Looking on the Sunny Side of South African Wines
Many years ago, when I moved to New York City, I was forced to earn my living from temp work. I say forced, but really I was lucky to have a job, with the limited skill set that I had. Unfortunately, though, it meant I was often placed into the positions that were the most monotonous.
Every once in a while, I caught a break.
I was lucky enough to land a long-term receptionist gig at The Standard Bank of South Africa. “Why would you be psyched about that?” you ask? Well, in South Africa, it’s all about Friday afternoons.
The first Friday I worked there, everyone suddenly disappeared at 1 p.m. I assumed the staff had gone home early, until I heard a noise from the kitchen. I popped my head in and saw the entire office sitting around getting wasted on South African wine.
Aside from my shock at a ritual that was, what I soon learned, the norm in South Africa, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a South African wine. My world was about to be rocked. Wines have been made in South Africa since the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that South African wines came into their own and began being exported in any significant amount.
If there is one grape that is more famous (and infamous) than any other in South Africa, it is pinotage. This grape was invented in 1925 by crossing the cinsault and pinot noir grapes. Pinot noir, being too fragile to grow in South Africa’s hot climate, was bolstered by cinsault’s hearty character in a plant that should have been a supergrape. Instead, it became the laughing stock of South African wine for decades to follow. Pinotage was almost always overly earthy on the palate with burnt, charcoal-like flavors. Any fruitiness tended to be underripe and sour.
Today, more and more truly great pinotages are being made, however. The Golden Kaan Pinotage 2010 ($14 at Garnet Wines and Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave., betw. 68th and 69th Sts., 212-772-3212, garnetwine.com) is an excellent example of just how far this upstart grape has come from its laboratory beginnings. This hearty red starts with smoky and leathery scents. The fruit flavors are bold, with mouthwatering dried cranberry notes and a spicy, smoked bacon finish. This is a great red all on its own but is even better with a plate of baby back ribs.
Chenin blanc, or “Steen,” as it is nicknamed there, is the grape that most exemplifies the South African white wine taste. Unfortunately, South Africa has failed to make a significant foothold in the international wine market. This has led many producers to panic and uproot their older, more intensely flavored chenin blanc vines and instead plant younger sauvignon blanc and chardonnay vines, in an effort to compete with these better known varietals from South America, Australia and New Zealand. This is unfortunate, because a great chenin blanc, like the Rudera “Teddy Hall” Chenin Blanc 2010, with its signature flavors of apple, pear and stone fruit, is inexpensive, delicious and uniquely South African.
Not only is sparkling wine being made in virtually every wine-producing area of the world, it is, in many cases, being made very well. Graham Beck Brut NV ($16.99 at Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits Merchants, 505 Park Ave., at 60th St., 212-838-7500, sherry-lehmann.com) is a nonvintage sparkling wine made using the same grapes used in Champagne (in this case a 54 percent chardonnay, 46 percent pinot noir mix) and the same method used to make Champagne, but at a sliver of the price. With rich citrusy flavors of orange and vanilla, this will make you feel like a high roller without having to peel off too much cabbage.
By the end of my short tenure at the Standard Bank of South Africa I had gained little in physical possessions, but my interest in South African wines had been piqued. It was definitely the most enjoyable temp job I ever had. Without a doubt, I never looked at the phrase “casual Fridays” the same way again.
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