Value-conscious wine consumers know to avoid marquee regions like Napa Valley and Burgundy.
Those who are comfortable with the obscure find value in places like Spain, northern Italy, and France´s Loire Valley. Those who are more comfortable with easy-to-pronounce locales stick to places like Argentina, New Zealand, and California´s Central Coast.
All value seekers should add South Africa to their lists.
South Africa´s wine industry can trace its roots to 1650s, 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 -- the system of institutionalized racial segregation -- most Western nations refused to trade with South Africa.
When South Africa´s last remaining Apartheid laws were abolished in the early 1990s, the world suddenly opened up. And a young entrepreneur -- Andre Shearer -- made it his mission to share South Africa´s finest wines with the world.
Twenty years have passed, and Shearer is still on that mission. Today, his company, Cape Classics, is the largest importer of South African wines to the United States. And Shearer hasn´t yet tired of promoting his nation´s wines.
"The value of South African wines is extraordinary,"
Shearer explained over breakfast one recent morning. "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."
To most Americans, South Africa remains an "unfamiliar place." That´s why Shearer understands his job is far from over.
Consider a basic question. Is South Africa a New World or Old World wine region?
At first blush, the answer seems obvious. South Africa is still finding its footing in the global market, so obviously, it´s a New World region.
Then again, South Africa has been producing wine for nearly 350 years. When Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena in 1815, he found solace in "Constantia," a South African dessert wine that´s still produced.
So it´s a trick question. Over the past year, I´ve tasted hundreds of wines from South Africa. 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.
For my palate, fresh Chenin Blanc is unbeatable as an everyday white wine. When well crafted, Chenin Blanc is bursting with fresh fruit and delicate floral aromas, and backed by crisp acidity.
Andre Shearer doesn´t expect South African wine to "explode" in popularity anytime soon. He´s seen slow but steady growth over the past twenty years, and expects that trend to continue. Yet his nation is consistently producing many fantastic wines, and virtually all are good values.
Americans are eager to try new wines, and we´re more price-conscious than ever before. So I´m expecting an explosion.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.
Anonymous note: South Africa has some other distinctive varietals that are well worth a try. For example, Syrah goes by the name of Shiraz down there, as in Australia which connects to South Africa by the Indian Ocean, and there are many beautiful ones from both places— not all giant fruit bombs or tannic killers as Shiraz, unfortunately became known for.
For a summer white wine, South Africa has a nice German transplant, perhaps related to the Boers, with the cool rattatat name of Gewürztraminer that is so fun to pronounce—or die trying. It is not typically as sweet from South Africa as its Teutonic cousins are known to be (though, in all fairness, you can find one from the Rhine that is not meant for a wine cooler, either).
We agree about the Chenin Blanc, but watch out—some are sweet, and I do mean sweet. We like the dry ones that are what we call wine, but many an Alabama damsel who has not quite yet graduated to tough love will prefer the sugar. Just make sure you know which one you are drinking. The bottle should be marked for the sweet variety.
But the South Africans did not discriminate in grabbing European varietals identified with other nationalities and making them their own. You can even find Portuguese Touriga Nacional.
And of course do not forget Pinotage, though some would like to. It is a South African creation—or at least you could say it is borrowed from two places. It is a cross between Hermitage (there’s a grape you never heard of) and Pinot Noir (which you undoubtedly have). Be careful. It is a difficult grape, and not all are good, but if you find a winemaker who meets the challenge, the rewards are great.
Anonymous, another food and wine writer, you can find right here at the Birmingham Weekly. Go to www.bhamweekly.com and search for stories by the author Anonymous. You might also look in stories authored by Bunny and Scarlet.