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South Africa Rising, Vol. I
By Michael Franz
Jan 15, 2013
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Which country is the world’s most rapidly improving wine producer?  The answer is South Africa, and this isn’t even a close call. 

After 15 years of very spotty performance as South African wines were reintroduced to world markets in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, the country’s industry has recently achieved impressive breadth and consistency of quality.  Many producers--as opposed to a few stars--are now making excellent wines.  Multiple regions are performing at high levels, and they’re doing it with both reds and whites, year after year.

This impressive performance by South Africa’s wine industry is all the more striking when viewed against the backdrop of past problems.  The industry was hampered very badly by anti-apartheid sanctions that deprived it of access to technological advancements, first-rate plant material, and the rigors of international competition.  When the first round of exports reached North America in the mid-1990s, the wines were maddeningly inconsistent in quality and style, generally quite unattractive in packaging, and not infrequently heat-damaged or lacking in freshness. 

Things began improving notably around the turn of the millennium, thanks to a prolonged shake-out among producers within South Africa and also among importers.  The country still produces lots of cheap, quasi-industrial wine, but most of it is shipped in bulk for bottling and sale in Europe.  By contrast, most of the wine sold in the USA is now estate-bottled by conscientious vintners, and is represented here by importers with a sustained commitment to raising South Africa’s stature on the strength of quality--rather than cashing in on opportunism or gimmickry.

Although the general status of South Africa’s wine profile here is vastly better than it was 10 or 15 years ago, this should not obscure the fact that the industry still faces very serious perils at home.  Indeed, no fine wine industry anywhere in the world confronts dangers comparable to those facing South Africa’s, which has been racked recently by violent worker strikes for weeks on end.  Political uncertainties and economic malaise are persistent problems that darken the industry’s long-term prospects even as they provide a short-term benefit:  Financial woes and sovereign debt rating downgrades have weakened the country’s currency, which makes its wines highly cost-competitive in export markets.

A last word on context:  Just as the wine industry’s recent rise should be viewed in the light of the country’s surrounding perils, those perils should be regarded with an appreciation of the astonishing social and political accomplishments of the nation during the past 30 years.  The challenges faced by South Africa over this span were probably more daunting than those addressed by any other country in more than a century, and the fact that it continues to function--and remains as promising as it is perilous--is remarkable.  My opinion is that, of all the world’s wine producing countries, South Africa is the one most deserving of our hopes and good wishes.

The wines are also highly deserving of your attention.  During my fourth visit to South Africa in September of last year, I tasted lots of admirable wines, and the best of them are identified in the sections that follow.  Every wine noted earned at least a 90 point score, and ones that earned scores of 92 or higher are marked with an asterisk. 

I’ll start with white wines today, and will be back in this space next week with a rundown on reds.  During the next three or four weeks, I’ll offer full reviews of the very best wines on the WRO “Reviews” page.

WHITES:

Chardonnay:

I think it is safe to say that the world is not suffering a catastrophic shortage of Chardonnay, so you might not regard it as front-page news that South Africa is now turning out some very attractive renditions.  However, it would be a bad mistake to overlook what the country is offering these days.  There's real coherence in stylistic terms, and you'll likely find that your wine is mercifully free of the heavy overlay of oak and the ponderously lactic character that can make Chardonnay tiring to drink and confining with food.  This is true even of higher-end bottlings such as Hamilton Russell (from the cool climate of Walker Bay).  Another promising development is that South Africa is turning out some real bargains in the moderate price range, and I’m not sure that any of the world’s wine producing countries is making better Chardonnay in the $14 - $18 price range.  The general profile offers some interesting complexities from tastefully subtle oak while still showing pure fruit and nice acidic structure. 

Bartinney (Stellenbosch) 2011
Boschendal (Western Cape) Unwooded 2012
Bouchard Finlayson (Overberg) “Crocodile’s Lair” 2011
* Bouchard Finlayson (Walker Bay) “Missionvale” 2010
* Bouchard Finlayson (Overberg) “Kaaimnasgat Limited Edition” 2010
De Wetshof (Robertson) “Bateleur” 2012
De Wetshof (Robertson) “Bon Vallon” 2012
* De Wetshof (Robertson) “Limestone Hill” 2012
Glen Carlou (Paarl) 2011
* Glen Carlou (Paarl) “Quartz Stone” 2011
Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Unwooded 2011
* Glenelly (Stellenbosch) “Grand Vin de Glenelly” 2011
Hamilton Russell (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) 2010
Iona (Elgin) 2011
Jordan (Stellenbosch) Unwooded 2012
* Jordan (Stellenbosch) 2011
* Jordan (Stellenbosch) “Nine Yards” 2011
La Motte (Franschhoek) 2010
Meerlust (Stellenbosch) 2010
Paul Cluver (Elgin) 2011
Radford Dale (Stellenbosch) 2010
* Springfield Estate (Robertson) “Wild Yeast” 2009
* Springfield Estate (Robertson) “Methode Ancienne” 2009
Thelema (Elgin) 2010
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) “Premium” 2011
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Reserve 2010
Waterford Estate (Stellenbosch) 2011
Winery of Good Hope (Western Cape) Unoaked 2012

