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An Embarrassment of Riches: South Africa Vol. II
By Michael Franz
Oct 17, 2017
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I returned from South Africa five weeks ago, where I spent more than seven days tasting very intensively across virtually every imaginable wine category…including fortified wines.  I found so many terrific wines to review that I barely scratched the surface in my column last month, so you’ll find a substantial set of new reviews set below in this column.  The quality of the wines included is absolutely stellar, but what is really astonishing is the value they offer.  Many countries and regions are sending good wines and good values to the USA, to be sure, but right now there is no place that can match the quality-to-price ratio of what we’re getting from South Africa.

The paragraphs that follow--prior to the reviews--are the same ones that introduced my column last month.  That’s part of the explanation for the mention of “embarrassment” in my title…I’ve been traveling constantly (and am actually writing this on a plane taking me to Barolo), and simply haven’t had time to do more than write additional reviews.  Moreover, even this second set will still not get me even halfway through the wines I tasted that merit reviews, so (rather embarrassingly), this enterprise must stretch into the weeks ahead, when I’ll be writing still more reviews.

If you didn’t see last month’s column, what follows will provide some context and background; if you did see it, skip ahead to the reviews.

This last journey was my sixth trip to taste in South Africa, and the second in the past two years.  Between trips, I’ve followed the wines very closely by tasting extensively in the USA, which I’ve done since 1994.  That was the year when Nelson Mandela was elected President and wines from the country began re-appearing on our shores.  It was also when I began writing a wine column in The Washington Post, and it you know a bit about the highly cosmopolitan wine market it D.C., it won’t surprise you to hear that everybody was dying to learn about the wines.

The first arrivals were, frankly, awful, with bad packaging and widespread evidence of heat damage to boot.  Then they started getting better, but a lot of them were cheap and gimmicky, dragging down the country’s reputation with cutesy animal labels during the Yellow Tail Dark Ages.  Then some importers rolled the dice and tried to bring high-end wines to the USA to sell on quality rather than price.  However, the industry within South Africa was still hampered by various production problems and working through stylistic confusion that seemed to require time (and even generational turnover) to be resolved adequately.

Today, I can report that South Africa has finally joined the ranks of the world’s truly elite winemaking countries, achieving widespread excellence across multiple grape varieties and product categories.  It remains true that many of the wines also offer excellent value, but that has mostly to do with exchange rates between the Rand and the Dollar and Euro, and is really irrelevant to the issue of sheer quality, which remains the key question for serious wine lovers around the world.  To reiterate, even at the risk of repeating myself, South Africa is now producing many wines of multiple types that aren’t just free of flaws, but that are stunningly good by global standards but still quite distinctive in style and reflective of their place of origin.  Some writers and many consumers won’t get this message because they can’t believe that a country’s industry could get so much better so quickly, but there’s nothing we can do about that.  Except buy the wines that they foolishly pass over.

If this assessment sounds a little more emphatic than what you’d expect to see from a wine critic, I can understand.  But I can also explain.  The first five days of this most recent trip were spent tasting “blind” while judging the Veritas Awards, the longest-running and most prestigious competition in South Africa.  This enabled me to taste very broadly in an entirely dispassionate manner, without any influence from seeing labels or being schmoozed while evaluating wines.  If you love wine, this may sound like fun rather than a “dispassionate” undertaking, and it is fun…but spitting in a booth for hours on end is an entirely analytical activity.  I got out of my booth for the fifth day, to taste all of the “double-gold” award winners judged by all of the panels, but there was still no discussion among the judges for that round…just solo evaluation across all categories, without any discussion.

Aside from this, I spent three afternoons out in the winelands during the competition, and three full days afterwards, tasting hundreds of wines and speaking with more than 25 winemakers or winery representatives.

