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South Africa: the new Eldorato. - Steven Spurrier, Decanter Magazine

The little known wines of South Africa were the theme of Arnaud's wine tasting club in April.

South Africa's wine country

Just emerging from Apartheid, South Africa is now ready to offer all kinds of new flavor experiences to the wine-drinking world. The country's best wines can combine the elegance and balance of the old world with the more fruit-driven style of the new world.

South Africa has a long history of winemaking. The first vineyard was established in the Cape Province by the Dutch settlers more than 340 years ago. The Huguenots, religious refugees who fled from France in 1688, brought first hand winemaking knowledge to the settlers and gave their name to the wine district of Franschhoek, which means French Corner.

In recent years, over 40% of the vineyards have been replanted as the industry realigns itself to compete globally, moving from volume production to quality wines. Traditionally, vineyards have been dominated by white grape varietals but the trend is now towards a more market-driven balance between white and red with 80% of the new plantings being red varietals. South Africa ranks now as number nine in terms of world wine production.

South African vineyards are mostly situated in the Western Cape near the coast. They are influenced by regular coastal fog and cooling sea breezes coming from either the Atlantic ocean or the Indian ocean. This maritime influence combined with a moderate Mediterranean climate creates the ideal conditions to make wines of unique character and complexity.

The white wines

Our first white wine was a Chenin Blanc, the Cape's most widely cultivated varietal and locally called Steen. The 2003 Rudera Chenin Blanc comes from Stellenbosch, one of the best South African wine district. The name of Stellenbosch originates from the Cape's second Dutch governor, Simon van der Sel, and is one of the country's oldest wine region. Thanks to its mountainous terrain, good rainfall, deep well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs, it is also synonymous with high quality, award winning wines. The wine displayed a bright golden color with a nose of white blossom and pear aromas. On the palate, it was fresh and subtil with almond notes, leaving additional mineral flavors on the finish. The wine was delicious, my favorite white wine of the tasting, and perfect as an aperitif.

Our second white wine was a Sauvignon Blanc from the Groenekloof/Darling area. Groenekloof is a promising small wine region in Swartland, north of Cape Town and at only 10-12 km from the cold Atlantic Ocean, that seems articularly well adapted for growing Sauvignon Blanc. The 2004 Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc displayed a pale yellow color with grass and grapefruit aromas on the nose. On the palate, it was dry with a lively acidity followed by a crisp and mineral finish. A perfect wine to pair with shellfish.

The red wines

The first red wine came from Rustenberg, one of the oldest Stellenbosch winery with a wine-growing history dating back to 1682. The 2001 Rustenberg John X Merriman which is named after a Prime Minister of the Cape, is a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine displayed a dark color and a nose full of moka, chocolate and blackberry aromas. On the palate, it was full-bodied and well-balanced with some nice complexity. The finish was elegant and persistent. I liked this wine for its elegance and balance and this was my favorite red of the evening.

Our second red wine was also from an old Stellenbosch winery. The Rust En Vrede Estate was established in 1694 and means rest in peace. The 2001 Rust En Vrede Estate Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. The wine exhibited a deep red color and a smoky nose with black cherry aromas. It was peppery on the palate with a nice spicy finish. The wine had a Mediterranean character (maybe due to the Shiraz in the blend) and it was perfect with some tapenade and country bread.

Our next wine was the 2003 Fairview Goat-Roti. The wine is produced by the Fairview winery, another historical farm founded in 1693 by a French Huguenot. It is a Syrah based wine with a name alluding to the Rhône appellation Côte Rôtie The wine exhibited a fruity nose with sweet notes of vanilla. It was full-bodied and smooth on the palate with rustic flavors. Arnaud liked its velvety mouthfeel and flattering aromas.

The following wine was the 2003 Porcupine Ridge Syrah, a new world style Syrah that had a ripe and sweet fruity character with peppery and meaty flavors on the palate. It was another flattering, easy drinking and reasonably priced wine but I missed the elegance of the first two reds.

The last wine introduced us to Pinotage, South Africa's own grape and the country's second most planted red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a cross created by the Stellenbosch University in 1925, between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, with the idea of combining the elegance of the former with the reliability of the latter. Pinotage from old low-yielding vines can produce dense and fruity wines of great complexity. The 2001 De Waal Pinotage exhibited interesting aromas of dried herbs, plum and cherry on the nose. On the palate, it was smooth, balanced, with some dried fruit flavors and a certain finesse on the finish.

Catherine Granger & Arnaud Cabanel
See our other tasting reports.