As I wrote in my Feb. 25 column—which was an introduction to South African winemaking and history—I've been tasting my way through a wide selection of wines from that country. Believe me, it was my pleasure, especially given that many South African wines are so budget-friendly. A lot has changed since Dutch colonists began making South African wine in the 1650s.
Chenin Blanc, which is the most widely planted grape varietal in South Africa, was originally grown from vine cuttings via France. Wonderfully fresh and tasting of herbs, Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Steen op Hout ($15)—"Steen" being the South African term for Chenin Blanc—has white peach flavors with oh-so-subtle hints of oak. With its good minerality, this well-balanced wine pairs beautifully with grilled chicken.
Indaba Chenin Blanc ($11) would make for a fantastic porch sipper in the spring and summer. It's an easy-drinking wine bursting with tropical citrus flavors and a slightly sweet, honeyed finish: a fun, not-too-serious interpretation of Chenin Blanc.
MAN Family Wines Chenin Blanc ($8.99) is a steal, and made solely with free-run juice (no pressing of the grapes) which is left on its lees for three to four months to give the wine body. MAN calls this their "sweet and sour" wine for its good balance of acidity and sweetness. That off-dry quality makes this Chenin Blanc a good partner for spicy curries.
Located on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain in South Africa's most well-known wine region of Stellenbosch, Ken Forrester Vineyards wines are renowned for their exceptional quality and value. Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($14.99) has garnered boatloads of awards and accolades for its complexity and tricky balance of oaky vanilla and delicate fruit flavors. This Chenin Blanc would rock a crawfish/crab/lobster boil.
One of the best bottles of bubbly I've tasted in many moons is DeMorgenzon DMZ Cabernet Rosé ($12). Made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, this is pink bubbly with a lot of backbone, hailing from DeMorgenzon's biodiverse and ecologically sensitive vineyards. It's a remarkably elegant sparkling wine for the price, brimming with strawberry, pomegranate and watermelon notes, accompanied by splashes of spice.
Pinotage is South Africa's only native wine varietal, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Don't confuse Pinotage with Pinot Noir; they're not at all alike. A young Pinotage can be bright and easy on the palate, and that's the case with Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage ($12). This is a well-restrained wine with smoky notes and concentrated cherry flavors—light enough to sip with barbecued meats.
Further proof that apartheid in South Africa is fading into the past, Seven Sisters winery is owned and operated by seven black sisters. They produce Seven Sisters Dawn Pinotage/Shiraz ($12), a soft, rich red wine with spicy pepper flavors and smokiness that would be a slam-dunk with steak au poivre.
Founded by Lithuanian immigrants in the early 20th century, Backsberg is a Jewish-owned winery and one of only two South African wine producers making kosher wine. If you're thinking Manischewitz, don't. Backsberg Klein Babylons Toren ($25) is an intense, tannic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other Bordeaux varietals with dense black fruit flavors. The vintage I tasted was 2007, and it still seemed a tad young, indicating that this is a very age-worthy wine.
I wish I had the space to write in detail about the other quality South African wines I had the privilege of tasting, but I'll just have to list them here: The Wolftrap ($10), Graham Beck Brut Rosé ($17), Grand Plaisir ($28), The Curator ($8), Limestone Hill Chardonnay ($20), MAN Shiraz ($9) and Chardonnay ($9) and Bellingham Bernard Series Chenin Blanc ($22). Try them all! CW