I tried to drink an entire country: South Africa. Not a good idea. Too big, too many wines.
I soon figured out that a better approach was to pick representative wines - three reds, three whites and a dessert wine - that I would want to repeatedly pour in my glass.
For whites, those turned out to be Kanu Chenin Blanc 2004 ($10), Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($24) and Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($17). Reds were Dieu Donne Pinotage 2001 ($17), Graham Beck Pinno 2004 ($10) and Kanonkop Kadette 2003 ($17). For dessert, it was Robertson Almond Grove Riesling Noble Late Harvest 2003 ($14).
I was drawn to South African wines for several reasons. The value of the few I had sampled, such as an Indaba Chenin Blanc at Timothy Dean's restaurant in East Baltimore, had impressed me.
I also loved the colorful names of the wineries. Kanu is a mythical bird of good fortune. Indaba is a Zulu forum for sharing ideas. Kanonkop roughly translates as cannon hill, a reference to the time when cannons were fired to signal the arrival of Dutch ships in the Cape Town harbor.
Climate envy also figured in my choice. It is a dark winter in Baltimore, but in South Africa it is balmy summertime. I convinced myself that sipping South African wines could bring a little sunshine into my dreary landscape.
So I pulled a lot of corks and tapped the knowledge of several local wine merchants. I spent time talking and sipping with Craig Salemi at the Wine Underground in Roland Park, with Peter Wood and Peter Van Buren at the Wine Source in Hampden and with Jay Miller, proprietor of Bin 604 at the Inner Harbor.
I read the 2005 edition of the John Platter South African Wine Guide and the South African section of Anthony Dias Blue's Pocket Guide to Wine 2006. I also got some tasting help and perspective from Michael Hill, my colleague at The Sun who in the 1990s was the newspaper's correspondent in South Africa.
From these sources I surmised that among the South African white wines, chenin blanc - sometimes called Steen - was an in-country favorite. On the red side, wines made with Pinotage, a South African grape that was a cross between pinot noir and Cinsaut, were among the country's distinct offerings.
I tasted a lot of chenin blancs and, frankly, did not care for many of them. My favorite was a Kanu 2004. With its clean, simple flavor and green-apple notes, this was a wine that struck me as one meant to be sipped on a patio while I was nibbling on goat cheese and basking in warm sunshine.
I got along much better with the sauvignon blancs. Miller of Bin 604 is a fan of these South African whites, which he says are much riper and fuller-tasting than the popular sauvignon blancs from New Zealand.
He steered me toward the Mulderbosch 2005, and I was glad he did. This pale-gold beauty delivered delightful acidity. Sipping it turned my mood sunny.
My favorite, however, was the Neil Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2004. This wine had more fruit flavor than other sauvignon blancs and possessed a quality many of us envy - great body. At $17, it was a good value.
When tasting the reds made with Pinotage, I learned not to trust my nose. The grape gives wines a strong, fruity aroma. When I first sniffed it, I thought "cheap red wine," a beverage I was very familiar with in college.
Under Salemi's tutelage I began to regard this Pinotage perfume as a mark of distinction, something that lets you know the wine is from South Africa. In picking your first Pinotage, Salemi said, you should stay around the $15 to $20 mark. South African red wines cheaper than that are so strong they tend to scare first-timers, he said.
I learned that given a little air time, this potent aroma burns off. Moreover, these Pinotage-laden reds tasted much better than they smelled. For instance, the Graham Beck Pinno 2004 that was wild and funky when I opened it on a Tuesday had become elegant and subdued by Wednesday.
So, too, with the Kanonkop Kadette. It behaved and tasted much better once it got out of the bottle and spent time in the open air. A glass of inky purple, Dieu Donne, which actually smelled pretty good, made me want to grab a hunk of lamb and roast it.
Finally, I was taken with the Robertson Almond Grove Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2003. This was an artful balance of fruit - I tasted pears - and acid, a pleasing end-of-the-meal beverage.
My foray into South African wines taught me that, given my tastes, I should steer toward the sauvignon blancs in the whites and Pinotage blends in the reds. While I won't hold my nose when I crack open the reds, I probably won't entirely trust my proboscis.
Five of the seven selections sampled from South Africa's wine regions.
Dieu Donne Pinotage 2001
Graham Beck Pinno 2004
Kanonkop Kadette 2003
Kanu Chenin Blanc 2004
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2005