Chenin Blanc:

South Africa has lots and lots of Chenin Blanc planted, though some of it travels under the name of “Steen.”  It can be very good whether made in a fresh, simple style with no influence from wood, or whether made in a bigger, more complex style by means of barrel fermentation or ageing.  Moreover, Chenin (like Semillon) is an important contributor to blended whites, which South Africa can do very well--and should do more of, in my opinion.

As recently as four or five years ago, it seemed inconceivable to me that South Africa could surpass France’s Loire Valley as the world’s premier source for Chenin.  Today, that outcome seems not only conceivable, but even likely.  On the production side, climatic conditions in South Africa are more consistent than in north-central France, and on the commercial side, South Africa’s finished product is likewise more consistent.  One never knows how much sweetness one will find in a bottle of Vouvray, but that’s not an issue in South Africa’s Chenins, for two reasons:  Stronger coherence in style across different producers, and more consistent levels of acidity across different vintages, which permits much greater consistency in any residual sugar used to counterbalance tartness.

Whether South Africa can muster Chenin Blancs that can match the complexity of the very best wines from the tiny appellation of Savennières in the Loire remains to be seen, but it is not too early to say this:  The best renditions from South Africa are getting close, and at the commercially important level of wines priced between $12 and $18, South Africa has now edged ahead in terms of quality and consistency.

Badenhorst (Swartland) 2012
Beaumont (Bot River, Walker Bay) 2012
Beaumont (Bot River) “Hope Marguerite” 2011
* De Morgenzon (Stellenbosch) Reserve 2011
* Raats (Stellenbosch) Old Vine 2011

Sauvignon Blanc:

When you get to the end of this entry, you’ll see fewer recommended wines than you’d expect given the high praise I’m about to lavish on South African Sauvignons.  That’s also true of the Chenins above, and the simple explanation is that I got whacked during my recent trip with a stomach virus that prevented me from tasting for a full day--after I had devoted hours to tasting Chardonnays prior to the affliction.  I note this only so that you don’t infer anything from the imbalance in the number of noted wines.

There's absolutely no doubt that the following list would be much longer if I'd had a chance to taste even more wines.  The simple fact is that this grape rocks in the regions around the Cape.  I take no particular pride in this observation, as it was abundantly clear to me from the first time I tasted a Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc many years ago, and the affinity between this grape and this place should be obvious to anyone without a stone dead palate.

South Africa produces a range of styles of Sauvignon, and it is interesting and impressive that the results can be very convincing all along the continuum.  The range runs from pungently grassy and sharply acidic to a broader, softer style based more on melon than citrus fruit to--at the fuller end--renditions that are fleshed out with a blending component of Semillon or some wood influence in fermentation or ageing.  You'll find more of the light-and-zesty style by far, and though some of these could be mistaken for wines from New Zealand's Marlborough region, most are a little lest assertive.  They're still plenty exciting, yet they are a bit more user-friendly and versatile with food, and don't need quite so much residual sugar to counterbalance their acid component.

* Bayten (Constantia) 2012
Groenland Stellenbosch 2012
Springfield Estate (Robertson) 2012
Thelema (Elgin) 2012
Thelema (Stellenbosch) 2012
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) 2012
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Schaapenberg Vineyard Reserve 2011

Other:

I need to show a little discipline to keep this column from turning into a tome, but I can't resist noting that South Africa is not just a three-trick pony with Chardonnay, Chenin and Sauvignon.  The country also produces some delicious dry rosés, blends, and Semillons.  Riesling can also be very good, as can Viognier.  Moreover, given how well Syrah is doing, it seems inevitable that Marsanne and Roussanne are in the offing as well.

Badenhorst (Swartland) White Blend 2010
Graham Beck (Robertson) Viognier “The Game Reserve” 2010
* Keermont Blend “Terrasse” (Chardonnay, Chenin, Sauvignon & Viognier)(Stellenbosch) 2011
Kleinood (Western Cape) Viognier 2012
* De Morgenzon (Stellenbosch) Blend “Maestro” 2011
* Mullineux (Swartland) Blanc 2010
* Rall White (Chardonnay, Viognier, Chenin, Verdehlo)(Coastal Region) 2011
 * Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) “G.V.B.” Estate White Blend 2010