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In two situations that couldn’t have been more different, one wine has made an enormous impression on me in the past month; I can safely say it’s the most exciting South African wine I tried in the last year. Southern Right 2010 sauvignon blanc, a Walker Bay offering from a producer specializing in sauvignon blanc and pinotage (imported by Vineyard Brands), came highly recommended from coworkers at the wine retailer where I used to work (and now work again, part-time––the better to fulfill all my South African wine needs!), and I had the feeling my cheese-loving family would make good use of it at Christmastime.
Between the lazy glow of Christmas-morning present opening and the festive chaos of Christmas dinner preparation (my job this year, to my delight), there’s a wonderfully quiet afternoon period when my family usually takes time to enjoy presents such as books and movies, take naps, and maybe go for a walk. My sister and I were feeling peckish, so we laid out the leftover cheeses and tarts from last night’s hors d’oeuvres and cracked this bottle open.
I don’t really like seeing “quince” as a tasting note––who eats quince regularly, at least in my part of the world?––but I have had it, and the nose on this wine screamed of it, with lemon and lime peel nipping licking at the juicy core like a flame. Tangible minerality on the palate and through the finish made it clear this was cool-climate South African sauv blanc at its best: a tightrope-fine balance of steel and tangy fruit, and simply mouthwatering. With our cheeses and fig tarts this was perfection.
A couple of weeks later, my boyfriend and I attended a dinner party where a chef friend had an amazing menu of grilled salmon, crab cakes, smoked bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with cheese, roasted vegetables, and other goodies planned; as soon as I saw the Southern Right sauvignon blanc at Gates Circle, a Buffalo wine shop we frequent, I knew we had to grab it. Sure enough, with perfectly cooked seafood and lightly roasted broccoli, this was a superb match and our table of friends downed the bottle in about fifteen minutes.
It’s no secret that I love South African sauvignon blanc, but this is one of the best I’ve had, and a steal at $14. Best of all, the winery donates a portion of proceeds from each bottle sold to the conservation of the right whales that visit the Walker Bay near the vineyards and for whom this farm its name. I don’t normally drink the same wine repeatedly, in the interest of variety, but this exception is destined to become a regular fixture at special occasions from now on.
In Jennifer Weiner’s wonderful novel Good in Bed, a character refers to the panic and heartache that occurs when one finds a completely unexpected and seemingly innocuous reminder of a departed lover–in the character’s case, a crumb of dog food on the kitchen floor from his ex-girlfriend’s dog. I felt that same sensation of being sniped by memories on Saturday night.
I’ve been missing South Africa lately more than I’d realized, until I was at a party over the weekend and was completely blindsided to find, amongst the various wine and liquor bottles that had been set out by the bar or brought by guests, a surprise: the 2009 vintage of one of my very favorite South African wines, Raats Family cabernet franc.
Raats Family wines are a rarity in Western New York, so of all SA wines to come across at a party it was an unlikely appearance—and I was torn between an intense desire to know who’d brought it and an even stronger need to taste it.
When I did, I was unprepared for the emotional response: the peppery, mineral, tobacco-y cabernet franc notes that I love combined with the warm earth sensation that causes Stellenbosch wines to send pangs of longing through my bones. Longing, and urgency––I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to SA given financial and job constraints and I get sick thinking of all the beautiful wines that I’m not tasting because I’m over here. At least I got to drink a glass of this amazing wine.
Well played, Mr. Raats. Well played.
(Image is, obviously, of the 2008 RF cab franc that I tried while in SA in 2011; I was not able to snap a picture of the 2009 because I had lost my phone.)
It’s time to start writing about South African wine again. After a hiatus during which I became a marathon runner and changed careers, I miss having this space to talk about my favorite wine region in the world. Without further ado:
On Friday I headed out to Niagara to help rack some wine, and I had time to hang out at beautiful Eveningside Vineyards and enjoy the hot weather with a cold bottle of Paul Cluver 2009 sauvignon blanc in the shade of the vines (harvest is nearly upon us here in Niagara County, New York––take a look at those Cabernet Franc grapes!). I was very excited to see this bottle in a shop in Columbus, Ohio, when visiting my family there a few months ago; I know this producer to be highly regarded and have been dying for some good Elgin sauvignon blanc in this extremely hot summer season. To find an example from the 2009 vintage, an outstanding year for sauvignon blanc in Elgin, was quite lucky.
