Conclusions: South African wine, part five.

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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.

Make me a match: South African wine, part four.

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And so, the cheese and wine tasting.

Both last and this year I attended this seminar.  I must admit, it is always my favorite part of the whole weekend.  The winemakers (or, in this case, ambassadors) form a panel at the front of the room.  Whole Foods are given samples of the wines to pair beforehand.  The ‘fromallier’, as I have heard such cheese experts called, did an incredible job.  She supplied each of the six wines with two very different cheeses in order to illustrate just how much it changed the flavor profile.

We were instructed to taste the wine first—without dairy interference (taking bread and water between wines to reset our palates).  Then, we were to observe the effect of cheeses in the nose, palate, and over texture/structure of the wine.  The results were so interesting.

The first was the 2008 Edgebaston Sauvignon Blanc ($14).  On its own, it was akin to Chilean SB—bright, acid, and not without the likely culprits of herbs, grass, and grapefruit, but it wasn’t quite so aggressive as New Zealand.  Nor was it melon-driven like so many in California.  Tropical notes were evident, and it was even a little fuller bodied than many I am used to.  The Dubliner Irish Cheddar was yummy on it’s own—aged and salty.  It brought out the apple notes in the nose of this wine.  However, it stole the stage when it came to the palate.  The wine was left in a watery, thin state.

With the Campo de Montablar (a Spanish cheese, sort of like Manchego), the SB faired quite well.  The cheese itself was quite nutty, really bringing out some nutty characteristics in the wine whilst enhancing some of the citrus tones.

The next was the 2008 Savanha Chenin Blanc ($10), or ‘steen’ as they refer to this grape in South Africa.  The nose was oozing with honey with a hint of white flowers.  Often, I get honeysuckle, but this was much more rich honey with some floral and earthy (almost fungal) components lingering in the background.  It actually smelled a bit like Brie, which happened to be our first pairing—a triple crème (so good).  This really gave the wine a facelift.  It seemed more youthful and vibrant.  Honey spread across the tongue, but a deeper minerality surfaced, giving it an fascinating depth of personality for a $10 wine.

When paired with 3 year aged Tillamook Cheddar, the Chenin was certainly not distasteful, rather it was neutralized to how it showed on its own.  The cheese did not hurt or harm it.

The first of our reds, the 2008 Paul Cluer Pinot Noir ($20), comes from Elgin—the coolest and highest winegrowing region in South Africa (3,000 feet above sea level).  It reminded me of New Zealand Pinot, as it wasn’t quite earthy enough to be Oregon, nor full-bodied and fruity enough to be Cali.  And it certainly lacked the seriousness and minerality of Burgundy.  It was cheerful and straightforward.  Clean and controlled.

The Pinot was paired with a Danish Blue Castello and a French Comte (pronounced ‘Kompt’).  I don’t like blue, so that was already doomed (I know—what’s wrong with me?!), and the Comte amazingly brought out this wine’s flaws.  Namely, a sulfur imbalance, as in, too much.  Sometimes winemakers add a bit more to disguise the flaws in their wines.  It can be quite obvious, displaying loud scents of matchstick.  Or, it can be subtle—almost unnoticed, such as this one was until it married poorly.  Even with cheese and wine, divorce is sometimes the best option.  They are both fine and well on their own.  But together…

The 2008 Savanha Pinotage/Shiraz ($10) was nasty on the nose.  For me, that is.  It smelled like stinky feet having just walked through a field of smoky fruit.  Ick.  Ah, but then, you see… sometimes a lonely hunter really does just need a mate.  For this wine, it was the Perrano Aged Dutch Gouda.  This cheese was much like a Robusto or Parmesan—aged, salty, delicioso.  Suddenly, a rush of fresh fruit was released and the palate was smooth.  Gone were stinky feet.  Hooray!  It was very yummy.

With the Fontina cheese that followed, this Pinotage/Shiraz blend returned to a more earthy, dirty state of being, but it wasn’t off-putting as it was without the cheese altogether.  In fact, in emanated a nice ‘terroir-ish’ personality…if you’re into that sorta thing.

