This year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa really caught my attention. I am by no means a soccer fan, but I watched more soccer in the past three weeks than I have my entire life. It also reminded me that it’s been a long time since I’ve had a wine from South Africa, so maybe now is the time for a revisit.
The beauty of South African wines is they are like a blend of Old World and New World styles. Traditionally, Old World wines tend to be earthier, with lower alcohol levels and higher acidity, while New World wines tend to be more fruit-forward with lower acidity and higher alcohol levels. South African wines blend the two perfectly with earthiness, ripe fruit flavors and well-balanced acidity.
Wine production in South Africa started in the late 1650s. All the original vineyards were planted within 100 miles of Cape Town, but most were not particularly successful. In 1679, Simon van der Stel arrived with the Dutch East India Co. and become governor of Cape Town. He often complained about the sourness in the local wines and set about improving viticulture techniques and created Constantia winery, the most famous winery in South Africa’s history. (It has since been split into three different wineries: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting.)
By the early 1800s, the wines of Cape Town had a soaring reputation and exports were on the upswing. A sweet dessert wine, Vin de Constance, made from Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, accrued a huge following. Louis XVI and Fredrick the Great were said to be fans, and Napoleon Bonaparte reputedly consumed 30 bottles a month to ease the pain of his exile from France.
That ended in 1860, when a secret commercial trade treaty between Britain and the French led to a 90 percent decrease in Cape exports over the next five years.
Today, some regions to note are: Constantia, Stellenbosch, Durbanville, Paarl and Olifants River.
Constantia is the historic wine hub of South Africa and produces fine examples of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia have even started producing Vin de Constance. I found a 2002 from Klein Constantia online for $39. The wine is rich with ripe mango and ginger flavors, with spicy clove, honey and blood orange notes.
Stellenbosch was planted shortly after Constantia, making it the second oldest wine-growing region in South Africa. It’s located just inland, to the east of Constantia, and is regarded as the finest wine-growing region. The area is known for its reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage. But it makes delicious Chardonnay and spicy Sauvignon Blanc as well.
Some of my favorite producers from the region include Thelema, Warwick Estate, and Mulderbosch. Look for Mulderbosch Rose, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It’s fresh and lively with strawberry, pomegranate and hints of pepper and spice for about $15. The Thelema Chardonnay is excellent as well with notes of ripe fig, pear and apple flavors that finish with orange peel for around $20.
Durbanville is located just north of Constantia and sandwiched between Stellenbosch, Paarl, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is an emerging region with some brilliant Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Merlot being produced.
Paarl is just inland and a bit to the north of Durbanville and Stellenbosch. For most of the 20th century, Paarl was the center of South Africa’s wine industry until the focus shifted to Stellenbosch in the late 1970s. The area focuses on Shiraz but also grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Viognier, and Mourvedre.
Olifants River is located on the Atlantic Coast of South Africa nearing the border of the Western Cape and Northern Cape. It’s a fast up-and-coming wine producing region with many easy-drinking red and white wines.
While I haven’t seen a lot of wine from South Africa on the local market, what is made available here is quite good.
If you’re looking for more selections, however, there’s always the wide world of the Internet, so go out and try something new tonight.
Todd Ashline is the sommelier/restaurant director at Chef Mavro. Contact him at 944-4714 or visit www.chefmavro.com.