On a continent that typically brings to mind dry, hot deserts and rainforest jungles, it’s easy to forget that there is also wine. But on the very southern tip of South Africa, vineyards thrive and produce a wide variety of grapes. Though the wines were slow to market due to the embargo on South Africa during apartheid, the country has managed to solidify its presence as a quality wine producer over the past few decades. As a huge fan of South African wines, I wanted to share a few tips on what to try!
Reds are smokey-meaty:
This is a good thing — fire up the grill! Something about the land in South Africa brings out a gamey character in red wines, like bacon fat or smoked meat, especially in Syrah. Of course, this has nothing to do with the wild game that runs about in the country, but it is a happy coincidence — South African red wines are some of our favorites for roasted meats, stews, dishes from the grill, or anything wrapped in bacon (and what is not amazing wrapped in bacon?!?!?).
Sauvignon Blanc rivals that of New Zealand:
Crisp, grassy, tropical, zingy — all words that perfectly describe this alternate Southern Hemisphere thirst quencher.
But Chenin Blanc should be your new go-to wine for summer:
Chenin Blanc (until recently, the most abundantly planted grape in South Africa) is made in a dry style here, and is quite different from its Loire Valley counterparts. It has crisp acidity, a mineral component, and a wonderful texture — in a blind tasting, someone once took one of these for a Macon-Villages (which is Burgundian Chardonnay). So if you love refreshing whites with character at great values, stock up!
At least try Pinotage:
If you’ve heard of Pinotage, congratulations. If you love Pinotage, well… you’re in the minority! The “flagship” crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that was concocted in a laboratory in 1925 hardly made the wine world swoon when it was first introduced. But wait! There is plenty of high-quality, GOOD Pinotage, despite the general public opinion. It’s certainly worth a try, especially the excellent example from Southern Right.
Don’t look at me like that! Just because there is a big “M” on my chest does not mean that I am bad. I wanted to be pure and chaste and loved from afar, but you brought me to too many parties and there I was on a table. foils cut and uncorked. The servers poured me into big goblets and everyone drank me like I was nothing. Wineries through the decades planted me in low quality, high yielding vineyards just so they could make money of my vines. Can you imagine that? My daddy, Cabernet Franc, and my mother, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, would never have approved. Or would they? Unfortunately it worked; everyone drank me like water and tossed the empties into the recycle bins.
There are over 600,000 acres of Merlot planted in the world. Most of it in France, a great deal in Italy, some in the United States, Australia, Chile and Argentina – I suppose there are Merlot plantings everywhere. Merlot is an important varietal. The grape provides plenty of soft, succulent red wine that gives winemakers blending options to make their wines better. On the Left Bank of Bordeaux, a little bit of Merlot goes a long way and on the Right Bank, it is king (especially in Pomerol). Yes, I am proud to be Merlot.
October is Merlot month, and in that spirit I am tasting examples from all over the world. Follow the hashtag, #merlotme, on Twitter, and learn more about the excitement that is now surrounding the varietal. It is time to fill your shopping cart with Merlot, the “M” wine! Three of my favorites are: the 2012 Duckhorn Napa Valley, the 2011 Rodney Strong and the 2010 Twomey by Silver Oak. Now please look at me square in the eyes, I am ready to serve you. Your relationship with me may never be the same again.
To most lonely and dedicated wine souls, Burgundy is the greatest challenge of all. One taste of a Montrachet or Romanée-Conti and one is doomed for a life of endless searching, and the painful reality of never-enough-money to even sniff wine’s Holy Grail. Even village wines cost more money than most mortals can spend. So it comes down to this: rare, ultra-expensive wines are often difficult to pronounce and harder to locate, even if one has reconciled the cost of the wine. It is no wonder that so many consumers have been chilled out of this precious wine region. Yet Burgundy, well aware of this situation, has begun to market wines that we all can afford.
Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir is now the ticket back into Burgundy and provide the world with not just delicious and affordable wines, but wines that can be found in the marketplace. Wine experts freely admit that Burgundy is the birthplace of quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While both varietals (more chard than pinot) are widely grown throughout the world, history and research always begin here. Bourgogne is now the appellation that delivers the flavors of the varietals, as well as the characteristics of Burgundy at an affordable price.
Over the last 20 years, I have been most impressed with Bouchard Père et Fils and how their continued growth to make better and better wines. The current 2012 Bourgogne Chardonnay and 2012 Bourgogne Pinot Noir are excellent representatives of this category and of these varietals. One doesn’t always have to break the bank to enjoy the wines from this land that stretches from Dijon to Lyon. This pair of wines are from Burgundy with love.
Anyone who’s lived in the Bay Area for more than a year or two has probably been to the Russian River, and anyone who is from the Bay Area probably has a story of a lost weekend spent there; however, you can easily speed though the valley without giving much thought to wine: if that’s the case, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can’t avoid wine in Napa -drive up highway 29, and the various wineries beckon you inside like a sidewalk sign twirler in a gorilla suit at tax time. The Russian River is more subtle. Whereas Napa has given itself over to development, the Russian River insists on holding on to its wild-west roots. Black Bart robbed stagecoaches here, and supposedly buried the take from a Wells Fargo heist in the hills above Korbel.
Standing on the corner of Occidental Road and the Gravenstein Highway pumping gas and looking across the street at a rental lot for heavy farm equipment, it’s easy to forget that arguably the greatest Pinot Noir in the world is grown right behind the tree line barely 100 feet away. Indeed, you can walk to Dutton-Goldfield, Dehlinger, Lynmar and 10 other wineries from where I am standing.
Much like the whole of France, this area used to be a shallow inland sea. When that sea receded, it left behind a delectable ring of marine sandstone called the Wilson Grove Formation, the jewel of which is the clay and sandstone blend called the Gold Ridge complex. To the west of me is the Green Valley AVA where this combination sits on a bed of fractured rock, and along with the influence of persistent fog accounts for a long ripening process, producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to rival all but the greatest Burgundies. The Pinots are filled with blackberries and violets; the Chardonnays with flavors of tangerine and green apple.
Walking out of the tasting room with six bottles stuffed under our collective arms, now comes the question of where to go and enjoy it! Sebastopol doesn’t offer much, Forestville even less. Finding great places to eat here is more of a treasure hunt; it all depends on what you want. If you want a perfect pairing for that Pinot Noir, you need to sample the menu at Highland Dell in Monte Rio, owned by members of the Bohemian Club; the food belies the quiet image of the town. If you are short of time, and need to head home, then Willi’s Wine Bar where River Road meets 101 had the best food you will find in this part of the county.
And here’s the secret that every local knows: the best time to visit is between now and the end of October; the weather is mild, but sunny and the tourists have gone home. So if you have time in the next few weeks, then head north. You won’t be disappointed.