In 2010 I toured and tasted in South Africa with fellow members of the English-based Circle of Wine Writers. The scenery was stunningly lovely, as were the wines.
Before the fall of the Apartheid regime, most of South Africa’s wines were distinctly unimpressive. It is said that every vine in the country was infected with one virus or another, but trade embargos prevented winemakers from importing healthy vines. New vineyard and winery practices were essentially unknown, and “flying winemakers” were unable to visit and teach the locals how to improve their product.
With the fall of the odious ancient regime, vines and knowledge flowed into South Africa with dazzling results. The country’s wineries are producing lovely bottlings at every price point in all styles, all with much more European restraint and elegance than you’ll find in other New World vineyards.. The country’s workhorse grape, Chenin Blanc (formerly known as Steen) turns out to have been an ill-used thoroughbred. With greater care and lower yields it’s now made into quality white wines priced from the mid-teens to over fifty dollars (for Ken Forrester’s Burgundian barrique-aged Chenins.) Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also well represented among the whites.
Pinotage, South Africa’s former flagship red, is in decline except at a few specialist wineries like Kanonkop. Bordeaux and Rhône blends are doing much better.
Blending seems to be the key to South Africa’s new wines. Different varietals are mixed, as are wines from different regions across the country.
My favourites among the current offerings from S.A. are those red Rhône-styled blends. Look for Goats do Roam (yes, a Côtes du Rhône homage from Charles Back) and Goat Roti (a Côte Roti clone from Back; did I mention that humour is often part of the blend in S.A.?) Both are under $20. Boekenhootskloof Chocolate Block is easier to drink than to say, and is just enchanting (for a little under $40.)
We’re currently sipping away at Chakalaka 2009, from the Spice Route Winery ($24.75, score 91+). It’s a lovely example of a blended South African red with a Mediterranean French accent. It’s a mix of 37% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 18% Carignan, 10% Petite Syrah, 10, Grenache and 4% Tannat. Like many bottlings from that country it offers high quality at a fair price. Chakalaka is the name of a spicy South African relish, and there’s truth in advertising here. The nose features sweet spices and a mineral earthy note well integrated with deep rich ripe mixed black berry fruits and a grapey note. On the palate it pleases with fine ripe velvety tannins and fresh acidity framing that deep fruit through a lovely long well-fruited gently tannic finish.
Chakalaka, like other South African reds, partners well with any roasted meat and could stand up to spicy fare. We drank it with roast Cornish hens. The Queen of Cuisine prepares them by cutting out the bird’s backbone and flattening it to ensure even cooking. She coats it on both sides with a paste made by mixing chopped rosemary, thyme and parsley with about 2 ½ tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. The seasoning is finished with salt and pepper, also on both sides. The bird goes onto the barbecue (or the gas grill at about 400o F. for forty minutes. The final product has a thin crispy skin and wonderfully moist, velvety flavourful meat. Aah, birdy num-num!