The first sip made me swoon: chalky, lemony-lime notes on the nose and a mouthful of gooseberry on the palate. This is exactly how I remember the sauvignon blanc of SA’s cool-climate regions.
There is a fullness about the wine that complements the searing acidity; when I searched for technical information on the website I found that a small amount of oak-aged Semillon is blended in. I love the effect.
I’ll be heading to Ohio later this week to see family again, and I’ll be sure to look for another bottle of this; though it was great on its own, and a perfect respite from the heat, I would love to experience it with a Valencay cheese or some Portuguese sardines. If you live in Cape Town, do me a favor and have a glass of this on the waterfront or the beach with some fresh seafood as soon as possible; that’s exactly how I’d want to enjoy it.
My last day in SA this year was a carnival of pinotage awesomeness, and I came away with the realization that you can't generalize too much about this crazy grape because there are some producers who are passionate about it and make a very distinct style. Tell me you hate pinotage and I'll immediately ask you which ones you've tried, and you'd better impress me.
There's a place for the voluptuous, fruit-driven, chocolately pinotage style for which Diemersfontein has made a name, and it's a vast ocean from the gamey, meaty Kanonkop-esque style. My mother, who fell in love with SA when she came to visit me there in 2010, ADORES pinotage—specifically this full-bodied and lusty style. I knew this was just the bottle to open on Mother's Day.
"Coffee chocolate" it's not. Fruit comes first and the chocolate aspect is much more subtle. The brambly, black cherry fruit gushes out of the glass like a river, with undercurrents of dark chocolate, cinnamon and smoky earth. It's an overwhelming nose but not stewy, cooked, or overripe. My mom was in love. "Is it okay to say a wine is earthy, when all wine comes from the earth?" she asked. Love it!
Robust doesn't even begin to describe this wine, which we served slightly chilled (I'll never go back to room-temp pinotage after taking Mike Ratcliffe's suggestion). There's sweetness but also just the right amount of tannin, giving it some fleshy chutzpah. Steaks on the grill paired really nicely, though something really spicy would have stood up to it as well. While I tend to prefer a more old-world style of wine with a little less in-your-face fruit and smoke, this style will appeal to a lot of people who are currently getting sick of low-end Aussie shiraz, and if it results in SA converts, I'm all for it. And most important, my mom had a great Mother's Day thanks to this wine, my cooking, and lovely weather for a hike. Enjoy big reds or know someone who does? This is a great pinotage for Zin, Cali red blend and Aussie shiraz drinkers.
Diemersfontein 2009 Carpe Diem Pinotage
Wine of Origin: Wellington
Price: R125* (about US$15)
Long time, no post! I've been taking a little break from drinking to train for a marathon while my South African wines recover from their international flight, but I haven't stopped spreading the SA love. On this past trip I deliberately made an effort to visit farms that export their wines into the U.S., and specifically farms that we carry at the store. My goal was to write more about wines people back home could actually try—and to expand and improve my Wines of South Africa class! Our store offers these excellent classes on everything from zinfandel to wine and chocolate, and I teach several, but the South Africa class is my favorite because I can share pictures and memories from my trip and give students a sense of the "story" behind the wines we taste. Like my first Wines of South Africa class, this one was booked to capacity in advance. One couple even drove 45 minutes to attend; they are considering a wine-oriented vacation in South Africa and were interested in sampling the wines first. Needless to say, they were sold! 🙂
I regret not having been able to visit Graham Beck's Robertson farm this year, as we just expanded our Graham Beck lineup to include delightful cab, pinotage, chardonnay/viognier, and syrah. Nevertheless I bookended my flight with Graham Beck, starting with the demi-sec "Bliss" Methode Cap Classique and ending with 2006 The Ridge syrah. They were stunners, with the bubbly pleasing both sweet and dry lovers and the syrah wowing everyone with its stunning blueberry, spice and mineral notes. The fruit in that wine is absolutely gorgeous, with restrained extraction and a delicate grace, and it nicely punctuated my assertion that syrah is, in my opinion, South Africa's greatest red grape. My students were inclined to agree.
