April 20, 2005

South African Red Wine

Last night was the 8th anniversary of my wine club. I really ought to know more about wine than I do, after eight years (although I did take a year off for health problems). We drank reds from South Africa, and were generally pleasantly surprised by the quality.

South African wines are often compared to Australian wines - both have that southern hemisphere hot-and-consistant weather going on, which means that there's one less variable to contend with as far as the wine making process goes. Most of the wines that we tried come from the Stellenbosch or Paarl districts in the Coastal Region near the coast on the Western Cape, where the average temperature is a pleasant 35 C - cooler than you would expect from its latitude. Check out the brief history of South African wines.

It is significant that around 75% of the red wine vineyards in South Africa are less than 10 years old. It takes time for a new vineyard to produce grapes that yield good wine, and many of their wines are just now reaching a level of quality that can make them contenders on the international market. The red wine varietals most often cultivated are shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, and pinotage (a local hybrid of pinot noir and cinsaut developed in 1925), but really there is a full gamut of reds produced there.

A particular quality that was noticed almost across the board in everything from the cabernets to the pinotages to the proprietary blends, was a distinct smokiness to the wines that is a characteristic that I haven't found in wines elsewhere. There was a slight hint of burning brush and barbeque that hit the palate like a surprise, as it wasn't really represented anywhere in the nose. The more sophisticated wines, such as the Saxenburg Private Collection 2000 Shiraz (Stellenbosch) had a smooth quality despite the smokiness, but the young, feisty and affordable Beyerskloof 2003 Pinotage had a strong smoky redolence with a lot of acids and a slightly acrid (but appealing) overtone of burnt coffee grounds and crushed black peppercorns. It made almost everyone at the table desperate for barbequed ribs.

The least interesting or appealing wine was the thin, smoky K.W.V. 2003 Roodeburg (Western Cape, Paarl) with a nose of dusty wood and a sour taste of oily, burnt wood. No surprise, it was the least expensive wine, with little to no information on the bottle regarding varietal.

Probably the best wine of the evening was the Warwick 2001 Three Cape Ladies Cape Blend (Stellenbosch), which was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinotage. It had a minimal nose, but flavours of dark berries, a hint of gooseberry, and a delicate, balanced quality. However, it was the interesting, expensive De Toren 2002 Fusion V Private Cellar (Coastal Region) blend of five varietals with its nose of vanilla, chocolate, leather, nutmeg and gingerbread and flavours of tobacco, violets and plums that got the most exclamatory comments.

The cabernet sauvignons tended toward very classic nose or palate - green peppers, cedar, and a certain amount of dust. The shirazes were a divided between overripe (a quality often found in hot-weather shiraz and merlot) and the simple (but smooth).

The overall quality of the wines was higher than my previous - albeit limited - experiences with South African wine led me to anticipate. Some of the wines were in the magic zone of being quite drinkable and quite affordable, but the best of the wines were a wee bit overpriced for what you're getting. Still, more and more South African Wines are becoming available now, and as the wineries settle on which grapes they want to produce and develop their vines, it's well worth watching (and tasting) to see where they go from here.

Previous tasting:
Spanish Wines

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