Okay, I’m moving.  Stay with me!

We then tried the 2008 Edgebaston Pepper Pot ($12), and what a hit that was!  This blend of Syrah (58%), Mourvedre (32%), and Tenat (10%) did a wonderful job integrating new world fruit with an old world earthy style.  With a porcini mushroom Brie, this wine was packed with mushroomy flavors, which I loved… Other people, however, had different opinions on this match.  Just like that intense couple in high school who always made out in the hallway between class periods, this wine and cheese pairing were super hot and heavy.  The Killaree Cheddar, on the other hand, expanded the mouthfeel and enhanced the fruit.  Both were fine pairings.

Finally, the 2005 Sadie Family Winery ‘Sequillo’ ($30) concluded the match-maker.  This wine was fantastic—a blend of Syrah (60%), Mourvedre (30%) and Grenache (10%), a classic trio that is often referred to simply as a ‘GSM.’  Oodles of raspberries, spices, pepper and dried violets fell from the nose and translated well on the palate.  It had a generous mouthfeel.  It was a serious wine.  A great synergy of new world and old, as it maintained a brightness of fruit with the grounded wisdom of minerals, dried herbs and tea leaves.  It was dense but somehow not heavy.  Layered and elegantly smooth.

The Truffle Tremor cheese killed it.  Holy truffle.  After I resurrected my palate with some bread, I tried it with a handcrafted Spanish goat cheese with South African red peppers.  That was a nice pairing.  Not remarkable (actually quite noteworthy with the Pepper Pot), but very solid.  To end on a sweet note, we gave it a go with dark chocolate.  As suspected, it muted the nose.  But both were so darn tasty on their own.

If you can, try and participate in a local wine & cheese pairing.  You will be surprised at how much you learn!  Check out  That’s a great source for events such as these.

Next up:  The South African wine that blew me away.

A tangent: South African wine, part three.

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I began yesterday’s beautiful, sun-drenched Colorado morning on a heavenly note: a wine and cheese seminar with South African ambassadors (see, typically the actual winemakers are here, but being on the other side of the world, South Africa is in ‘crush’, or, harvest at the moment…).

The seminar took place at the idyllic Garden of the Gods Country Club.  The backdrop alone felt synthetically perfect—a scene of a set for a whimsical movie, what with the surreal red sandstone rock formations sprouting from the earth.  Even Charles Lindbergh once wrote that he had never seen a more “spectacular and magnificent place.”

But it was real.

And so was the fact that I was going to work.  I realized then how lucky I was to call this ‘work.’  Sure, my colleagues and I may not be rolling in it, but we have careers that are founded on passion, and they sustain us.  It is so gratifying, whatever your line of work, to feel a sense of excitement towards it.

I gathered most of my notes and wrote the bulk of my entries from a cute little café in downtown Colorado Springs called La Baguette.  I know, it seems a most unoriginal name.  But this place really did an incredible job recreating the cozy aspects of French imagination.  The French onion soup was divine—a symbol of success or failure, in my book, when assessing the respectability of any  French eatery.  It’s not the cost… it’s the integrity with which they make this deceptively simple dish.  Encrusted with bubbly Gruyere, this delectable soup was just what I was craving, after the foreplay of tasting samples of over ten cheeses earlier in the day.  They served me water with lemon (naturally), a big chunk of bread (they had quite a selection, too, as any French café with their priorities straight would), and a simple Dijon vinaigrette that was fantastic on my simple garden salad.  To top it off, the instrumental French jazz standards interspersed with traditional classical piano music provided a great background to write to.  All in all, a lovely, motivating find.  This may become my cultural safe haven when I have to travel to the Springs for work.

See what happens when I feel inspired?  I rattle on… and on, and on….

If you made it through this ranting, perhaps you might coerce yourself into actually finding out how the cheese/wine pairing went in the next entry?  It only feels appropriate to keep this tangential indulgence in one place.

