All my professional life I've heard one thing: The most beautiful vineyards you'll ever see are in South Africa. Yeah, yeah, I thought. But I have to say it: South Africa does have the most beautiful vineyards I've ever seen. Imagine soaring, gray, bare rock mountains looming up vertically (no foothills to soften the effect) with lush green vineyards at the base. You are, in a word, agog.
I've wanted to see the place for as long as I can remember. Of course, as long as apartheid was in effect, there was no way. But since the Nelson Mandela administration, it's a (politically) changed country. So I redeemed some frequent-flier miles and spent three weeks traveling around South Africa.
I had the same question you probably have: How are the wines? The short version is that the wines are, let's say, mixed. I had a few genuinely fine, sit-up-and-take-notice wines. But these were washed down by a greater number of correct-but-unexciting bottles.
The reason is simple: Everyone I talked to agreed that South Africa's fine-wine ambition is just 8 years old.
You'll read that vineyards were planted in the late 1600s and early 1700s. They're still there, in fact. But the reality of South African wine -- as in California and Australia -- was that it was mostly a bulk business devoted to sweet, fortified or just plain ordinary wines.
This was enforced by a suffocating law that gave South Africa's dominant winegrowers' cooperative, called KWV, the authority to regulate all vineyard plantings in South Africa and control of all wine distribution in the nation. You couldn't grow what you wanted, and even if you did it anyway, you couldn't sell it -- unless KWV agreed. That changed after 1994.
Not since witnessing the rebirth of Napa Valley in the 1970s have I seen such intensive fine-wine ambition and so much investment. Most of the wineries I visited were as well-equipped as any in the world.
The vineyards, however, are works in progress. Many are just 8 years old, or even younger. There's no real history of knowing what grows best where. (Sound familiar?)
So why aren't the wines better? They will be, certainly. But the missing element is what might be called "palate calibration."
When California effected its own transformation in the 1970s and '80s, you couldn't spend 24 hours in Napa or Sonoma without hearing about somebody's tasting group. Seemingly everybody -- winemakers, winery owners and above all, local consumers -- belonged to tasting groups.
They conducted endless blind-tasting comparisons of California's newest Cabernets or Chardonnays against the world's benchmark versions of these grapes (which back then meant just Bordeaux and Burgundies).
The result was a collective, and fundamentally honest, calibration of palates. A winery couldn't proclaim that its Cabernet was "just as good as Château Latour" before multiple groups checked it out. This tasting tide raised all palates. Without that, it's just amateur hour, like a high school play performed in front of doting relatives.
This reality check seems absent in South Africa. It's almost impossible to find the world's greatest wines on its retail shelves. "Those wines are just not here," confirmed Ranier Kloos, owner of Waterfront World of Wine, a new, ultramodern retail shop and wine-tasting center in Cape Town's harbor district. "We get a handful of top wines from elsewhere, but not much. And the prices are so high that, given what the average South African wine drinker earns, they can't afford them anyway."
That said, there's already real achievement. South Africa's consistently best wine is Sauvignon Blanc. I tasted several that were the equal of anything from Sancerre, New Zealand or California; in style, they fall somewhere between the citrus-zingy of New Zealand and the melon-scent of Russian River Valley.
The Chardonnays seemed mostly about winemaking (oak, lees stirring, etc.) and less about a sense of somewhereness. The reds are mixed. I found several striking Cabernet Sauvignons (and from the barrel, Cabernet Francs) side by side with less persuasive blends such as half Merlot and half Cabernet Franc, for example.
Is there promise? Tons of it. Right now prices are cheap and, especially with Sauvignon Blanc, you can score some real deals. Get 'em if you can.
Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.