From structured Cabernets and vivid Syrahs to enticing Chenin Blancs and crackling Sauvignon Blancs, the best South African wines give familiar grapes unique flavor profiles drawn from the country's various terroirs. And they do it at reasonable prices. It's a recipe that is finding success amid the current economic turmoil of the U.S. marketplace.
Since my last report on South Africa ("A Pair of Aces," April 30, 2008), I've reviewed nearly 440 wines in blind tastings in our New York office, the most ever from the Cape's still-growing wine industry. The best are fresh, juicy wines that combine vivid New World-style fruit with racy, integrated Old World-style structure and minerality.
This year's group delivers the country's best performance yet. Nearly one-quarter scored outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), while nearly three-quarters rated at least very good (85 or more points). (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available; for reviews of the small-lot wines sold only through the Cape Winemakers Guild's annual auction—and therefore not covered by this report—see "32 Rare South African Gems," at www.winespectator.com.)
One of the top-rated wines this year is the Sadie Family Columella Swartland 2006 (94 points, $88), a worthy follow-up to the 2005 version, which remains the only classic-scoring South African wine in Wine Spectator history. Winemaker Eben Sadie sources Syrah and Mourvèdre from diverse terroirs—including granite and slate soils—in the emerging Voor-Paardeberg ward of the warm, inland Paarl district. With its vivid, lush black- and purple-fruit flavors offset by mouthwatering minerality, this red blend displays the potential of Syrah and other Rhône varieties when properly sited on the Cape.
Sadie is helping to bring notoriety to this area. Winemakers Adi Badenhorst (formerly of Rustenberg) and Chris Mullineux (formerly of Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards) are working on new, neighboring projects, though wines have not yet been released from either. Johann Rupert, who has turned around his Franschhoek-based property L'Ormarins, has also bought potential vineyard land in the area (see "Johann Rupert Sets a Quick and Steady Pace," page 74).
Voor-Paardeberg seems to be gearing up. In addition to the aforementioned nascent projects, Scali, owned by Willie and Tania de Waal, has already established a solid track record with its wines. The Scali Syrah Voor-Paardeberg 2005 (90, $40) offers an almost gushing core of plum, fig and blackberry fruit, but it's well-harnessed, with alluring toast and spice notes and fine-grained tannins that carry the fruitcake-tinged finish.
Other top Syrahs in this report include the Boekenhoutskloof Coastal Region 2005 (93, $47), the de Trafford Stellenbosch 2006 (93, $70) and the Cirrus Stellenbosch 2006 (92, $58), all of which are from wineries with reputations for quality.
Cabernet Sauvignon is South Africa's other leading red grape. The Ernie Els Wines Stellenbosch 2005 (94, $95) continues to help set the bar, with its ample but fine-grained tannins carrying a range of currant, toast and black tea notes. It's joined by the de Trafford Elevation 393 Stellenbosch 2005 (94, $100) and the L'Ormarins Coastal Region Anthonij Rupert 2005 (92, $58). These wines demonstrate the depth and power of the excellent 2005 vintage, among the best in recent memory for South Africa.
The 2005 reds were amped up by the hot finish to the growing season, which resulted in rich, dark fruit-filled wines. The slightly cooler and more even-keeled 2006 vintage also saw its share of success. Thelema, one of the Cape's longtime stalwarts, scored with two Cabernets: the Stellenbosch 2006 (92, $41) and the Stellenbosch The Mint 2006 (92, $45), the latter sourced from a block on the Thelema property known for its minty profile. Both wines are sleek, fine-grained reds that will benefit from a few years of cellaring.
Though Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah dominate, South Africa offers tantalizing diversity. Pinot Noir thrives in the country's cooler growing areas. Established producer Hamilton Russell turned out its best Pinot Noir to date—the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley 2007 (93, $44), which shows mouthwatering acidity and intense cherry, bramble and incense notes. The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, a ward within the coastal Walker Bay region, is also home to Bouchard Finlayson, which has turned up the quality dial recently as well. Winemaker and part-owner Peter Finlayson's Pinot Noir Walker Bay Galpin Peak 2007 (91, $44) is very stylish, with a long, mineral-driven finish. The winery's Chardonnay bottlings are also solid.
Cabernet Franc is quietly producing excellent wines. The Boekenhoutskloof The Journeyman Franschhoek 2005 (94, $NA), the L'Ormarins Cabernet Franc Coastal Region Anthonij Rupert 2005 (93, $55) and the MR Mvemve Raats De Compostella Stellenbosch 2006 (93, $100) all show impressive depth and tarry grip without sacrificing the grape's more graceful tobacco and hot stone notes. Both Raats Family and Warwick produce delicious Cabernet Francs for less than $30.