History: South African wine, part two.

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Let us begin with a short history of South African wine…

Old World?  New World?

This pleasant ‘straddling’ problem as to what side of the wine world South Africa sits upon is pretty provocative.  It is widely understood that SA is a ‘new world’ wine growing region.  However its roots are literally steeped centuries into the past, dating back to 1652 when Cape Town founder and Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, first planted vines in order to produce wines in an effort to treat sailors with scurvy.

His successor, Simon van der Stel, however, was the first serious viticulturist who saw a market for SA wine.   Then, after him, came Hendrik Cloete in 1778, who purchased the estate and developed Constantia, putting SA Muscat dessert wines on the worldwide market.  SA entered its heyday until phylloxera hit in 1866.

The age of winemaking went to sleep for a while.  Wine was mainly becoming mass produced and poor in quality.  Other lucrative crops were planted instead.  Though a co-op (the Kooperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging—KWV) restored wine production to a respectable state, Apartheid soon took away its world market potential.  Therefore, it really wasn’t until the 1990’s when SA got its grapey groove back.

Just in the past few years does it seem SA finally has a strong foothold in the fine winemaking industry.  The dawn of their most recent renaissance brought with it new international varieties—Cabernet, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc particularly.  Chenin Blanc is, no doubt, one of the most beautiful done in SA.  For example, try the 2008 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc ($14.99).  You will get a sense of the honeysuckle goodness this grape has to offer along with a creamy, leesy finish.  Or, for a more tropical interpration, check out the much-loved Vinum Afica Chenin Blanc ($12.99).

For a crisper white alternative, take home the 2009 Villiera ‘Down to Earth’ Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($10.99) from Cape Town.  It is a lovely interpretation of a classic Bordeaux blend.  Perfect with seafood, goat cheese and light pasta dishes.

At my store, we also harness a couple Pinotages—a little cross-breed of Cinsualt and Pinot Noir native to SA, known for its distinctive ‘funk.’  SA ‘funk’, as we call it in the trade, is a little something like earth, dirt, and rubber all mixed together with fruit and herbs.  Yeah, it sounds a little off-putting, but really it’s rather interesting and certainly singular to SA.  We like to think of it as SA’s ‘terroir.’  I use that word with great intention, as it reckons an ‘Old World’ kind of concept I continually look for in all wines—old world and new.  It’s just harder to locate in the latter.  Check out the 2007 Wildekrans Pinotage ($14.99) out of Walker Bay or the 2008 Fairvalley Pinotage ($11.99), the sales of which go to support both the Fairvalley Ecovillage housing development and local community center.

Cabernet is another grape that is fast growing in popularity.  Eric Asimov of the New York Times even wrote, “Forgive me if I’m excited.  I can’t help it.  I want to tell you straight out that [SA], of all places, is one of the greatest sources for moderately priced cabernet sauvignon on the planet today.”  He goes on struggling to compare it to either Bordeaux or Napa—for it assumes the character of both worlds, unsurprisingly.  It is fresh, herbal, and full of energy in Cape Town, seldom weighted down with oppressive over-oaking techniques.  In a word: pure.  Though we are still searching for a well-priced straight Cabernet, we can offer you some lovely blends.  Sip on the 2008 Ken Forrester Petit Cab/Merlot ($9.99) or the red wine of the month—the 2008 Ruins—which has just about half Syrah and half Cabernet ($12.99). Both are fantastic values.

Finally, to end on a sweet note, the style that got SA started back in the 17th century: Muscadel.  In particular, try the 2007 Rietvallei Muscadel ($15) the next time you are searching for an after dinner wine to sip on.  It is a bit lighter in body than port, making it a nice year-round alternative.  Plus, you can even throw it over some crushed ice in the summertime with a few slices of strawberries for a special treat.

So there you go.  South Africa in a teeny tiny grape bud.  Drink through this region and find out why it is quickly growing to be known as more than just a region of potential.  It is proving to be potential realized.