Interviews with South African winemakers will follow this piece over the next few days, including comments on the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and his role in expanding and improving the wine industry.
Throughout the week, South Africans will gather to grieve en masse the loss of Nelson Mandela. A courageous statesman, Mandela began his political life as a young Soweto lawyer steering the resistance against apartheid, only to be imprisoned for twenty-seven years for his labors, later emerging to become president. Undoubtedly, his post-release navigation of the country away from the shores of a civil war into a peaceful, thriving, multiracial democracy will be regarded as his greatest achievement, and one for which he won the Nobel Prize.
However, Mandela’s leadership had other positive ripple effects — for example, it helped expose the local wine industry to the outside world, forcing improvements in viticulture and winemaking practices. Thus, this week we pay tribute to his extraordinary legacy through a missive exploring South Africa’s wine country.
The Cape wine industry is considered New World despite the arrival of vines via the Dutch in 1655. The industry’s three and a half centuries of production were as fractured as the country’s politics, and in several key instances, mirrored the nation’s political movements. Setbacks included the devastating wrath of phylloxera, a rash of overproduction, restrictive quotas, and a significant knock-back in the form of international trade sanctions in the ’80s as protest against apartheid. However, many credit Mandela as having influenced, both directly and indirectly, the Cape Winelands’ transformation into a modern New World industry. Authors and South African wine authorities Elmari Swart and Izak Smit expound upon Mandela’s impact:
This rather unsophisticated local market, when compared to international markets, did nothing but limit the winemaker’s scope for creativity. It was only after Nelson Mandela’s release from political imprisonment and the subsequent elections in 1994, that serious international focus fell on the South African wine industry. Mandela’s support for South African wines formed a necessary political stepping stone for the true emergence of Cape wine. Mandela toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Cape wine. —The Essential Guide to South African Wines
I journeyed to South Africa two years ago and fell in love at first sight — it was easy to see for what Mandela was struggling to keep free but intact. The unrivaled drama and grand cinematic beauty of the Cape Winelands — rumpled terrain, mist-shrouded peaks, and endless green velds — coupled with the gravity of her complicated history, a country that’s collectively endured the peaks and troughs of joy and sorrow electrified my senses and left an indelible stamp on my spiritual passport.
In addition to the scenery, the wineries themselves impressed. The charming architecture often reflected the classic Cape Dutch look, but several were über-modern, full of glass and steel; all capitalized on the dramatic views, gardens, and countryside greenery available to them. Perhaps my deep captivation hinged on the fact that the gap between my expectations and the actual degree of sophistication was so wide. After all, the country’s modern wine industry was still nascent, begun not long after dismantling the apparatus of apartheid.
Overall, the wines were of reasonable price for good to very good quality (although only occasionally sublime). South Africa is associated with Chenin Blanc — also called Steen, but the name’s use is dwindling — and Pinotage, but the Rhone and Bordeaux blends stood out, and varietal bottlings of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay deserve consideration.
Unfortunately, frequenting South African wine country is made difficult by a very long flight — 17-hours direct from JFK to Jo’burg, then another two-hour flight to Cape Town — so most of us may ever only taste her vinous fruits on our shores. To that end, a few months ago, I gathered nearly 40 bottles from our local market to suss out the best of what’s available here at home. Many bottles were samples, some I purchased and a few I pulled from my personal collection (those are still available in our region).
I gathered a panel of 20 friends and colleagues. We made boerewors sausage, peri peri shrimp, bobotie, lamb sosatie, and chakalaka, attempting to marry the spirit of South African foods with the wine.
We tasted poorly made wines, a number of classic styles (e.g., oak-aged Chardonnay), and several killer bottles. However, a large percentage of the wine we sampled sat firmly on the right side of safe, offering broad mainstream appeal to international tastes while lacking maverick spirit. As the industry is still young, it is likely on track to have a second wave of winemakers with a renegade approach that’ll bring more cutting-edge wines to market. Perhaps the movement is underway now — it’s hard to know without being on the ground, and the interesting, small production stuff isn’t often exported (a major selling point for traveling!).
My resulting list of 10 picks, with input from all tasters, is Chenin Blanc- and Stellenbosch-heavy, in part because those wines showed the best, but also because we had more of them in the sample pool. These 10 wines are by no means meant to suggest the top in our market (we didn’t taste everything), and they shouldn’t discount the fact that wonderful wines are made in other regions like Constantia, Swartland, Franschhoek, Elgin, etc. But they are good and provide a range of price points to suit your wallet.
It’s also worth noting that the Mandela family has entered the wine business, producing a line under the name House of Mandela. Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela and Tukwini Mandela, respectively daughter and granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, came to New York in October to show their Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. I haven’t tasted the wine, so I cannot comment, but it appears Mandela’s wine legacy will continue, at least for a few more generations.
Kanonkop Pinotage 2010, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, $35
The finest Pinotage I’ve ever tasted. Smoke, red and black berries, an edge of minerality, and a full-body with decadent, silky mouthfeel. Will convert Pinotage detractors.
Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $15
Made by a Chenin specialist, this bright, citrus-scented, tropical fruit-filled wine, with obvious but carefully integrated oak, shows a hint of nut and spice on the finish.
Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2011, Coastal Region, $14
A great value for under $15 — I’ve found it for close to $10! The wine is refreshing and lively with pineapple, crisp apple, and floral notes. Thanks for keeping this one out of oak.
Cape Grace Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, NA,
Loaded with tasty white fruits like apples, peaches, and pears plus a kick of honey and guava, too. Bright, cheerful wine.
Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch, $29
The winery sits nestled high on the slopes of Helshoogte Pass, the altitude providing concentrated flavor and fresh acidity to this dark berry-, plum-, cocoa-, and fig-saturated wine.
Thelema The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stellenbosch, $39
The panel favorite, I found this bottle hidden in a cabinet — another taster tried to save a final glass for herself. Notes of mint lace the classic Cabernet flavors in this balanced wine, but just enough to provide interest without overwhelming.
Rudi Shultz Syrah 2010, Stellenbosch, $30
A rather big, meaty wine with smoked-bacon, mocha, anise, blackberry, and pepper, made by a next generation winemaker who is also winemaking for Thelema.
Excelsior Chardonnay 2012, Robertson, $9
Super value, enjoyable white plumped up with 3 percent Viognier, showing peach, apricot, and pineapple — a perfect aperitif wine.
De Toren Fusion V 2008, Stellenbosch, $50
I drank this post-panel, but it probably would’ve been a contender for the top prize — after all, it is the winery’s premium bottling. A concentrated, elegant, well-made wine, like drinking crushed velvet, showing hints of leather and tobacco interspersed with dark chocolate and blackberry. A wine for angels, the producer writes. I agree.
De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $35
A “high-achiever” if you follow scores, this solid wine spent almost a year snuggled in new and older oak, but the mouthwatering acid and citrus, acacia honey, and stone fruit notes remain intact. SRP is $35, but I have seen for $25.
Where to Eat in NYC:
Madiba, 195 Dekalb Ave, Fort Greene, 718-855-9190. On Sunday, December 15, at 6 p.m., the restaurant will be screening the funeral from Qunu, South Africa, with a prayer and live performance by the South African Allstars.
Where to Buy in NYC:
Chelsea Wine Vault, 75 Ninth Avenue, 212-462-4244
Union Square Wines, 140 Fourth Avenue, 212-675-8100
Astor Wine and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500