It seems sacrilege to not pour a chenin blanc in a Wines of South Africa class, but our best and most well-stocked example is Graham Beck The Game Reserve and I poured that last time (and I didn't want to give the appearance of a brand-sponsored class, which is what happens when we have guest instructors who work for importers or distributors). Instead I went with the South African white I'm most excited about lately: Glen Carlou 2008 chardonnay. We sell it for $9.99 and it's a rock star, overdelivering with rich, creamy character, lovely lime and orange peel notes, and a hint of chalkiness. Having spent a good deal of time with winemaker Arco Laarman discussing his formula for great chardonnay, I was pumped to use the wine as a teaching tool. It was quite popular; the words "yum," "buttery," and "creamy" were top descriptors.
Next we transitioned into reds with Warwick 2007 Old Bush Vines pinotage, which I served slightly chilled as Mike Ratcliffe recommends. It was just about everyone's first pinotage, and initial reactions were mixed—but after a few sips people were amazed by how much they warmed up to it. I think at first pinotage is so unlike what many American drinkers are used to, with its bizarre spices, chocolate notes and up-front plum flavors, but this particular pinotage is an outstanding and clean example and its quality won people over. Unfortunately, I can't serve food in my wine classes; one student remarked, "I bet this would be great with spicy food." I told her she was spot-on (Chinese food is my usual recommendation) and also suggested folks try it with game dishes, such as buffalo burgers or Cornish hens. I had to stop before braai daydreams got the best of me.
Wine number four was a showstopper for the old world palates in the class: Uva Mira 2006 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon. With its rustic, bloody Italian feel, supple, gritty tannins, and sour cherry fruit, it won hearts all over the room. I nearly got choked up tasting this amazing wine while showing the class pictures of the mountainside Helderberg farm; truly Uva Mira is one of the class acts of Stellenbosch. I think students were really amazed to get such character and complexity for $17.99. (I didn't even need to discuss SA's ridiculous quality-to-price overdelivering; the class noticed right away that all wines poured were under $20 and many remarked on the value.)
Nothing feels better than teaching a class on my "wine home away from home" and getting such a great response. There you have it: another example of the appeal of South African wine here in the States!
My last day in South Africa was a busy one, and a truly amazing way to close this fast-but-furious trip. I spent the morning with Chris Edge of Cape Legends, a company that represents farms such as Neetlingshof, Cederberg, and Tukulu. Chris was kind enough to take me out for a few tours, which culminated in a serendipitous lunch experience.
We began at the beautiful Plaisir du Merle estate in Franschhoek, which features a gorgeous manor house and gardens and a tasty sauvignon blanc and shiraz. From there we made a stop at Le Bonheur in Stellenbosch, also a beautiful estate that offered very nice sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and a delightful pinot noir rose, which had a full, luscious nose of strawberry and watermelon but a dry and snappy finish. Le Bonheur is quite successful in Canada, particularly Quebec, and with the French influence on the estate and wine stylings I can see why.
At this point Chris mentioned that he had to drop a few pinotage samples from Cape Legends farms at a private tasting that was being held in the afternoon for a couple of Quebecois journalists. He asked if I might be interested in hanging out for the tasting. I never say no to pinotage, and before I knew it we were heading up the lovely Beyerskloof diveway for a pinotage extravaganza.
