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Wayne On Wine

South African reds

By Wayne Crawford

South Africa today is eighth in the world in overall wine production, with 243,638 acres under vine. For those living in the Southern Hemisphere, their summer is our winter. Their location is on the southernmost tip of Africa, at a southern latitude that aligns with south Australia, northern Chile and Argentina, just north of New Zealand.

This is a Mediterranean climate with strong ocean winds protected, in part, by mountain ranges. Wine production started here in 1659, on rootstock imported from France. This is roughly 74 years earlier than Georgia began its winegrowing experiment in the Trustee Garden, Savannah, in 1733, and which failed by 1750.

South Africa was considered a refreshing station for the Dutch East India Company moving goods from Europe to India and return by ship. The Dutch had no real tradition of growing wine; the northernmost wine region in Europe is the Champagne region south of Holland.

Fortunately, French Huguenots with winemaking skills immigrated to South Africa in 1688. But as in Europe, their vines were destroyed by the millions in 1886, with the arrival of phylloxera-infested, sap-sucking aphids native to North America. There is no cure except to plant grapes on American rootstock able to fight off the aphid. Most vines were replaced with this solution as the guidepost.

Today, 55 percent of the wine produced is white with chenin blanc the leading varietal. Red wine accounts for 45 percent, with cabernet sauvignon the leading grape followed by shiraz, pinotage and merlot.

Pinotage is a distinctive red grape for the region. Developed in 1925 by Professor Perold, it is a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut, then called hermitage. It first was bottled in 1925 in South Africa and is today unique to the country. Pinot noir is the exceptional red grape of Burgundy, while cinsault is French in origin from Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France.

South Africa exports in 2014 worldwide were approximately 109,560 million gallons, with about 3.3 million gallons shipped to the United States. This is more than four times the amount exported worldwide in 1999, recalling Nelson Mandela was not released from prison until 1990 and free elections did not occur until 1993. Global isolation from apartheid laws significantly impacted wine production and export sales.

Today, more than 24 red varietals are planted with much of the wine industry in the southwest encircling Cape Town on the coast. The best-known growing regions are Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson, Swartland and Breedekloof, which also produces the most wine in South Africa.

The Big Canoe Wine Group’s objective in August was to blind-taste a cross section of red wines to recommend for this article. Our top selections were wines 13 to 18 years old, which over time had evolved into smooth, well-balanced reds with soft tannins and lingering finishes. As you will read below, Cabernet Sauvignon, blended reds and Shiraz are wines that were well received and also fit the top drinking profile for red wines in the USA.

Pinotage produced in the last 10 years has improved vastly. Winemakers recognize this dark red grape with high tannins and low acidity requires careful crafting. It resonates with well-shaped raspberry, anise and earthy aromas and flavors. Pairing this wine with barbecued ribs, wild game, venison, duck and quail is a good start. A Bordeaux red blend, cabernet sauvignon and the shiraz support grilled or roasted beef, lamb, filet mignon, aged cheese and grilled tuna.

South Africa is producing very approachable young wines with ageability at very reasonable prices. Press your retail provider to shop their distributors to add several South African wines to their offerings.

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The Big Canoe Wine Group samples South African red wines: Phil Yeakel, left, Sylvia
Harnesberger, Ed O’Donnell and Ham Gadd.

‘Wines drinking well now’

Fairview Jakkalsfontein 2003 Shiraz, Swartland, South Africa, $30. Dark-red and reflective with aromas of blackberry, spice, and anise, on the palate this wine is a full-bodied red, well balanced with smooth tannins. It is a mature, complex, well-structured wine with a long finish and dark fruit dominance. Once again, the older wines stood out for their complexity. This was the top choice in our blind-tasting. Best Buy.

Glen Carlou 2008 Grand Classique, $20. With a dark-red color, this wine is a blend of 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent malbec, 14 percent merlot, 13 percent petit verdot and 5 percent cabernet franc. It is a Bordeaux-style blend with blackberry, violet, plum and tobacco aromas. On the palate, it offers full-bodied blackberry, hints of strawberry and cherry with tobacco and vanilla overtones in a complex, well-balanced wine. A long fruit finish with a smooth mouthfeel dominates. A well-crafted, exceptional wine, the 2011 vintage is available at $17.99 on Best Buy.

Neil Ellis 2012 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch, $25. Ruby-red with some purple on the rim, this wine sports aromas of black olive, blackberry, cherry and plum with hints of violet. In the mouth, it is full-bodied with solid tannins, cherry, blackberry, black currant and spice. It offers a lingering finish with dark fruit, and is an excellent wine that should improve with age. Highly Recommended.

Other South African wines to consider include: Ratts 2013 Red Jasper Stellenbosh, $19.99; Black Pearl 2013 Mischief Maker, $19.99; Neethlingshof Estate 2014 Pinotage Stellenbosh, $15; and Rustenberg 2012 John X Merriman Red, $22.99. While these reds are all worth considering, do not overlook the chenin blanc white wines from the region; they can be delightful.

‘Drink what you like’

In my next article, the focus will be on Chianti Classico Reserve wines from Tuscany, Italy. These are often the highest quality sangiovese wines among the Chianti wines at approachable prices.

For the past eight years, Wayne Crawford’s column has appeared in Smoke Signals. Crawford develops his topics, giving the history of the featured wine or grape, its current producers and appropriate food pairings. Using the Big Canoe Wine Group as his tasting panel, he has provides readers with valuable insights into wine selection. Crawford is a French Wine Scholar, a certified specialist of Wine and a member of the American Wine Society.


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