While South African wine imports show a steady increase in U.S. markets, they have exploded in China and other Asian countries. They often get hidden among other well-known imports, but I have found quality South African wines to be well-crafted, consistent and affordable.
Among many attributes, they unearth a sense of place. It has been said that one can smell the diverse soils when they arrive in the Cape region.
The Western Cape enjoys similar climate to other wine regions like Priorat in Spain and Avignon in France’s Rhone Valley. That puts them in good company.
Geologically, there is dramatic topography in the region where a range of soil types provide the backbone to the wines. Shale dominates in the Stellenbosch Mountains, southeast of Cape Town. The Paardeberg Mountains near Paarl are mostly granite and the northern Citrusdal Mountain range mostly sandstone.
In my brief time in South Africa, I became familiar with pinotage, their signature red. Rarely found anywhere else in the world, it originated when pinot noir and cinsault, known locally as hermitage, were crossed in the 1920s.
Pinotage is usually dry, earthy, with healthy tannins. However, good vintages produce wines that are also balanced and chewy with expressive fruit flavors that pair well spicy foods including grilled meat.
I recently joined a discussion with Jim Clarke, Wines of South Africa U.S. marketing manager; Dirk Coetzee, winemaker at L’Avenir and pinotage expert; and consultant Etienne Terblanche (aka Dr. Pinotage), who offered insights into some of best pinotage releases from the region.
Ashbourne, founded in 1996 by Anthony Hamilton Russell, is located in the lower Western Cape province near the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The winery released its first pinotage in 2001 and has been setting a standard since.
From organically farmed vineyards near the ocean, the Ashbourne 2017 Pinotage ($58) is earthy with integrated flavors and a salty finish. In a unique process, the stems are removed, dried in the sun, re-introduced and whole-cluster pressed.
Moving north, the panelists talked about a combination of new and old vines near Walker Bay with shale soils that produce the Beamont Pinotage 2017 ($34). The broad flavor spectrum, with red fruit, berries and spice, according to Etienne, pairs well with curries and bobotie, a traditional native dish consisting of yellow rice and sweet pumpkin.
Critic Jancis Robinson once described the 2011 vintage as the best pinotage she ever tasted.
From the coolest part of Stellenbosch, the vines that produce the B Liberte Pinotage Stellenbosch ($21) are less than 10 kilometers from the ocean and unprotected from sea breezes. The wine is partially whole-cluster pressed with minimum influence to produce intense floral notes on the nose and fresh, fruity flavors.
Winemaker Dirk Coetzee introduced his L’avenir Single Block Pinotage ($48) as one sourced from the best barrels from a single block of estate vineyards near Stellenbosch. Aged in oak and stainless steel, the wine’s aromas were deep and intense, and it had a rich mouthfeel, black currant flavors and a dry finish.
Abrie Beeslaar has been producing pinotage for a decade. He sources his fruit from established single vineyard bush vines at high elevations near the Citrusdal Mountains. The deep inky colors of the Beeslaar 2018 Pinotage ($55) introduce an extracted wine with ripened fruit and baking spice flavors. It is powerful and also pairs well with seasoned, grilled foods.
Not yet exported to other countries, the Sangiro Pinotage 2017 ($40) was described as a special wine from a place that transports you back in time. Imagine life without electricity and phone reception.
Located on the remote Piekenierskloof Plateau in the slopes of the far north Swartberg Mountains, the holistically farmed vines compete for space with citrus orchards and rooibos (red bush tea). Described as firm and linear, the wine was intense and flinty with layered red fruit flavors and balanced tannins — a treat that I may not experience again soon.
The wide range of topography, soils and climate in the Western Cape produce distinctive nuances in each of these showcased wines. Consistently balanced flavors and tannins are the common thread, revealing why pinotage pairs well with food. Any one of these releases would be a fine addition to your first all-vaccinated, mask-less, outdoor barbecue.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at lifebylyle.com or email mourvedre firstname.lastname@example.org.