South Africa has a turbulent wine-making history with the path to world-class wines far from linear.
Winemaking began in this southern tip of Africa's Dutch outpost in the mid-1600s as an effort to supply wine and grapes to sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope and to stave off their deficiency of Vitamin C. In the intervening centuries, boom and bust cycles resulted in poor quality wines from overproduction of grapes and ultimately an emphasis on brandy and fortified wine production.
Most recently an apartheid-driven boycott of South African products led to a dearth of export table wines to American consumers. The quality of South African wines began to improve in the 1970s with the introduction of the Wine of Origin system which codified and regulated wine production and wine labeling in South Africa. The abandonment of apartheid in the early 1990s restored the availability of South African wines in Western countries.
We have mixed opinions of South African wines. We most often enjoy the white wines, such as chenin blanc (sometimes called “steen”) and sauvignon blanc. Red wines, however, are a mixed bag. The unique and local hybrid pinotage is often off-putting to the point of being unpleasant.
Pinotage is a relatively new invention and is a cross of pinot noir and cinsault. It is the second most widely planted grape in South Africa after cabernet sauvignon. Our impression of pinotage is that it frequently presents off flavors that include burnt rubber notes. Enough said.
Nonetheless, we have tasted enough well-made and well-priced South African wines to welcome an invitation from Johan Malan, co-owner and chief winemaker of Simonsig, an award-winning winery in Stellenbosch. Johan’s father first made wine under the Simonsig label in 1968 and was the first to produce a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, Methode Cap Classique, more than 30 years ago.
We were pleasantly surprised with the Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Western Cape South Africa 2015 ($25), Simonsig’s offering in the sparkling wine category and our first experience with a South African sparkling wine. This is a terrific sparkling wine made up of almost equal parts pinot noir and chardonnay and 3 percent pinot meunier. Pear and apple notes dominate in the nose and mouth with yeasty elements developing on the palate. Very elegant and a great price for the quality.
Our positive impressions of South African chenin blanc were reinforced by the Simonsig Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2016 ($14). John Malan commented that “you can taste the sunshine in this one” and we concur. A lovely peach nose was followed by melon and peach flavors with a hint of minerality. John also mused that the “ripe fruit nose gives a sense of sweetness” that should appeal to novice wine drinkers. We agree.
For those seeking a graduate degree in South African chenin blanc try the Simonsig Avec Chene Chenin Blanc 2015 ($36) -- hands down the best chenin blanc we have ever sampled. Made from chenin blanc grapes picked at three different levels of ripeness, this wine exhibits honey, minerals, ripe peach and melon and a scant hint of oak from contact with older French oak barrels. Match this wonderful wine with spicy Asian foods.
Tasting the Simonsig Merindol Syrah Stellenbosch 2014 ($44) had us wondering if syrah could fulfill the role of iconic red grape of South Africa. The Simonsig syrah presented a style somewhere between a meaty, dense Northern Rhone syrah and the fruit-driven shirazes of Australia. Delicious berry and ripe cherry nose and flavors with a distinctive classic mocha finish. Very rich and a perfect match with red meats.
Although we earlier noted that pinotage was not our favorite South African red grape, the Simonsig Redhill Pinotage Stellenbosch 2014 ($38) certainly proved to be an exception. This pinotage presents as an elegant, high-end cabernet sauvignon with bright cassis, black cherry and cedar flavors and nose. Malan told us that all of his pinotage comes from a single-vineyard site and benefits from very low yields per acre. Maybe we should keep our minds open about pinotage in the future.
Domaine Rimbert Saint-Chinian "Le Mas au Schiste" 2013 ($20). This wine from the Saint-Chinian AOC of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France is ridiculously good – one of the best and most unique wines we have tasted in months. It is a blend of carignan, grenache and syrah grapes grown on old vines. Blackberry and blueberry notes with a good dose of black olives and cocoa.
7 Moons Red Blend 2015 ($16). The number stands for the grape varieties in this lush, jammy and slightly sweet red wine. It is a perfect wine to pair with ribs, pulled pork, hamburgers and ketchup-based sauces – and the eclipse! Loads of ripe dark fruit flavors and tons on chocolate and vanilla.
Donelan Family Wines Cuvee Moriah 2013 ($50). Wow, what a mouthful of pure sunshine. This complex, delicious blend of grenache and syrah was aged in oak for 18 months to give it complexity. Round in the mouth with strawberry and pomegranate flavors and a finish that goes on and on.
D.V. Catena Tinto Historico Red Blend 2014 ($21). Malbec fans need to find this complex, dense wine from Bodega Catena Zapata. Made from grapes grown in the fertile Mendoza region, it is made in honor of Dom Domingo Catena. Round in the mouth with blueberry and blackberry flavors.