old, to be exact, and it was love at first sip. From that momentous year on, I spent the majority of my childhood dinners sipping from the infinitesimally tiny drop of of whatever wine my father opened for dinner and subsequently poured for me, discussing its flavors and aromas and textures. Mine was an early oenological education built on a base of California Chardonnay and Cabernet, Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Left Bank Bordeaux, plenty of Super Tuscans, the occasional Muscadet and, eventually, Port—lots and lots of Port.
For all that, though, we rarely ever drank much wine from South Africa, even once its presence on the American market grew as Apartheid came to an end.
This, it turns out, was the big gap in my formative wine-drinking experience. Which is why I’m doing everything I can to make up for that lost time. Because these days, the wine industry of South Africa is among the most exciting, vibrant, and energetic in the world, offering phenomenal wines no matter what style you’re looking for, regardless of how much or how little money you want to spend, and embodying the very best of both New World and Old World sensibilities.
Twice over the course of the past year and a half, I have had the remarkably great fortune to travel to South Africa with South African Tourism—plenty of additional coverage will be appearing here and elsewhere in the coming weeks and months. My advice, though, boils down to this: Plan a trip to South Africa as soon as possible; it’s one of the truly great destinations on the planet, and a trip you’ll remember and savor for decades to come. For me, during both trips there, I found myself swooning meal after meal, tasting after tasting, and marveling at the astounding wine that is being produced in this most extraordinary country. (And in terms of tourism in general--both infrastructure and experiences possible--it is utterly, electrically spectacular.)
Its wine history goes back significantly further than most people realize. According to the excellent web site of Wines of South Africa, “The establishment by the Dutch East India Company of a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652 had one single aim: to provide fresh food to the company's merchant fleet on their voyages to India and surrounding areas. But much more evolved than that - the establishment of a trading station led to a flourishing wine industry and later to the birth of a nation…Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, planted a vineyard in 1655, and on 2 February 1659, the first wine was made from Cape grapes.”
These days, South Africa is home to an astounding range of grape varieties, terroirs, and wine styles. And while Pinotage and Chenin Blanc still dominate the popular imagination in regards to the South African wine industry, the truth is that it boasts an infinitely more diverse output than that. From shimmeringly bright Sauvignon Blanc and rich Chardonnay to expressive Pinot Noir and Rhône-style blends as rewarding as anywhere on the planet, the wines of South Africa provide an infinite body of study and pleasure for consumers both casual and serious alike.
A few weeks ago, I attended an excellent master class hosted by Jim Clarke, the US Marketing Manager for Wines of South Africa, at Corkbuzz in New York. And in recent months, I have found myself sampling a deliciously broad range of South African wines as part of my normal work-tasting schedule. Below, then, are some of the highlights of those recent experiences. In the breadth or their styles and in the depths of terroir-specificity and nuance that they plumb, they represent, it seems to me, exactly what makes South African wine so exciting right now.
As for my own kids, both of them are allowed to dip a finger into the glass of whatever I have poured for my wife and I at dinner each night. The wines of South Africa, I’m happy to report, always generate a smile and an enthusiastic thumbs-up from both of them. You can never start too early when it comes to great wine.
Indaba Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Western Cape
Taut and mineral on the nose, with fresh-squeezed lime and a hint of grapefruit and shiso. On the palate, this has excellent presence, with a sense of sweetness to the pineapple, passionfruit, lime, and grapefruit flavors. Nice acid and balance. Charming and fun.
De Toren Fusion V 2013, Stellenbosch
Crafted from the five main Bordeaux grape varieties, this wine is dark purple, almost black in color. Beautiful and powerful nose, with plenty of grilled-vanilla aromas from the oak, a hint of smoke and toast, black plums, dark cherry compote, and spice. On the palate, this is rich and spicy, with excellent acidity framing the concentrated flavors of cherry and pomegranate, a hint of menthol and licorice, spice, vanilla pod, smoky mineral, and dark chocolate, as well as a hint of good cigar tobacco. Drink now - 2026+. This is ripe and savory all at once. Bring on the braai!
De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014, Stellenbosch
Shimmering, burnished gold color. Mouthwatering aromas of high-toned green and yellow apple, honeysuckle, springtime flowers, spice, peach, apricot, and oak spice focused on vanilla. Gorgeous. On the palate, this is just beautiful—a truly remarkable wine—with minerality slicing through the yellow apple and peach, ripe apricot, a hint of pineapple and papaya, spice, and, on the finish, a honeyed sense of flowers and white tea. Self-possessed and centered, yet with beautiful aromatics. Wonderful. Drink now - 2020+.
Bizoe Henrietta 2014, Franschhoek
This blend of Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc is stellar, with a pleasing waxy texture and an assertive expression of mashed pear, lemon curd, and vanilla, all zipped up with well-balanced acidity.
Richard Kershaw Chardonnay 2014, Elgin
A delicious Chardonnay that smells like springtime, with a real sense of freshness to the aromas of white-blossomed flowers and melon. On the palate, they turn to yellow apple, sweet melon, and fresh vanilla, all pulsing through with energy and personality.
Noble Hill Estate Blend 2012, Simonsberg-Paarl
This Bordeaux-style blend is one for the cellar, its subtle herbal and coffee notes promising to evolve beautifully in the coming years. I’d hold this one until 2018, and then drink it for another decade afterward.
Radford Dale Frankenstein Pinotage 2014, Stellenbosch
This is the Pinotage that is likely to convince consumers that they really should be buying more of the grape variety—with bright acid, serious concentration, and a grippy texture framing flavors of kirsch, black raspberry, and coffee, this bottle is seriously pleasurable now and holds immense promise for the next several years.
Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch
Beautiful as always, with a distinctly minty nose leading to a palate of ripe yet impeccably balanced red plum and cherry, all of it gently spicy, and framed by perfectly calibrated tannins. Excellent now, and you could also continue to lay it down for several more years.