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Leaving Pinotage Behind

South Africa turns to Cabernet and Syrah, and quality rises

James Molesworth
Posted: May 28, 2003

 
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South Africa is taking advantage of a rare second chance. The end of South Africa's era of economic sanctions opened the door for the country's long-standing monopolistic wine industry to show its wares to the world. But this promising opportunity led to disillusionment, as South Africa's first wave of wine exports failed to garner critical praise or win consumer acceptance.

So the vintners went back to the drawing board. A mass replanting of diseased vineyards in the past several years is yielding better grapes. New, small, quality-oriented wineries are popping up in droves, led by a new generation of winemakers who have their eyes on export markets. Today, South Africa is trying again to earn a seat at the table of world wine-industry players.

"After the market opened up [in 1984], everyone sent out all the wine they had, and we found out that we were at the low end of the spectrum," says the forthright Jean Engelbrecht of Rust en Vrede. "We've been given a second chance, and we better not [screw] it up."

South Africa seems to be heeding Engelbrecht's stern advice. Since my last report on South Africa ("South Africa's Newfound Value," May 15, 2002), I have tasted 306 South African wines (up from 164 last year). More than 40 scored 90 points or better on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, a marked increase over previous years. Nearly 90 percent of the wines scored at least 80 points, a strong showing.

Leading the way is the Engelbrecht-Els Ernie Els Stellenbosch 2000 (93, $60), a stunning Cabernet blend fashioned by Engelbrecht and his partner in the venture, pro golfer Ernie Els. Backed by the outstanding wines from his own Rust en Vrede property, Engelbrecht has now become one of the premier winemakers in the region.

Prices have remained reasonable. The South African rand still struggles against the dollar, keeping prices for the region's top wines stable and attractive. Among the outstanding-scoring wines, 35 retail for $30 or less per bottle; as for outright values, more than 50 wines in this report rate at least 85 points while costing $15 or less per bottle.

Other wines of note released since my last report are the de Trafford Shiraz Stellenbosch 2000 (93, $40), Rustenberg Peter Barlow Stellenbosch 1999 (92, $34), Fairview Shiraz Paarl Solitude 2001 (92, $30), Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch Condé 2000 (92, $35) and Warwick Three Cape Ladies Simonsberg-Stellenbosch 2000 (92, $23). This set of wines demonstrates the new face of South Africa's wine industry -- modern-style, fruit-driven wines of outstanding quality made available at competitive prices -- and there's not a single Pinotage among them.

Pinotage -- the cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that South Africa offered as its signature grape for many years -- is mercifully fading from view as a lead varietal.

The 28 Pinotages that I tasted this past year were not as frustratingly up and down as in previous years. In fact, a larger number of current Pinotage bottlings emphasize ripe fruit, with less of the rustic, sometimes rubbery, edge that often lurks in the grape. Yet while this group shows Pinotage's kinder, gentler side, it offers further evidence that the wine is not a world-class varietal (save for a few exceptions, such as the 91-point Fairview Pinotage Paarl Primo 2001 and the 90-point Kanonkop Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch 2000). Pinotage has solid plum and brier flavors, but it doesn't consistently display the complexity or depth of the best Cabernet Sauvignons or Syrahs.

The region's top producers are conceding that Pinotage is not making the grade. They are turning more and more to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah for their reds, while sometimes using Pinotage in blends, where it can be an interesting component.

"I'm a great believer that this is the way for the future," says Engelbrecht, whose Rust en Vrede estate is moving toward producing just one red wine, a Cabernet-based blend.

South Africa's recent success with its red wine production could have come at a price -- a loss of regional character (or terroir) as it increased its reliance on blue-chip varieties. But South Africa is not producing a homogeneous set of wines. An alluring mix of Old World grace and New World fruit distinguishes its best examples.

