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South African Wines Starting to Strut


Okay, I’m with you on this: When I’m thinking about great wine growing regions, South Africa doesn’t quickly spring to mind. But I’m beginning to think differently, and with good reason. In bottle after bottle of South African wines that I’ve tasted recently — Chardonnay, Pinotage, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Syrah-blends — I’ve been noticing a shift. Once big, cloying, overripe and, frankly, mediocre, there’s been a welcome move toward subtlety and finesse. Less oak. Less jam. More balance. More acidity. More nuance.

“Until a few years ago, the (South African) wines that came to the U.S. were not high standard, well-made wines,” admits Johann Meissenheimer, the Managing Director of Indigo Wine Group, a major South African wine importer. “We frequently didn’t see the best wines here because the stores only wanted to sell the less expensive stuff.” And aparteid’s strict rules kept the good stuff from ever leaving the country.

That’s changed. As Meissenheimer and I were tasting through a half-dozen South Aftcian wines recently, I was struck by their uniformly high quality and balance of fruit, tannins, acidity and oak. Reyneke winery’s $30 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from outside Stellenbosch, for example, was full of zesty lime and apple flavors with highlights of verbena, lemon and green grass, vanilla and toast. Creamy with a long, lingering finish, “Reyneke represents everything South African wines are about…sustainably harvested, biodynamic and delicious,” says Meissenheimer.

Ok, it’s pretty easy to produce a solid wine at $30, but even the less expensive 2010 Lions Lair Family Reserve GSM blend ($15, with its dark cherry and red berry tones, moderate acidity and smokey oak notes) and 2007 Groot Constantia Shiraz ($15, bing cherries, blue plums, white pepper spiciness and light, smokey oak, all tied together with delicious acidity and mellow tannins) are worth taking for a spin.

Yes, these wines are still muscular (they top out at 14.5% alcohol), but because they’re all balanced, they don’t feel like they’re beating you up.

If you can find a bottle of Barista Pinotage, pick it up. If you still think of Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) and envision a thin wine with a rubber stench, well, the Barista — named for its coffee undertones knitted into the marichino cherries — will forever change your mind. (It’s not yet available in Dallas but should be soon, says Meissenheimer; his Indigo Wines plans to  import it to the area.)

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