It seems the Quebecois journalists were interested in the pinotage story, and they were in for a treat – I entered the Beyerskloof dining patio to meet an assembly of some of the greatest ambassadors for the cultivar in South Africa. Our host was Beyers Truter himself, patriarch of Beyerskloof and pinotage pioneer, along with his young son Andre. Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslar was in attendance with what appeared to be a very exciting lineup of samples. I also got to meet Dierdre of Diemersfontein in Wellington, famed for the “Coffee Chocolate Pinotage” as well as more high-end examples. This admirable crew was kind enough to let me crash their event, and before I knew it I was sitting next to the journos in a private room waiting for the winemakers and representatives to present us with their pinotage.
The unrivaled highlight for me was Abrie Beeslar's presentation of Kanonkop 2008 pinotage as well as two treats: the 1999 pinotage and the 1995 Paul Sauer. The ’99 showed beautiful earthy mushroom and herb notes with plum and black cherry fruit that was still amazingly lively, backed up by the muscular, veiny tannins that I admire in all Kanonkop reds. But it was the Paul Sauer 1995 that was truly haunting: aging beautifully and just right, with bloody earthiness and a seamless structure. It’s amazing to think that this wine was made just as apartheid was ending, and with it the economic sanctions that prevented South Africa from sharing its wines with the outside world. I was overwhelmed by the experience and thanked Abrie for this rare taste.
Deirdre got a bit of flack for the Coffee Chocolate Pinotage from the Quebecois, but I think they missed the point: this wine wasn’t made for them. It is big, fruity, chocolatey, and friendly, and it will get non-wine drinkers into wine and Australia drinkers into South Africa. I’m okay with that. Having worked retail, I understand that not all wines are made for geeky, sophisticated palates; if they’re well made and turn new drinkers on to wine, they are serving an important purpose in the industry, and I don’t have to like them to respect what they’re doing. The Coffee Chocolate Pinotage is not my style, but it’s a quality product with a niche in the market.
Of Chris’s wines I most liked the Stellenzicht and Tukulu examples, both of which showed good structure. Tukulu, a black economic empowerment farm, is a producer I’ve been looking to try for some time, and I was pleased with a layer of clay/chalk minerality in their pinotage.
After the tasting we enjoyed a fantastic lunch from the Beyerskloof kitchen; I chose an open-faced salami and olive tapanade sandwich which paired famously with the remaining Kanonkop Paul Sauer. At one point Beyers Truter bought out tank samples of his 2011 pinotage, which already shows amazing concentration and powerful fruit. As I looked around the table at the passionate, talented ambassadors for this much-maligned and misunderstood cultivar, I couldn’t help but feel pinotage pride. Does it need to be South Africa’s signature grape? No – I believe that South Africa’s signature is diversity. But pinotage deserves respect, and I think the quality coming from producers like Kanonkop and Beyerskloof speaks for itself.
After lunch Chris dropped me off at Blaauwklippen for a quick hello to my old friends and the cellar team (who immediately wanted to put me to work shoveling out a tank). It was amazing to see everyone and to get updates on the big changes at the farm, from a new restaurant addition to a completely renovated tasting room to a new baby daughter for cellarmaster Leon and the wedding of my 65-year-old shoveling buddy Daantjie to his longtime girlfriend. Times are good for the Blaauwklippen crowd, it seems, and I was thrilled at the chance to see everyone.
After sad goodbyes to my De Toren family and “South African mom” Elmien, Albie drove me to Cape Town. There, my goodbyes turned into a long-awaited hello: I met up with my freshman year roommate from Reed College, Jenny, who I haven’t seen in six years! Jenny, an amazing force of energy, passion and creativity, spent last year raising money to bring bikes to kids in rural South Africa in a program called Bicycles for Humanity and is now getting her master’s at UCT. We got to spend several hours catching up and hanging out with friends – an incredible ending to an incredible trip.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the warmth, love, hospitality, friendship, and generosity I encounter in South Africa continue to overwhelm and inspire me. I want to thank each and every person who shared with me their talents, their love of wine, their sense of humor, their cooking, and, in the case of the Bothas, their home this past few weeks. I feel endlessly grateful to have this beautiful country as a second home, and I have no doubt I’ll be back very soon! Cheers – and stay tuned for more SA wine coverage from the U.S.!