Taking this all together, that’s a very extensive and intensive look at what South Africa’s industry is making these days.  But there’s one more reason to take my assessment seriously:  I don’t owe anybody anything, and wasn’t paid to judge, and flew economy class for nearly lethal spans of time to do all of this, and would be perfectly willing to report that the wines were uneven or mediocre if that was what I discovered.

But that isn’t what I discovered, as you’ll see.  Below you’ll find accounts of exemplary wines that I tasted with winemakers or winery representatives in the afternoons of judging days, or during the intensive stretch of visits and tastings in the wake of the Veritas competition.

Wines are organized by category.  Within the categories, top scoring wines lead off, and when scores are identical, alphabetical order prevails.  USA importers are provided when possible, and some prices are more precise than others, but all should be in the ballpark.  Some of the wines won’t be easy to find at all, and some may require shipping from other states, whereas a few are quite widely available.  In every case, though, these are worth a search, and emphatically worth a taste.

If you’re interested in seeing more reviews, there are two things you can do.  First, if you didn’t see my column from last month, it is easy to find in the WRO archives.  From the “Home” page, simply click on my photo (or my name just beneath it), and you’ll be taken to my past columns, with last month’s column right up top.  Lots of reviews in that article, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll write about many more wines on the WRO “Reviews” page:


Sparkling:

Graham Beck (Robertson) Blanc de Blancs Brut 2012
($20):  Many Americans wine lovers have never even tried a bottle of bubbly from South Africa, and this might well be the bottle to show such people, as it is phenomenally good by any standard, and an absolute steal relative to its selling price.  The base Chardonnay fruit is sourced entirely from the estate, including only the first round of delicately pressed juice.  It shows very delicate flavors and excellent freshness thanks to lemony acidity, yet there’s noting austere or screechy about the finish, despite a very modest dosage of just 5.2 grams of sugar.  Fresh and fine, this offers amazing value.  92

Graham Beck (Western Cape) South Africa Brut Zero 2012
($22):  It is quite difficult to make no-dosage sparkling wine that doesn’t come off as hard or austere, often requiring a long period of bottle aging on the yeast lees from the second fermentation prior to disgorging.  That period was a full five years in this case, and, well…it worked beautifully.  Blended from 80 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Pinot Noir, this shows the slightest pinkish hue, which is actually a bit misleading if one thinks of pink in gendered terms.  The wine is steely in character, with lots of coiled energy and great linear drive.  It is much more nuanced than overt, with interesting little details that emerge as the wine warms and settles in the glass.  I could only taste this over the course of about 5 minutes, and would much preferred to have afforded it a full hour.  In light of the difficulty of making a wine like this, and the inventory carrying costs involved, this is a remarkable bargain, but don’t let that prevent you from admiring it just on its merits.  92


Chardonnay:

Iona (Elgin) Chardonnay 2016
($33, Martin Scott):  This producer seems amazingly adept at making everything in its lineup, and this brilliant Chardonnay is certainly no exception.  The fruit is drawn from three different clones planted across three vineyard blocks before going through whole bunch pressing and fermentation entirely in French oak (18% of it new).  That looks like a recipe for a big rendering of Chardonnay, but only 20% of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation, with the result that highly energetic acidity powers right through the oak notes to produce a persistent, very fresh finish.  93

Paul Cluver (Elgin) Chardonnay 2016
($24, Verity & Winebow):  I’ve gone on record more than once with the assertion that South Africa makes the best moderately-priced Chardonnay in the world.  Although New Zealand and Mâcon in southern Burgundy are tightening the race, I stand on my assertion, and point to a wine like this as a question-closing case in point.  It gets off to a great start with subtly spicy scents from oak, intermingled with expressive fruit aromas.  On the palate, the fruit impressions recall ripe apples and white peaches, with beautifully balanced acidity (only 15% of the wine went though malolactic fermentation) that makes the wine seem as linear as it seems rounded and generous.  Full of flavor but still very focused, this was aged in 20% new oak barrels, with the remaining cooperage used for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th vintage.  An indisputably outstanding wine and an unbelievably strong value, this reflects great skill in both the vineyard and the winery.  93