The De Toren Fusion V Coastal Region 2000 (91, $30), the Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch 1999 (91, $35) and the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch 2000 (91, $30) are three Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines that make for an interesting comparison. The De Toren is a pure, modern-style red designed for hedonists. The Rust en Vrede shows off herb and mineral notes. The Thelema has a mint and cocoa-powder profile. These three bottlings -- distinct in style yet comparable in quality -- are examples of what makes wine so exciting, and they confirm that South Africa's top winemakers are attuned to the terroir at their disposal. Other red wine producers that consumers should look for include Meerlust and Spice Route.

The leader among white wines is Mulderbosch, led by owner and winemaker Mike Dobrovic. Dobrovic has steadily moved his 118-acre Mulderbosch winery (founded in 1989) to the forefront of the industry. He is now producing his best wines to date and, like Engelbrecht, has become an acknowledged leader in the region. The Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 (92, $19) and Mulderbosch Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2000 (92, $24) attained the top scores for white wines in this report. The Sauvignon is a precise, filigreed wine that crackles with flavor, while the Chardonnay shows chiseled pear, fig and honeysuckle notes. Insiders know to cellar these wines for a few years -- they blossom with time.

Mulderbosch leads an impressive group of moderately priced whites that includes the Delaire Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 (90, $15), Neil Ellis Chardonnay Elgin 2001 (90, $19), Rustenberg Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2001 (90, $17) and Jardin Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 (90, $13). Like its reds, South Africa's best whites show a combination of Old and New World flavors. The Chardonnays have bright, fruit-driven profiles but are backed by flinty, minerally notes. The Sauvignons are rich and juicy, but they often display crisp, grassy facets as well.

In addition to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa is also producing delicious wines from Chenin Blanc. South Africa's winemakers are discovering that Chenin can produce lovely wines marked by orange blossom, persimmon and mineral notes along with dry, bracing acidity. Since the grape (sometimes called Steen) was widely planted for jug-wine production in the past, the region has numerous vineyards now available to earnest producers. When put to good use, these vineyards can produce wines such as the de Trafford Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2001 (88, $15), the Raats Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Original 2001 (88, $12) and the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2000 (87, $14).

When made into dessert wines, Chenin Blanc can achieve even greater heights, as evidenced by the Rudera Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Noble Late Harvest 2002 (89, $25) and de Trafford Straw Wine Stellenbosch 2001 (93, $25).

South Africa managed to shift its approach to red wines without losing touch with its terroir. It faces the same test with its whites. Many old Chenin Blanc vineyards are being pulled out in favor of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc plantings. South African winemakers would be wise not to rush ahead with these two varieties, as they have with Cabernet and Syrah, but rather to take inventory of what could be a signature variety in a world already awash in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

The future looks promising for South Africa, despite its short history in the open market. The region's top producers are traveling more and judging their own efforts by those of the rest of the world, an important factor in improving quality back home.

South African wine consumption has also enjoyed significant growth in the past year, with exports to the United States up 75 percent for the first three quarters of 2002. With its winemakers now pursuing quality and export markets aggressively, South Africa is poised to grasp the opportunity it nearly lost after fumbling its first chance.

Tasting coordinator James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster of the wines of South Africa.

James Molesworth's Recommended South African Wines

TOP WINES

RED

Wine Score Price
DE TRAFFORD Shiraz Stellenbosch 2000 93 $40
Captivating aromas of Christmas pudding, toffee, spice and chocolate. Lush blackberry and chocolate ganache flavor.
 
ENGELBRECHT-ELS Ernie Els Stellenbosch 2000 93 $60
Gorgeous, with polished currant, cocoa, boysenberry and toast aromas and flavors, supported by a seamless texture.
 
FAIRVIEW Shiraz Paarl Solitude 2001 92 $30
Dark, roasted coffee aroma, with a blast of dense, pure blackberry compote. Powerhouse finish delivers a wave of fruit.
 
RUSTENBERG Peter Barlow Stellenbosch 1999 92 $34
Dark blackberry and currant flavors up front, creamy toast in the middle, and a pure, sleek, polished finish.
 
