Which country is the world's most rapidly improving wine producer? The answer is South Africa, as I argued last week in the first installment of this roundup of current releases. Of course, the ultimate argument on all such questions resides not in the verbiage but in the vino, so I invite you to taste for yourself from the outstanding reds wines identified in the category profiles below:
South Africa makes wonderful blended reds, especially from Bordeaux varieties, though Rhône varieties may yet prove equally impressive. Yet another sub-category is comprised of so-called "Cape Blends," a defining characteristic of which is incorporation of Pinotage (a cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir that is virtually unique to South Africa). I am skeptical of Cape Blends for the simple reason that I am skeptical of Pinotage's ability to make a positive contribution to a blend over and above what could be contributed by a larger portion of a truly noble variety such as Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah. It would appear that I’m not alone in my skepticism, as this category was notably less prominent in 2012 than when I previously visited South Africa.
I'll have a bit more to say on this below, in the section devoted explicitly to Pinotage, but here the focus should be on South Africa's impressively classy, complex Bordeaux- and Rhône-style blends. This category takes maximum advantage of the country's ability to make wines with fruit that is deep in flavor but not obvious in ripeness or fruitiness. Many blends show a faintly meaty, leafy, earthy edge to the fruit that makes them enduringly interesting to drink, exceptionally versatile with food, and (though this isn't really an end in itself), curiously hard to peg between the New and Old World stylistic profiles.
Moreover, whether it is by design or not, the tendency of most South African winemakers is to go easy on new oak, which really lets the interesting nuances of these blends shine through. Cabernet Franc seems especially valuable as a blending component even though it is rare as a varietal wine in South Africa (Raats Family Wines makes an important exception to that), lending notes of autumn leaves and cedar that really plays up the likeness to Bordeaux in wines in which it is included. Finally, South African blends can be exceptionally interesting on every strata of the pricing scale, and in my view only Chile can rival these wines for aromatic complexity out of the New World.
* De Toren (Stellenbosch) “Z” 2010
* Graham Beck (Robertson) “The William” 2088
Mullineux (Swartland) Syrah 2010
* Mullineux (Swartland) Syrah “Schist” 2010
* Mvemve Raats (Stellenbosch) Blend “de Compostella” 2009
Raats (Stellenbosch) “Red Jasper” 2010
* Springfield Estate (Robertson) “The Work of Time” 2006
* Thelema (Stellenbosch) “Rabelais” 2008
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) “G.V.B.” 2005
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) “V” 2007
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Cabernet-Merlot 2009
* Villafonté (Paarl-Simonsberg) “Series C” 2009
* Villafonté (Paarl-Simonsberg) “Series C” 2010
Villafonté (Paarl-Simonsberg) “Series M” 2009
* Villafonté (Paarl-Simonsberg) “Series M” 2010
Although I don't think varietal Cabernet is quite as interesting as South Africa's Bordeaux-style blends, it is a close second, and very much succeeds for the same reasons. Most of the wines below are not built along blockbuster lines, but rather show real restraint and complexity. Ripeness is often admirably restrained in South African Cabernets, being sufficient to avoid any overtly "green" or vegetal character in the finished wine, but leaving a little hint of the herbal, leafy side of Cabernet that can lend it much of its aromatic complexity prior to the development of secondary aromas that arise with bottle ageing.
Cabernet, like Chardonnay, is famous for producing good wine almost anywhere where climatic conditions permit vintners to get the fruit ripe. However, it must be said that some places produce much more interesting results than others with this grape, and South Africa is very high on my list of favorite sources.
Bartinney (Stellenbosch) 2009
Glenelly (Stellenbosch) “Glass Collection” 2010
* Glenelly (Stellenbosch) “Lady May” 2009
* Glenelly (Stellenbosch) “Lady May” 2010
Springfield Estate (Robertson) “Whole Berry” 2010
Stark-Condé (Stellenbosch) 2009
* Stark-Condé (Stellenbosch) “Three Pines” 2009
Thelema (Stellenbosch) “The Mint” 2009
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Reserve 2006
This is where the good news ends for a while. For reasons that I have yet to determine, but which are painfully obvious in empirical terms when tasting across the category, South African Merlots are usually best avoided in favor of other wine types that are currently more successful. Even producers that are exceptionally consistent can produce Merlots that seem jarringly poor by comparison to other wines in their lineup.
Perhaps the country has been stuck with bad plant material, but successes with Merlot are conspicuous by their absence in South Africa. The same affliction is also seen in Australia, for reasons that--again--have eluded me over the years.
Thelema (Stellenbosch) Estate 2009
* Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Reserve 2008
Wine writers in the UK have taken all of the fun out of beating up on Pinotage by ganging up on it to the point that there's nothing left to beat. Yes, it is maddeningly inconsistent, veering drunkenly from being insipidly fruity to painfully tannic, and ranging from mindlessly fruity to bizarrely rubbery in character. However, the wines are getting a little better lately on average, and I'm told that a good deal has been learned recently about how to deal with the grape's potential shortcomings. So we should perhaps all reserve judgment and hope for the best.
Beaumont (Bot River, Walker Bay) 2010
* Kanonkop (Stellenbosch) 2003
Syrah is off to a flying start in South Africa. Many of the vines are still so young that their upper-end potential has yet to be seen, and likewise the vineyard plantings aren't yet sufficiently widespread to make it clear where Syrah will do best or how good it can get. However, it does not seem inconceivable to me--based on relatively early results--that this grape will reach heights in South Africa that will surpass every source in the world aside from the northern Rhône.
Just for the record: No, I have not forgotten about Australia. And no, I didn't forget to spit when tasting in South Africa. In my impartial tasting experience, no place aside from New Zealand's Hawkes Bay region has gotten so good with Syrah so fast, conjuring interestingly earthy, smoky, meaty nuances to serve as fascinating counterpoints to the pure berry fruit notes. Tasting is believing: Taste these wines.
Keermont (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2009
* Kleinood (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2008
* Kleinood (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2009
* Porseleinberg (Swartland) Shiraz 2010
Stark-Condé (Stellenbosch) Syrah 2009
* Stark-Condé (Jonkershoek Valley) Syrah “Three Pines” 2009
Vergelegen (Stellenbosch) Shiraz 2007
Odds & Ends:
Beaumont (Bot River) Mourvèdre 2009
* Raats (Stellenbosch) Cabernet Franc 2010