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Out of Africa
South African wine comes into its own
BY DAVID MARGLIN

While some may think South Africa dangerous, its fine wines are safer bets than ever. The countryís exports to the United States essentially began a decade ago, when the trade embargo ended with the fall of apartheid. Given the power of the US wine market to drive sales and, in turn, make capital investment in wine attractive, the fine-wine industry has really operated in South Africa for only about 10 years.

Thatís not to say South Africa is new to wine, which has actually been made there since 1659. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, as a British colony, South Africa supplied plenty of wine to England. But South Africaís wine industry suffered when England and France opened up trade in 1861, and then was pretty much decimated by the plant-lice phylloxera and the Boer War. After World War I, the KWV wine cooperative formed. It operated pretty much as a monopoly, producing mediocre wines of little merit, and the countryís exports were nothing to write home about.

Indeed, for a time, things were so bad that millions of vines were uprooted in favor of alfalfa, which was used to feed the ostriches ó ostrich feathers being highly fashionable during the roaring í20s. When the ostrich fad faded, KWV was left controlling production, import, and pretty much everything else. Then the US trade embargo closed South Africaís major market for wine, leaving England and Holland as the only two significant customers to which South Africa could export. Since the embargoís end, however, KWVís grip has eased on the South African wine industry: there are now 71 cooperatives, 95-plus estate wineries (called wine farms) where grapes are grown and wine is made, and another 125-plus cellars (which produce wine from sourced grapes).

White wine (much of it steen, a clonal variety of chenin blanc) accounts for 80 percent of South African wine. Most of it has been mediocre. But now, with the markets reopened, fine South African wine is improving and may well reach its zenith in the next few years. Problems may lie ahead, however: investment has slowed, and many winemakers are fleeing for other, safer countries. Unless socioeconomic conditions change, South Africa may lose its best and brightest winemakers, and, without sufficient capital, the fine-wine industry could falter.

Absent the current climate of violence, South African conditions for winemaking ó in terms of terroir and weather ó are ideal. Itís the only wine region influenced by two oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic. Most of its premier areas lie to the west, surrounding Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. Its major wine regions have temperate maritime climates, including fog, sufficient but moderate rainfall (so almost no irrigation is needed), and diverse soils that yield ripe grapes. Indeed, unlike Europe, South Africa rarely has an off vintage (though the 1999 heat wave didnít help).

At their best, many South African wines, especially the reds, are big wins in the $10-to-$30 range. (The reds have a smoky quality because of the high mineral content, especially iron, in the soil.) Cabernets, merlots, and shirazes dominate; the countryís even been trying its hand at pinot noir. Thereís also a unique South African red called pinotage, which, after years of ranging from blah to undrinkable, has now become exciting. Pinotage was first developed in a laboratory in South Africa in 1925, when yields of pinot noir were considered too low, by crossing pinot noir with the high-yielding Rhône varietal cinsaut (actually the South African version, Cape cinsaut). The result was a fruity, higher-yielding wine with lots of smoky taste. Most good wine stores carry at least one pinotage, but be sure to discuss it with your merchant before purchasing.

Over the past decade, South Africa has had oak issues ó they often use too much, and it totally dominates the fruit. With younger, better winemakers, this problem has receded. South African sauvignon blancs now rival New Zealandís; my favorites are Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis, and Paul Cluver from the Elgin region. Recently, Iíve even tasted some steens that I wouldnít kick off my table. I also very much like Russell-Hamilton chardonnay, and Villiera, in Paarl, makes an excellent sparkling wine called Tradition.

South African wines give us many good reasons to be hopeful ó so drink some while the drinking is good.

2001 Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc Elgin. Grapefruity and zesty, quite lively, with plenty of acidity and zing. Exciting on the palate, full of fruit, with a faint bouquet of new-mown hay. Would go great with oysters (even fried) or other raw shellfish.

1999 Delheim Merlot Stellenbosch. Even in a hot year, you get a wine that is potent yet restrained, with ample black fruit, including blackberry and cassis: it says lamb or steak.

2000 Spice Route Pinotage. Called a cult wine, this is truly impressive: brimming with fruity flavors that stand up incredibly well to Creole and Cajun spices. I paired it with duck, and it also works wonders for Chilean sea bass. Very forward, quality American oak, chewy but not too dense ó the best pinotage Iíve tasted.

1998 Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch. This is a blend of 54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 29 percent shiraz, and the rest merlot. Sexy mid-palate, where the shiraz really rounds out the flavor; itís still got loads of sharp oak, but the blend works harmoniously. The kind of wine that demands exotic meats, like elk, venison, or ostrich.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]phx.com

Issue Date: February 28-March 7, 2002
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