Raise a glass to the rise of South African wines

VINTAGE POINT

October 06, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Thank you, Nelson Mandela. You improved the world of wine.

South Africa has the oldest wine tradition of the countries opened up in the Age of Exploration. Grapes were planted near the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century, and the quality of some Cape wine was widely renowned before the land was known as South Africa.

But apartheid isolated South Africa from the world during the critical decades of the 20th century when winemaking was undergoing revolutionary changes for the better.

In the Americas, Australia and Europe, wine was becoming a game for bright young minds and sophisticated palates. In South Africa, it remained the province of insular old farmers - white, of course - who didn't know what a good wine tasted like and didn't want to learn.

So when apartheid finally ended, it left the country's wine industry with a long hangover.

At a tasting in Washington several years after Mandela took power, eager young South Africans proudly offered the country's wines for tasting. Most were swill.

What a difference a few years can make. After a recent sampling of South African wines available in Maryland stores, I'm now a convert.

These are some of the wines that changed my mind.

Worthy whites

2003 Warwick "Professor Black" Sauvignon Blanc, Simonsberg Stellenbosch ($19). This full-bodied, rich, dry, herbal wine has terrific length, grip and a style reminiscent of a top-notch Sancerre. The mineral, yeast and citrusy flavors are impeccable. World-class.

2003 Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc ($9). A screw cap was the perfect closure for this fresh, penetrating, exuberant wine. Its style and flavors of lime, pineapple, grapefruit, herbs and gooseberry are reminiscent of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

2003 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch ($22). This crystalline, fruity wine is similar to the Porcupine Ridge but with one or two fewer quills to penetrate the palate. It, too, is made in the Kiwi style.

2003 Oracle of the Rain Chardonnay ($7). The price is not a typo. This is a stunning value that chardonnay lovers should buy by the case. It's unusually rich for such an inexpensive wine, with oaky and buttery flavors that don't go over the top. Good stuff. Buy lots.

2003 Glen Carlou Chardonnay, Paarl ($16). Here's another chardonnay with plenty of oak, but not so much it dominates the fruit. Perhaps that's because the flavors of melon, pear and fresh-baked bread keep it all in balance.

Satisfying reds

2001 De Toren Fusion V, Stellenbosch ($30). This blend of five Bordeaux red grapes sets a world-class standard. It's a complex, full-bodied, meaty red with generous black-currant flavors and exceptional aging potential.

1999 Graham Beck Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region ($14). A shade less complex than the De Toren but more appealing to drink now, this is a gripping wine with classic cabernet flavors. It has a delicious hint of eucalyptus to go with the predominant black currant.

2001 Warwick "Three Cape Ladies" Cape Blend ($23). There's something very appealing and ladylike about this elegant blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinotage. It's a medium-bodied wine with no harsh edges and giddy wild-berry fruit. Share it with two girlfriends and laugh your head off.

2003 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon, Robertson ($9). This is a young, brash wine that was released before its time - with an artificial cork and an attitude that suggests it's out on parole. That's a good thing. There's no complexity, just in-your-face fruit. Use it to slosh down hamburgers or pizza.

2002 Goats Do Roam, the Wines of Charles Back ($9). This well-distributed wine has apparently put the French government's nose out of joint because of its wordplay (Cotes-du-Rhone, get it?). Pierre should get a sense of humor because this is a worthy Rhone-style wine with lots of earthy fruit and burly charm. It does honor to the original.

2002 Oracle of the Sun Shiraz, Western Cape ($7). The Oracle is back with another fine value - a simple but satisfying rustic red with lots of blackberry and plum flavor.

Some of the wines in the tasting were undistinguished, and a few were downright wretched. And like the rest of the wine world, South Africa struggles with the demon of tainted corks. Two wines - out of about 20 - were contaminated.

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