Never again will I stand by and listen to another dismissal of South African wine. I refuse to participate in this tired dialogue. This weekend was incredibly eye-opening for me. Finally, I could taste a plethora of SA wine and choose for myself what I thought. And what I think is that although there inevitably is some sludge that travels far in the form of South African wine, it is no better or worse than the sludge to be found everywhere else—including America. What blows me away, though, is that people (myself included) rarely spend the $15-50 it takes to really begin a discovery of South African wine, yet those same people will not blink at the cost of Napa, Bordeaux, Barolo or Burgundy. Okay, fine. The big ‘B’s’ are exceptional, in my opinion. But so many people easily justify California wines that break $50 without giving thought to the $20-30 bottles around the world that sometimes reflect (no, actually, often reflect) better quality and certainly greater value, such as Priorat, higher end Chilean wine, higher end Rhone, and now South Africa, apparently.
They convinced me.
It was disheartening that the tone of the weekend was marked with defense and self-promotion. Typically at these functions, the seminars consist of winemakers sitting back, explaining how they do things—their style and tradition, and then they answer questions that are filled with awe and profound respect. Though the paying participants were certainly eager to taste and learn, their questions and the ambassadors’ responses were continuously answering the question: How does South Africa measure up?
These folks were on trial.
Everyone loved the wines, including myself. But everyone was tripping over themselves with surprise… like myself. What South Africa needs is a little more time, I feel, to show serious wine consumers their more serious side. Every wine region has swill. Unfortunately, most wine under $15 and nearly all wine under $10 is going to lack in much personality, finesse, and balance. Therefore, you may have to up the ante if you really want to get to know South Africa’s capabilities. And not much more. Most of the wines we tried actually were in the $12-20 range. What amazed me, though, was what $30-$70 did. The proof was in the pudding.
There were three most memorable wines. The first, a 2004 Delheim Vera Cruz Shiraz. At $40, it compared to many Cote Rotie Syrahs I have tasted that are the same, if not twice, the price. Rich bacon-fat nose, incredible structure, tannin, and depth. Awesome, awesome wine.
Can South Africa make an ageworthy wine. In two words: hell yes. The second, and most exciting wine this weekend, was a 1999 Delheim Grand Reserve Cabernet. This red was fully integrated and drinking beautifully. Lord I love old Cab.
And finally, and my favorite of the event, was the 2005 Columella. Oh… my… gosh. So that’s what $70 gets you in South Africa. I want to blind everyone in the industry on this one. It is so insanely good. This red contained so many layers, from briary fruit—raspberries and blackberries—to coffee beans, cocoa dust, minerals, damp earth, almost a wet garrigue essence, dried flowers and fennel. It was comprised of mostly Syrah (80%) with the rest being Mourvedre.
I loved hearing about the winemaker, too–Eban Sadie of Sadie Family Winery. The representative described him as a “man on crack like you’ve never seen.” His methods are extremely meticulous. He maintains fiercely low yields and he is solely focused on producing the best of quality, first class wine. He strives to hone the grapes’ natural characteristics–its soul, so to speak. They explain it best: “What is most important to remember in vinification is that nothing of essential value can be introduced — but a great deal can be lost. The ‘winemaker’ cannot, in fact, create: he must understand the soils and what they produce, learn the best means of preserving what is received from nature’s vineyards and deliver its potential as fine wine.” This is a first class wine. I do believe you would be hard-pressed to find this kind of complexity or thought-provocation from more popular wine regions at this price.
Thanks for sticking with me as I walked you through my assessment of South Africa. It was a learning experience for me, as I hope it is for you. If you want to find any of the wines I have mentioned, just ask. If you are in Colorado, it’s a cinch. If elsewhere, I’d be happy to do some sleuthing for you.