Wine: For value, look to South Africa
Ryan Summerlin May 31, 2012
Value-conscious wine consumers know to avoid marquee regions like Napa Valley and Burgundy. Value seekers are also comfortable with the obscure-find value in places like Spain, northern Italy and France’s Loire Valley. These value seekers should add South Africa to their lists.
South Africa’s wine industry traces its roots to the 1650’s, when the Dutch East India Company established an outpost at the Cape of Good Hope to provide its merchants, who were constantly voyaging from Europe to East Asia, with fresh food and supplies. The settlers were urged to plant vineyards, as wine could defend against scurvy.
Over the next 300 years, South Africa’s wine industry experienced all manner of ups and downs. But by and large, local vintners were more interested in quantity than quality, primarily producing cheap wine for local consumption.
South Africa’s modern wine era began in 1973 when lawmakers created the “Wine of Origin” system to regulate labeling. A number of quality brands soon launched, but even then, South African wine remained a local beverage. Because of Apartheid most Western nations refused to trade with South Africa.
When South Africa’s last remaining Apartheid laws were abolished in the early 1990’s, the world suddenly opened up. According to Frisco Wine Merchant’s Susanne Johnston, a lot of wineries that employed African workers actually incorporated them into winery ownership after Apartheid laws disappeared.
Andre Shearer, owner of Cape Classics, the largest importer of South African wines to the United States, said the value found in South African wines is “extraordinary.”
“The past few years have actually been very good for us, because Americans are seeking value. Retailers and sommeliers are looking for good wine that’s affordable – and American consumers are open minded and willing to try wines from unfamiliar places,” Shearer explained.
At Frisco Liquors, John Davis sells South African blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, as well as Shiraz and Malbec in the Engelbrecht Els Proprietor’s Blend. “South African wines have a value similar to most South American wines,” Davis said.
One of South Africa’s main grapes, the Pinotage, did not mesh with the flavors that Davis’ customers wanted. “I think the winemakers realized that, too,” he said, because South African wineries have recently “modified their wines to match our tastes,” by creating more blends.
Although some are slightly more expensive at around $30 per bottle, South African blends have been more popular in Davis’ store.
With virtually every classic variety – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – the best wines bridge the gap between the Old World and the New World. In other words, South African vintners don’t try to hide the sunshine, yet they don’t go overboard. South Africa’s top wines are unabashedly ripe but also show finesse.
Then there’s South African Chenin Blanc, which is both stunning and affordable, yet somehow remains under the radar. Although the grape’s ancestral home is France’s Loire Valley, more than half the world’s plantings of Chenin Blanc are in South Africa. Just like vintners in France, South African producers make the wine in a variety of styles, from bone dry to lusciously sweet.
Chenin Blanc is unbeatable as an everyday white wine. When well crafted, Chenin Blanc is bursting with fresh fruit and delicate floral aromas, backed by crisp acidity.
At Frisco Liquors, Davis sells an organic Chenin Blanc for around $11 called Releaf.
Shearer doesn’t expect South African wine to “explode” in popularity anytime soon. He’s seen slow but steady growth over the past 29 years and expects that trend to continue. Yet his nation is consistently producing many fantastic wines, and virtually all are good values.
— David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. Read more of his work at Wines.com.
Releaf Chenin Blanc – $10.59
Releaf Red Blend – $10.59
Meerlust Rubicon – $31.99
Engelbrecht Els Proprietor’s Blend – $39.99