The South African wine industry is older than our country, but, in terms of exposure on our shelves, it represents a bright new frontier. Not only do these wines present a wide range of grapes and styles, they also offer very attractive pricing and signature wines that promise to set this old-yet-new region apart from more familiar ones.
At Suburban Wines & Spirits (379 Downing Dr, Yorktown Heights 914-962-3100), wine director George Feaver says that the South African section has doubled in size over the past two years, gaining momentum with relatively little promotional pushing. As an example, he points to Kumkani Pinotage, an under-$10 red that was the store’s wine of the week at the start of February and wound up being the best-selling red of the month because people kept coming back for more.
Pinotage, in fact, is South Africa’s calling-card grape. Developed at Stellenbosch University in 1925 as a genetic cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (which South Africans call Hermitage), Pinotage yields wine with relatively light body and a distinctive smoky character. While some winemakers consider it a lesser grape and choose to focus on “noble” varieties, the quality of Pinotage wines has risen noticeably in recent years (while prices have not). Even better, savvy vintners are tapping the grape’s blendability. Pinotage is a vital component of the popular Goats Do Roam blend (a playful take on Côtes du Rhône); Sebeka Cabernet-Pinotage is another berry-licious example. For the full smoky glory of Pinotage, look for Simonsig, priced in the mid teens.
On the white side, South Africa’s rising star is Chenin Blanc—called Steen in its homeland. South African Chenins are amazingly consistent, delivering heat-beating crispness along with both floral and citrus notes. Sebeka, Ken Forrester “Petit” Chenin, Fleur du Cap, and Indaba are all pitch-perfect examples that are incredible values priced under $12.
If your tastes run toward more traditional varietal wines, South Africa has plenty to offer in the way of tart, grassy Sauvignon Blancs and round, fruity Chardonnays. In the red department, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab-driven blends stand out.
Maybe most important of all, you really get what you pay for in most cases with South Africa. For instance, the under-$10 Indaba Sauvignon Blanc fits perfectly as a casual midweek table wine; moving up to the $20 Mulderbosch rewards with exceptional purity and intensity. In Chardonnay, stay simple with an $11 Fleur du Cap or go for some serious complexity and buttery oak with the $20ish Rustenberg. Among Cabernet blends, Kanonkop and Roodeberg compete with anything from California at around $12; Glen Carlou’s “Grand Classique” and Mulderbosch “Faithful Hound” give you more oomph for a few more bucks.
Finally, for those with a sweet tooth and/or historical bent, seek out Klein Constantia’s nectar-like Muscat-base Vin de Constance, produced just outside Capetown. Supposedly Napoleon’s favorite, it holds its honeyed own against pricier French Sauternes.