STARK-CONDÉ Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch Condé 2000 92 $35
Gives a blast of raspberry ganache, with lots of toast and espresso lying over the blackberry and cassis fruit.
 
WARWICK Three Cape Ladies Simonsberg-Stellenbosch 2000 92 $23
Waves of black cherry, currant and cassis flavor build on the lush palate. Smoky finish lets the fruit smolder.
 

WHITE AND DESSERT

Wine Score Price
DE TRAFFORD Straw Wine Stellenbosch 2001 93 $25/375ml
Mouthfilling, creamy texture carries apricot, nectarine, orange peel and persimmon compote flavors. Hint of green tea on the slightly smoky finish.
 
KLEIN CONSTANTIA Vin de Constance Constantia 1997 92 $47/500ml
Apricot, crème brûlée and orange marmalade notes. Unctuous texture and long, riveting finish.
 
MULDERBOSCH Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2000 92 $24
A rapier now, with chiseled pear, fig, honeysuckle, chalk and lime notes. Long and finely detailed, with racy acidity.
 
MULDERBOSCH Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 92 $19
Precise and pure, this crackles with gooseberry, grapefruit and lemon zest flavors, with a vibrant mineral note.
 
MULDERBOSCH Chardonnay Stellenbosch Barrel Fermented 2000 91 $38
Lovely grilled nut and fig bread aromas draw you in. Lush palate of citrus peel, flowers, pear and vanilla.
 
MULDERBOSCH Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch Barrel Fermented 2001 91 $24
Captivating nose of chamomile tea, honey and even mead. Then lemon zest, floral and stony notes in a focused, taut package.
 

BEST VALUES

Wine Score Price
DELAIRE Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 90 $15
Juicy and crisp, with grass, chive and pea flavors. Hint of stones, and bitter citrus peel on the finish.
 
BUITENVERWACHTING Chardonnay Constantia 2001 89 $15
Bold style, deep color. Fig, pear tartine, honey and floral notes, and a rich, round texture. Solid, focused finish.
 
BUITENVERWACHTING Sauvignon Blanc Constantia 2002 89 $13
Nice focused lemon zest, chive and sweet pea flavors, with steely backbone built for food. Mouthwatering finish.
 
NEIL ELLIS Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2002 89 $15
Ripe pear and fig notes offset by vibrant structure and a nice minerally edge. Long flinty finish.
 
L'AVENIR Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 88 $12
Racy, with grass, chive and lime. Steely backbone carries this a ways on the finish.
 
BELLEVUE Atticus Stellenbosch 2001 88 $15
Offers up a blast of blackberry, applewood and meat aromas and flavors, with a healthy amount of sweet toast.
 
BELLEVUE Malbec Stellenbosch Umkhulu 2001 88 $13
Wild, with mint, plum pudding, spice cake and fig aromas and flavors. Lush, ripe texture and a rich, chocolaty finish.
 
BELLEVUE Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch Umkhulu 2002 88 $11
Nice concentration, with vibrant lime, chive, gooseberry and mineral notes. Long, steely finish.
 
BRAMPTON Chardonnay Coastal Region 2002 88 $11
Flinty, elegant. Hints of apple and fig. Nice cut on the finish.
 
BRAMPTON Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Region 2002 88 $10
Fig and lemon curd that are offset by racy citrus peel. Floral and herb notes chime in on the finish for added effect.
 
DRAKENSIG Cabernet Sauvignon Coastal Region 2001 88 $13
Ambitious, with dark currant, smoky bacon and loam notes. Full, smoke and tobacco-accented finish.
 
KANU Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 88 $13
Has a delicious mix of grass, floral and hay notes, along with white peach and nectarine. Vibrant, bracing finish.
 
MULDERBOSCH Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2002 88 $14
Racy and taut, with candied lemon peel, floral and mineral notes. Vibrant, crunchy finish. Mouthwatering acidity.
 
SEIDELBERG Sauvignon Blanc Paarl 2002 88 $13
Racy, with lemon zest, straw and grass notes, and a juicy, lingering finish. Clean, focused and delicious.
 

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