Chenin Blanc:

Craven (Stellenbosch) Karabib Farm Chenin Blanc 2016
($24, Vine Street & Metro Cellars):  The young winemaking couple behind this delicious wine is an interesting story all of their own—she’s South African, he’s Australian, they met making wine in California, and they’ve got a little kid and a boatload of talent.  As this wine shows, they’ve also got a love for energetically acidic wine, as do I, though I didn’t quite expect to find it in this wine (which shows lovely golden color and honeyed aromas up top).  The color is explained by some oxygen interchange, as this went through elevage in older 500 liter barrels.  The honeyed note doesn’t show up in the midpalate or finish, as this is a rich but truly dry wine with excellent definition.  92


Riesling:

Paul Cluver (Elgin) Riesling 2017
($17, Verity & Winebow):  As the cliché goes, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is that this is an extremely tasty wine, with an overtly sweet profile but good balance thanks to zesty acidity that freshens the finish.  The bad news is that this exemplary producer has discontinued making a dry Riesling, which was a fantastic wine that could give the best dry Rieslings from Australia a run for their money (and though those Aussie wines are not widely know, those who are familiar with them know that they can be spectacularly complex and long-lived).  I managed to avoid weeping openly when told this by Paul Cluver, but just barely.  Considering this wine solely on its own merits, it is very showy, with expressive aromatics and gorgeously juicy fruit.  You can take it to a BYOB Thai restaurant with great success, which is some consolation for the loss of the Cluver Dry Riesling, which you could take anywhere….  90


Sauvignon Blanc

Iona (Elgin) Sauvignon Blanc 2017
($15, Martin Scott):  This is a very complex, highly successful Sauvignon Blanc.  It incorporates 4% Semillon and some barrel fermentation, but is nonetheless very fresh and vivid, with good aromatic expressiveness that never crosses the line into excessive pungency.  It finishes with fine length and purity, thanks to plenty of citrus acidity.  92

Downes Family Vineyards (Elgin) Sauvignon Blanc 2016
($20, Southern Starz):  Sold as a wine from Shannon Vineyards within South Africa but under the Downes Family brand in the USA for copyright reasons, this is a highly versatile, beautifully balanced rendition of Sauvignon Blanc.  It is styled to lean more toward Bordeaux Blanc than Loire Sauvignon, based on use of a Bordeaux clone and inclusion of 11% Semillon, but I still found lots of pleasantly herbal aromas and good acidic definition.  Especially promising for restaurant settings, but pretty damned strong under any circumstances.  91

Paul Cluver (Elgin) Sauvignon Blanc 2017
($17, Verity & Winebow): 
This wine is always very good, though this vintage is a bit different than usual.  The aromatics show less of the grassy, dried herb and citrus profile than in most years, which seems to have resulted from a growing season that was very dry--though not excessively hot.  The palate shows fruit notes recalling ripe melon and passion fruit, but there’s enough zingy citrus-style acidity in the finish to provide definition and cut.  Very successful, regardless of the rather unusual style.  91


Semillon:

Downes Family Vineyards (Elgin) Semillon 2016
($28, Southern Starz):  I love Semillon but have increasing difficulty finding it, as Australian examples are ever more rare, as are ones from Washington state.  Good renditions are virtually peerless partners with grilled salmon or swordfish, and there’s no doubt that this is a very good rendition.  Substantial but not heavy, this was fermented entirely in wood (30% new), and yet the oak is quite subtle in the finished wine.  Delicious!  92


Viognier:

Lismore (Cape South Coast) Viognier “The Age of Grace” 2016
($38, Kysela):  I review very few bottlings of Viognier for the good reason that very few of them merit mention…much less praise.  The flashy, floral ones are often alcoholic and tiring to drink, with insufficient acidity, whereas the fresh ones often lack the aromatics that make Viognier worth considering in the first place.  Renditions from Condrieu (in France’s northern Rhône) that dodge these two problems are almost always painfully expensive, and though that makes sense because the region is tiny and horribly difficult to farm, I still can’t see shelling out $70 for them.  Which brings me to this wine--admittedly by a circuitous route--which I took because it is such a brilliant exception to the rule.  It shows floral topnotes that are lovely but also subtle (which is good, because overly perfumed wines almost never invite a second glass), as well as delicious peachy fruit enlivened with excellent acidity.  It seems that the secret to success in this case was two separate pickings…an early one for acidity, and a second to pick up the florals, which only emerge at full ripeness.  Probably tough to find, but even harder to resist after experiencing it.  93


White Blends:

Iona (Elgin) White Blend “One Man Band” 2015
($30, Martin Scott):  I have no idea why it makes sense to call a wine blended from two varieties, “One Man Band,” but then, the wine is so good that this hardly matters.  The blend is 60% Semillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc, with everything going through fermentation in barrel before 11 months of aging in wood.  Rich and broadly textured without seeming heavy, and spicy without seeming oaky, this is a very well crafted wine.  It could be put to nearly countless uses at the table, including almost any fish dish but also roast chicken or herb crusted pork.  92


Cinsault:

Craven (Stellenbosch) Cinsault 2016 ($24, Vine Street & Metro Cellars):  There’s a lot of Cinsault in South Africa, leading this winemaking duo to refer to it as “the red Chenin,” which makes good sense (Chenin is also widely planted, and for decades wasn’t taken seriously, but is now on the rise).  This is a very unusual and exciting little wine, and I don’t employ the word “little” to diminish this in any way.  On the contrary, it impresses precisely because it is fine and fresh and fun it its lightness, with very bright, tart red cherry fruit with fine tannins that are entirely appropriate to the weight of the wine.  It is bottled just five months after vinification to capture these characteristics.  Extremely useful, this would make wickedly good Thanksgiving wine if you can track down a bottle….  92


Merlot:

Downes Family Vineyards (Elgin) Merlot “Mount Bullet” 2014 ($65, Southern Starz):  This producer also makes a quite good “regular” Merlot, but this flagship bottling is certainly the one to seek out.  It is sold in a very big bottle and smells very much of new oak.  Both of those are marks of a “statement wine” that are likely to turn me off, but this won me back with very good complexity based on a mix of red and black fruit tones, a good combination of freshness and ripeness, and powerful fruit that manages to counterbalance the oak very effectively.  I was quoted at price of $65, but have seen this offered for quite a bit less, so shop around.  93


Pinot Noir:

Paul Cluver (Elgin) South Africa Pinot Noir 2016 ($24, Verity & Winebow):  I’ve tasted multiple vintages of this wine that were obviously much better than most Pinots costing twice as much from anywhere in the world, and the 2016 rendition joins that illustrious group.  Compellingly complex, with spice notes intermingled with fruit (that is juicy but not sweet) and savory accents, this expressive wine punches far above its weight in terms of aroma and flavor, which is precisely what defines excellent Pinot Noir.  This should scare the hell out of Pinot producers all over the world asking more than $50 for their wines.  93


Red Blends:

Iona (Elgin) Red Blend “One Man Band” 2011 ($30, Martin Scott):  Elgin is an appellation in South Africa’s Cape region that gained its early reputation for cool climate renditions of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  However, a wine like this one proves that Elgin can provide a happy home for virtually any variety, including very late ripening ones such as Mourvedre and Petit Verdot.  The blend here includes both of those as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.  Everything goes into 500 liter casks, 20% of them new, for 16 months.  Four years of additional bottle age help to make this strikingly complex, with earthy scents in the bouquet that really make this seem European in style.  This pleasant earthiness shows up in the wine’s flavors as well, but there’s plenty of fruit too, and in texture, there’s softness but also nice tannic grip.  A complete wine--which is very high praise in my lexicon.  93