South Africa

This time of year in New York, over 1300 indie bands and artists flock to the city for CMJ, playing gigs for five straight days in hopes of being discovered as the next big thing in music. To honor their efforts, I dig up the most eclectic, under-the-radar wines I can find, and… well, I drink them. The whole idea makes a lot more sense in practice, I can assure you. In any case, it provides a good chance to discuss a wine from a region I spend little time on generally: South Africa.

At this point, South Africa is on the wine map, for sure, mostly due to the exceedingly tasty whites coming out of Stellenbosch,  a town in Western Cape province. It has delicious Chenin Blanc, good Sauvignon Blanc, and its own unique red: Pinotage, a marriage of the varietals Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Of course, I can’t stand most Pinotage; find it clunky in the extreme. But there you go. Like finding new music, hunting for great wines means drinking in the bad with the good.

And as with music, you’ll find some oddball wines if you spend enough time hunting. And as I prepared for CMJ, my hunt revealed this: the 2010 Badenhorst “Secateurs” blend, produced by AA Badenhorst Family Wines. The grapevines grow (mostly) on three different types of granite soil, and average around 50 years in age, leading to tremendous concentration in the flavors of the wine. Winemaking is done without crushing or destemming – grapes are dealt with as whole bunches. The blend in this case is a medley of red grapes, known to greater or lesser degrees by savvy drinkers: Syrah, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan. After fermentation, the wine is aged for 14 months in a mix of old foudre barrels and concrete tanks, which have minimal impact on the final product’s flavors.

The result? A lovely garnet in the glass, with aromas of red berries, spice, and black peppercorns. Fantastic balance and a supple mouthfeel complement more juicy red fruit after the first sip, and the wine is harmoniously engaged with both its acidity and tannins, which you get some nice chew from towards the finish. Exceptional with roast beef or venison, or herb-encrusted lamb and potato salad. $18. I highly recommend this one.

How long has it been since I tasted a South African Sauvignon Blanc, or any wine from this country, that caught my fancy? Too long. That it happened, and at a random tasting in Chelsea, was more than cause enough for a purchase and this subsequent post. Sauvignon Blanc, by the way, is one of my favorite white varietals. Among the other “noble” grapes, Riesling shows itself through transparency and grace, and Chardonnay makes you reel with its sensuality and layered opulence; Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, is the crisp, snappy, kissed-by-chlorophyll grape that hints at scents of growing things. I consider it my go-to white wine for any occasion where I’m not sure what I want.

The maker of this wine, Buitenverwachting, is based in Constantia, a founding estate near Cape Town at the very tip of South Africa. Established in 1796, this farm has been producing wine since the mid-1800’s. Buitenverwachting is Afrikaans for ‘beyond expectation,” which certainly applies to the wine itself. Through changing fortunes, the farm remained intact, although decades passed where no wine was produced at all – until the Mueller family restored the vineyards in 1980, and started producing wines of unique aromatic quality and international acclaim (or so it is said; the one I tried was tasty at least). Cape Town being a coastal region, the climate is moderated nicely by cooling sea breezes. The vines are situated on sloping fields of deep granite soils, allowing them to take root and get to business. Speaking of which, this is apparently the choice wine for business and first class seats on several international airlines!

On to the wine itself: our 2008 Buitenverwachting “Beyond” Sauvignon Blanc is a serious value, crackling with individualistic style. A pale green-gold in the glass, the nose is loaded with aromas of lemon and lime zest, lavender, pine sap, and gooseberries, backed by pronounced herbal notes (think spearmint and sage). More citrus fruit and herbal elements, green pepper and dusty spice, complement a snappy mouthfeel, with lively acidity tingling against a touch of residual sugar. A few years have given it a honeyed note as well. Firm finish, not quite tart; right up my alley. Pair with shellfish prepared just about any way you like, or lightly herbed sautéed whitefish. $10.

It’s still hot out, and this week will be beach week, so why not review another rosé? Few other wines hold my attention so well in the heat; no other wine satisfies quite like rosé usually does. I have found Mulderbosch’s take on this summer classic to be usually one of the great values in wine, performing far above its price point – depending on your palate. It has enough depth to keep it from getting boring should you buy it by the case, while being approachable enough to pour for everyone you know.

The winery of Mulderbosch hails from Stellenbosch in South Africa, the premiere wine region in that country. Located in the Western Cape province, and known primarily for Pinotage and delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch is the spot to watch if you’re buying from South Africa at the wine shop. As a whole the region produces about one billion liters of wine every year. Mulderbosch consists of 48 hectares of well-managed farmland, of which nearly 22 are planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, from which this particular rosé is made. The other half is left wild, ensuring as natural an environment for the vines as possible. Particular care is taken in the cellar to avoid bruising of the fruit, and production is kept low to keep quality as high as possible.

In the glass, I found the 2009 Mulderbosch Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon a deep rich pink, nearly salmon in color. At first approach, I was gratified by quintessential rosé aromas: cold cherries, summer strawberries, cranberries, hints of violet, along with a distinctive sort of animal musk. In the mouth the wine is dry, not overly so, just perfect… acidity is balanced perfectly to the forward fruit. It has a snappy finish, bright, with a peppery note that is completely awesome. I would readily quaff this with BBQ, cold cuts, or a platter with heaps of fresh garlicky hummus.$9.

Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon, from South Africa. Buy this. Today. Buy a case. If you do, you’ll find that fun wines can be dirt cheap: this retails for about $7 a bottle. Huge fruits, well-balanced tannins, lots of raspberry on the nose, blackberries, plums, and extremely potent mineral in the mouth. Full-bodied, with a smooth, spicy finish. It’s downright effervescent for a Cabernet Sauvignon. Just switched over to screwcaps! Ridiculously good for the money, but definitely only suited to certain palates.

Here’s another one from South Africa: Stellenbosch, home to some new stars in the wine world. Ken Forrester’s Petit Chenin Blanc is completely delicious. Fresh, fruity aromas precede a crisp and captivating experience, with melon and hints of honey flavors on the palate. South Africa’s major white grape is Sauvignon Blanc, and that is probably the future of white wine in this region, but this wine puts on quite a show for $9! A long and nicely refreshing finish. Drink it on a hot summer day, or a cool spring evening. Cook with it if you must, but stop to quaff. This is a great buy.