I’ve been missing South Africa even more than usual lately
while watching the World Cup preparations and opening (even despite the
vuvuzelas). My two co-workers and fellow wine geeks were thus subject to a
blasting of South African pop music during the two-hour drive to Toronto last
week for Best of the Braai, a South African wine tasting and dinner event. They
were eager to taste some of the food and wine that I enjoyed while abroad, and
I was eager to roll into a South African event blasting Kurt Darren tunes out
of my car windows.
A small but delicious spread greeted us as we arrived; I was
happily surprised to find tasty lamb kabobs and boerewors that closely mirrored
the braai meat I had grown to love. Mealies and roasted sweet potato completed
the actual South African portion of the food, while various side salads rounded
out the meal. But food obviously wasn’t meant to be the showcase of the
evening, and we quickly moved on to the wine tasting area.
I was pleased to find several excellent producers at the
event; Stellenbosch was well represented with big names such as Tokara and Ken
Forrester, while several Paarl and Darling producers were also present. I was
most interested in how my partners in crime would react to the selection: one
is a certified sommelier with an affinity for French classics; the other is a
wine writer (check out his blog, Water into Wino, as he’s reviewed some good
South African wines in recent months!). Both had a bit of a prejudicial
attitude about South African wine initially but have been expanding their
They were impressed at the “restraint” of many of the wines;
since South African wine in the U.S. has a reputation for being “new world” in
style, with big oak, fruit, tannins, brett, etc. they were surprised to find
whites that showed deliberate limitation of oak (typically a minimal use of new
oak, perhaps 5-10%) but retained a sex appeal that is uniquely South African.
They were also impressed with some of the blends, which showed lovely tar,
leather and cassis flavors that I’m pretty sure convinced my sommelier friend
that not all SA wines “smell like band-aids.”
A fine example of a wine that overcame prejudice was the
Beyerskloof 2008 Pinotage. Reserved oak and clean fruit on the nose, a fleshy
palate and very little brett made this pinotage a phenomenal example of what
South Africa’s controversial grape can produce in the right hands. I was so
happy to see Beyerskloof at this event – if anyone is going to reshape
pinotage’s reputation, it is Beyerskloof, Kanonkop, Warwick, and other such
producers putting effort into dignified, elegant pinotage wines.
Boschendal was a true highlight with a gorgeous Grand Cuvee
Brut 2006, a lovely Methode Cap Classique (Champagne-style sparkling wine), and
Grande Reserve 2005 which caught my fellow cab franc lover’s eye as a blend of
72% cab franc, 24% cab sauv, and 4% shiraz. It showed notes of graphite and tar
and grainy tannins which won over the sommelier, too. All three of us were in
love at first sight, which means I’ll have to get my hands on a bottle for us
to share sometime!
I loved Delheim when I was in Stellenbosch and was pleased
to see them at Best of the Braai with an earthy, buttery Sur Lie Chardonnay
2009. Other highlights included Kumkani’s green-but-clean 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
and thick, tannic Crade Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, and The Winery of Good
Hope’s delicately oaked Radford Dale Chardonnay 2008.
But it was at the Ken Forrester table, where Ken Forrester
himself was pouring wine and answering questions, that the evening really got
interesting. Ken is a fascinating winemaker with strong opinions (“Oak is not
the answer! What part of terroir is oak? Tell me that!”) and a candid demeanor,
and he stood up well to a barrage of questions from my increasingly
wine-emboldened colleagues. He was pouring both the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc
2009, an affordable $16 wine, and his FMC Chenin Blanc 2008 which retails at
$59. My friends were aghast at the idea of an American consumer spending $60 on
a South African white wine, but Ken explained that this is a single-vineyard
offering from low-yielding bush vines and repetitive harvesting (the botrytis
from the final harvest is what gives this wine its slight sweetness). It’s
absolutely delicious, complex, and ageworthy, but I don’t think my
wine-blogging friend was convinced that its price point was justified. And
maybe it’s not – but do people ask why Mollydooker can charge $90 for its
Carnival of Love Shiraz when there’s perfectly good $10 Aussie shiraz on the market?
I don’t think its fair to accuse South Africa of exporting mediocre products
and then protest when the higher-end wines don’t fit into the “budget new world
wines” mold; it’s a vicious cycle.
Altogether I think the event was an outstanding education for
North Americans new to South African wines. With a few exceptions the wines on
offer were classy, elegant and complex, and I believe many guests including my
friends were happily surprised. Events like this, with top-end producers in
attendance and South African winemakers there to answer questions, are exactly
what South African wine needs overseas.
Finally, all in attendance received a beautiful cookbook of
South African braai cuisine with wine farm profiles and wonderful pictures.
I’ll definitely be using those recipes next week for my South African-themed
birthday party, so stay tuned!