Focus on South Africa

If Argentine wine is led by an iconic superstar (malbec), then South Africa fields a more well-rounded team with many talented players.  The country excels with numerous varieties, white and red, most notably cabernet sauvignon, syrah (or shiraz), a wide range of red blends, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and even chardonnay.  But while this versatility is impressive, it can also limit the country's ability to "brand" itself in export markets.  Argentine malbec remains on fire, while imports of South African wines were essentially flat in 2010 compared to 2009, and still down from the peak achieved in late 2007 and 2008.

And it's the cosmopolitan wine lover's loss.  In my tastings this winter of the better South African wines available in the marketplace (and a number of others that should be, based on their quality), I was struck by the steady improvement in these wines and the emergence of new players.  Today's wines are fresher than ever, thanks in part to a general improvement in the quality of oak barrels being used in South Africa and to the rapid change-over to screw-cap closures for many white wines--and some reds.

The burning tobacco or burnt rubber notes that have have plagued some South African red wines to varying degrees in past years appear to be far less of an issue today.  An investigation of this subject carried out in South Africa in 2008 and 2009 was inconclusive.  Much of this element may be attributable to the effects of the wind-driven brush fires that can plague the Cape wine region during hot, dry summers.  It may also be partly a function of virused rootstocks that are unable to ripen their fruit properly.  But while fires are an act of God, growers have vastly upgraded their vines in recent years.  Vineyard plantings of cabernet sauvignon almost doubled between 1999 and 2009 and the overwhelming majority of the new plantings have involved virus-free rootstock.  Shiraz plantings nearly tripled over the same period, and new plantings again have been on virus-free stock.

Today, the more important obstacle facing sales of South African wines in the U.S. market has been weak economic conditions here, which have affected the availability of some of South Africa's top wines. With importers reluctant to load up on bottles that retail for more than $20 or $25, that often rules out buying the producers' top tier of wines.  Some importers have slowed down on replacing vintages because they're still working their way through old inventory.  But the good news is that in the course of my tastings, I sampled many superb wines only to be shocked to discover that they cost $15 rather than $30 or $40.  Put another way, these wines seem every bit as concentrated and satisfying as their makers' top bottlings as recently as a decade ago--and they're cleaner and more varietally accurate than ever before.

Recent vintage have been conducive to making high-quality wine.  Two thousand ten featured a small crop.  Severe windstorms during the flowering cut the potential crop size dramatically--up to 60% in some spots.  Then a dry, windy summer resulted in some sunburn and heat damage.  An unusually extended heat wave in early March caused difficulties, especially for wineries that had run out of irrigation water.

Happily, plenty of fresh white wines were made from grapes picked before the heat wave, and the small crop loads permitted thorough ripening. One of the key characteristics of the 2010s reported by numerous growers is good phenolic maturity at moderate potential alcohol levels--nearly always a good thing in warm growing regions.

Two thousand nine is widely considered to be outstanding for both reds and whites in South Africa.  A cold, rainy winter replenished waters reserves in the soil.  The weather remained cool and wet through late September, then was cooler than average until early January, which slowed down ripening and ultimately led to greater flavor intensity in the wines.  But there was concern at this point that the harvest would be quite late, which is always a risky proposition.

But the weather then turned quite dry, and hot temperatures arrived during the second half of February, ultimately ripening the crop in a rush in many areas.  Again, some whites were in before the extreme heat.  It was a high-stress harvest, with some wineries reporting that they started picking two weeks later than normal yet finished a month earlier!

The heat and wind fanned widespread fires beginning in early February, especially in Stellenbosch, Helderberg and Jonkershoek, and many acres of fynbos, the dense indigenous shrubby vegetation that covers much of the Cape wine region (not unlike garrigue in the south of France).  There was some smoke damage and a number of wineries declassified, sold off or dumped fruit they feared was tainted.

Many of the red wines I tasted for this article are from the 2008 vintage, a cool, wet, extended growing season ending with a mostly late harvest.  This vintage produced many elegant wines with moderate alcohol levels by Cape standards.  Although I tasted some underripe wines, the best examples have the density that comes from slow ripening, along with freshness and precision.  I would not be at all surprised if I rate this vintage higher than the locals do, in much the same way I often enjoy cooler years in hotter climates like Argentina and Washington State.

By the way, white wine drinkers should give the best sauvignon blancs, chenin blancs and chardonnay from South Africa a whirl.  They can offer terrific energy and flavor intensity, and they are rarely expensive. All of the wines featured in this article were tasted in New York in January and February.