Pinotage, the unique South African crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir, typically struggles to produce a harmonious wine. The grape remains a player, but has receded to the background. At its best, it provides hearty black fruit and licorice notes, along with burly tannins. Look for bottlings from Fairview, Kanonkop, Scali, Southern Right, Spice Route and Warwick. Beyerskloof, owned and run by winemaker Beyers Truter, has long been considered one of the Cape's best Pinotage producers, but its wines are not currently available in the States.
While the Cape's best reds are getting better, price tags of $35 and up are also proliferating. That might make them a tough sell to American consumers, especially those unfamiliar with the wines. Yet top South African offerings clearly provide value in the face of some triple-digit prices for Napa, Bordeaux and Tuscan bottlings.
And for those seeking more outright value, South Africa is teeming with choices. There are more than three dozen reds in this report that rate at least 86 points while costing $20 or less per bottle. Among them are the Jardin Syrah Stellenbosch 2005 (91, $20), the Backsberg Shiraz Paarl Pumphouse 2006 (90, $20), the Fairview Shiraz Paarl 2006 (88, $15), the Neil Ellis Shiraz Western Cape Sincerely 2007 (88, $14) and the Kanonkop Kadette Stellenbosch 2007 (87, $13). Some of the Cape's high-end producers, including Boekenhoutskloof, Ernie Els Wines, Ken Forrester, Rust en Vrede and Rustenberg, also produce eye-opening value-priced reds.
The Cape's white wines should be of equal interest, particularly to consumers who enjoy the change of pace that Chenin Blanc provides. The grape, which produces a range of wines, from dry to dessert style, is still widely planted, though its acreage has declined in recent years (see "Endangered Species," page 40). One biological advantage has helped to save old Chenin vines: They have proven resistant to the leaf roll virus that continues to vex Cape vintners. The virus retards ripening and leads to harsh, green notes in wines. Vines attacked by leaf roll typically need to be replanted about every 25 years, which has contributed to the high percentage of young-vine vineyards in South Africa.
Among dry versions of Chenin Blanc, the Ken Forrester Stellenbosch The FMC 2007 (93, $65) continues to stand out. It's challenged by the de Trafford Stellenbosch 2007 (91, $27), the Rudera Stellenbosch 2006 (91, $22) and the De Morgenzon Stellenbosch 2006 (90, $35), the last a new face under the guidance of Chenin specialist Teddy Hall, who has left his previous Rudera project. All of these show the panoply of flavors the grape provides, from light citrus peel and floral notes to broader brioche, heather and almond flavors.
Dessert-wine fans will be well-served by the de Trafford Straw Wine Stellenbosch 2006 (93, $45/375ml), made from air-dried Chenin Blanc grapes, as well as by bottlings made from more traditional botrytis-affected fruit, such as the Ken Forrester Noble Late Harvest T Stellenbosch 2006 (92, $50/375ml). The Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Vin Pi Western Cape NV (92, $55/375ml) is produced from a unique solera system that blends together several vintages of the wine that have been aging in barrel.
While Chenin Blanc offers the best overall quality among white wines, it's quickly being challenged by Sauvignon Blanc, which has already passed it in terms of quantity. Following a recent rush to plant Sauvignon Blanc in cooler areas such as Elgin, Elim, Groenekloof, Philadelphia and Constantia, it is now the most widely planted white variety on the Cape.
Among value-priced wines, whites are even more numerous than reds. There are more than five dozen whites in this report that rate 86 or more points and cost $20 or less, with Sauvignon Blanc leading the way. The Capaia Philadelphia Blue Grove Hill 2008 (90, $19), the Bouchard Finlayson Walker Bay 2008 (90, $20) and the Neil Ellis Groenekloof 2008 (90, $18) are among the best value Sauvignons, all showing crackling lime, herb and salt flavors.
Buitenverwachting, Paul Cluver, Darling Cellars, De Grendel, L'Avenir (owned by Michel Laroche) and Thelema also make strong Sauvignon Blanc values. Among higher-priced offerings, Cape Point Vineyards, Constantia Glen and Mulderbosch are each fashioning rapierlike Sauvignons sporting long, chiseled finishes.
Rapidly improving quality. A large number of value-priced offerings. Diversity from a range of varieties planted in both warm and cool growing areas. It all combines to make South Africa one of the most attractive emerging wine regions in the world today.
Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of South Africa.