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Some Thoughts on South African Wine

I’ve had the chance to try quite a few South African wines in the past couple of weeks – and while I am not, say, enamored with the wines of the country, I do think South African producers are doing some interesting things, and are making some wines that will at least elicit consideration and conversation, which is what I love about wine. The general consensus is that wine growing, production and quality in general are all improving in South Africa.



First: Great, Affordable Whites


I do love white wines from South Africa, known to be plush and fruity yet vibrant and crisp and refreshing, from chardonnay to chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and more, and usually at great prices. They tell me the cool climate helps. A winemaker from South Africa I spoke to last week said, But we don’t want to be known only as a white wine producing country. That’s fine, but white wine from South Africa is just so good!

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to try a few: The 2007 Glen Carlou Chardonnay is a good example of a fresh, clean white with a fresh, peachy nose with hints of sweetness, but dry on the palate. It’s easy and light on its feet with fresh fruit and good acidity. Also the 2008 Juno Chardonnay (coming soon to Binny’s) is bright, fresh and clear with light citrus fruits and refreshing acidity.


Also coming soon to Binny’s is the 2007 Vin d’Orrance Chardonnay Cuvee Anais this chardonnay is a beauty. Butter and barrel influence on the nose, but subtle and creamy (not spicy or heavy-handed) just eclipsing the underlying clean fruit. Elegantly creamy on the palate, with lush tropical fruits gracefully in balance. The pourer proclaimed: It’s Meursault from South Africa! It will hit select Binny’s stores in a few weeks, retailing somewhere under $30 half the price of comparable French and California Chardonnay. If you love chardonnay, watch for it.


As I said, I like the white wines.



South African Reds: Identity Crisis


Then there are the reds, which to me fall into two general groups one is red wines that show characteristic South African funk. I’ve heard these descriptors used: band-aid, rubber band, leather, barnyard, and this one time I heard some guy say, rhubarb up a horse’s ass. Some folks out there really like these qualities. Maybe I do, but only in small doses.


On the other hand, South Africa has also been offering a lot of sleek, fruity and oak driven, New-World styled reds. While I certainly like the style, it isn’t uniquely South African, which I suppose is only a drawback to those South African producers who want to create an identity for their wines. In other words, if a shopper can find new-world style from California, Australia, South America and Spain, all at reasonable prices, South Africa might not be the first place that customer is drawn to.


I’m being a little obtuse, of course; there are quite a few compelling South African reds that manage to combine these elements to create unique and expressive wines, but (and I’m speaking candidly here and risking my friendship with the Binny’s South African wine buyer and also my boss) they seem a little expensive to me. I mean, I’ve tried some interesting wines with layers of complexity and a tinge of that uniquely South African character (I guess it can be charming in small quantities) but customers might be more compelled to experience wines from this still-emerging country if they were drawn in with lower price tags.


That said, do not hesitate to taste these wines if you get the chance:


The 2005 De Trafford Cabernet Sauvignon is an awesome powerhouse, showing a list of complexities including plum, crushed black pepper and anise, smoke, vegetal overtones and just a touch of that barnyard earthiness. Very New-World, but probably not mistakable for a California Cab.


The 2004 Glen Carlou Gravel Quarry (available at select Binny’s stores soon) has a nose with hints of that South African funkiness, layered in with vanilla and berry fruit. It starts soft on the palate but the tannins swell to balance power with the sleek fruit. I also tried The 2006 Gravel Quarry, which is younger and even bigger.


The 2006 Slowine Shiraz (this one will be available soon as well) is an outstanding South African value. I might recommend it to a fan of fruit-forward Australian shiraz who wants something with a slightly different twist. I would just have to get that person to the South African aisle first. The Slowine shows a tiny hint of barnyard on the nose, kept in check by layers of ripe red raspberry. Broad on the palate with great heavy fruit and a touch of cocoa. Watch for the Slowine it’s a great value that will retail right around ten bucks.



What do you think?


So what do you think? Any favorites from South Africa I didn’t list here? Are you customers out there willing to give a still-emerging wine country a chance, or another chance? And to you sales folks in the stores: are you willing to pull customers over to the South Africa aisle just to get them to try something new?

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on South African Wine

  1. What are your thoughts on Kanonkop (specifically their Pinotage), Rust en Vrede, and Engelbrecht Els? From my experience, I rather like South Africa, seems to be decent value, and a bit different, but I do agree that they have an “identity crisis”.Any chance of sweet-talking the Binny’s South African wine-buyer for some Haute Cabriere/Pierre Jourdan Ratafia? It piques my curiosity.For talking about South African wines, you kind of ignored pinotage!

  2. I did recently taste the Englebrecht Els and Ernie Els – in my tasting notes for the Ernie Els I wrote the word “WOW,” it’s quite a complex and layered wine. I haven’t tried the others recently.I noticed my failure to mention pinotage right after hitting the “submit” button on this blog entry. I realized that I haven’t tasted any pinotage lately – surprisingly, of the South African wines presented to the buyer here in the office, pinotage has been absent. I don’t know if it’s just something local distributors have backed off on, or if winemaking in South Africa is shifting away from the pinotage varietal bottlings, but a lot of what we’re seeing from South Africa is Bordeaux-style blends, or crazy syrah-based kitchen sink blends which often include some percentage of pinotage. Binny’s carries just one pinotage that retails over $15, and that’s the Kanonkop you mentioned – the buyer says he carries that one because it’s the best pinotage he has tasted.By the way, I mentioned those wines you asked for – we’ll check out their availability and shoot you an email. Any other questions, just post a comment here or email me at

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