Out of Africa
South African wines can be harder to find than a white rhino–at least that’s what it seems like when you look at the local wine scene. There is a reason for that. South African wines currently account for less than two percent of American wine imports. That is a puny number for a country ranking eighth in global wine production, just behind Australia.
So who is drinking South African wine? The Brits, the Europeans, and increasingly, the Asian world. Fortunately, some excellent labels still make their way to our shores and more arrive every year.
Let’s take a little wine-safari to some vineyards within South Africa’s vast landscape and sample a few drops along the way. While vineyards range across hundreds of miles from east to west, most of them are in the southern tier of the country—putting many of them under the cooling maritime influence of the Atlantic or Indian oceans.
One of the best known wine regions is Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town. Cooling breezes temper the hot sun over Stellenbosch’s rolling, vine-covered slopes and valleys. One of the top wine producers in the area is Warwick Estate, maker of Three Cape Ladies—a complex, layered blend of pinotage (a signature South African varietal), cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot. About $28
A little further inland from Stellenbosch is the Paarl wine region–where the climate is generally more varied–allowing for a wider range of varietals. Paarl is home to Glen Carlou vineyards. My wife is a big fan of Glen Carlou’s creamy, lemon-drop-rich chardonnay, while their Grand Classique was what caught my attention. A hearty Bordeaux blend, Classique is an exotic marriage of Old World and New World styles. About $16
You’d expect something exotic to come out of Africa, but Cederberg’s Bukettraube is still a surprise. Bukettraube is a little-known white grape that originated in Europe but flourishes in the cool, high altitude vineyards of the Western Cape. Bukettraube is rich, aromatic, floral, and yet mouthwateringly tangy. It reminds me of a first-class gewurztraminer. Delicious. About $15
Named for owner and SA professional golfer, Retief Goosen, The Goose wines are new to the US market. Check out The Goose Cabernet or some of the other wines in their line-up and discover just how sophisticated South African wines can be. About $24
2013 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound is a Bordeaux-blend from the Western Cape. Barrel-aged in French oak, the Hound shows richness and earthy character. Nicely balanced, this blend finishes with solid, but well-behaved tannins. Made for grilled meats. About $25
Bila-Haut wines, created by French wine legend Michel Chapoutier, come from Roussillon, in the south of France. Occultum Lapidem (“hidden gem”) is one of Chapoutier’s famous blends. A combination of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignane, Occultum is loaded with flavor and texture, thanks to Chapoutier’s understanding of the Terroir he occupies. If you ever wondered what all the fuss is about surrounding French wines, check out this highly rated red. About $29
Also from Chapoutier: Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé combines Grenache and Syrah in almost equal portions to produce crisp, well-defined flavors of cherry and raspberry on a lingering citrusy finish. About $15
South America Search
Trivento winery lies in the heart of Argentina’s famed Mendoza wine region. It’s fair to say that Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina—with a couple of big differences.
Land in Mendoza does not cost a kings’ ransom like it does in California–so production costs are lower right from the start. And Mendoza grape growers have an abundant supply of pristine water from the snowmelt of the Andes. The vineyards of the region are also blessed with almost constant sunshine and because of their high elevation, very few pests.
Trivento, (named for the so-called Three Winds of the Andes foothills) production includes a line of popular labels, including a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend. Both wines are “reserves”–indicating select grapes and extra love at the production end.
Malbec is considered a noble wine in Europe (one of only six varietals allowed in robust fruit, and well integrated tannins. And Trivento’s Cabernet/Malbec 2013 blend? A marriage made in Heaven. Trivento reserve wines, about $11.
Trade up to Trivento Golden Reserve Malbec, 2013. Plenty of good malbecs come out of Argentina’s Mendoza wine region; still, the 2013 Bodega Trivento Golden Reserve malbec is a stand out. Sourced from pristine high-altitude vineyards, the grapes are hand-picked and vinified in a specially designed winery. The juice spends twelve months in French oak barrels and another twelve months in the bottle before release. The result is a wonderfully aromatic premium wine loaded with fruit, and beautifully balanced.
Casillero del Diablo—File Under Amazing Value
A product of Chile, Casillero del Diablo takes its name from the quaint legend of a wealthy man who kept his wine safe from light-fingered servants by telling them that the devil lived in his wine cellar.
No devils here. Cassillero del Diablo has always been a great wine at a great price, but their newly released 2015 Sauvigon Blanc and Rosé are attention-getters.
The current vintage of Sauvignon Blanc virtually explodes with mouth-watering gooseberry and tropical fruit character. About $11
Casillero del Diablo’s Rosé is based on 100% Shiraz, bringing forth crisp, clean flavors of raspberry grounded in on a solid base of acidity. About $11
Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 is 92% Cab, a bit of Cab Franc, and just a touch of Merlot and Syrah. Aged in French oak for 16 months, this fine drop from Chile’s Maipo Valley gets consistently high ratings—and it deserves them. Tons of concentrated black fruit and cherry flavors, solid core of tannins, and a long, smooth finish. About $26
Justin Vineyards’ newly-released 2015 sauvignon blanc from Paso Robles proves that they do more than produce killer Bordeaux-style blends. 2015 was a tough year for growing grapes in California, but the smaller yields actually produced fruit with more concentrated flavor. Justin’s sauvignon blanc is loaded with flavors and aromas of citrus, pineapple, peach and herbs. About $14
Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma focuses on pinot noir and chardonnay. A sample of their 2014 Overlook chardonnay will tell you why Landmark wines have been on the menu of White House dinners for decades (finally, something both parties can support.) Ten months in French oak imparts creamy texture and notes of vanilla wrapped around a zippy core of bright acidity. About $25 If you want to gild the lily, indulge yourself with Landmark’s Damaris Reserve chardonnay. About $35