At one time, some of the most exotic wines you could enjoy came from South Africa. They were exotic because they were unavailable here during the apartheid period, when trade sanctions kept the wine from the U.S. market.
I had my first taste of South African wine during a trip to Ireland and I was captivated. The exotic spins on familiar flavors were a revelation.
Thankfully, apartheid is gone and South African wines are widely available throughout the United States. Many of the wines are economically priced and worth exploring for those who want to expand their palates.
The history of South African wines dates to 1659. Jan van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Co., established a supply station at what is now Cape Town in 1652 so the company’s fleets traveling to and from the Far East had a place to refresh their crews and re-provision their ships.
Van Riebeeck, a surgeon by training, was given the task of managing the station and planting vineyards to produce wine and grapes to help sailors ward off scurvy during long sea voyages. He produced his first wine in 1659.
The industry grew and, by 1778, South Africa had perfected a dessert wine made from native Muscat grapes that became a European favorite. But that wine notwithstanding, the industry traded quality for quantity and bulk wines became the norm. When South Africa emerged from apartheid in 1994, the country’s winemakers found out just how out of step with the global market they had become — and their emphasis has been on higher quality and individual varietals ever since.
Regions and their grapes
South Africa’s many wine regions, like the country itself, hug the southern tip of the African continent, with frontage on both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The area’s mountains, arid regions and urban environments give each of the wine regions distinct characteristics. There are about 60 appellations indicating where a wine’s grapes were grown under South Africa’s Wine of Origin classification system.
The climate tends to be Mediterranean-like, and the bright sun and dry atmosphere demand vineyard irrigation in most regions. South African wines are produced from a variety of familiar cultivars, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, chardonnay, Riesling and sauvignon blanc, which comprise the bulk of the wines produced.
The vineyards also grow Chenin Blanc (the most planted varietal), Crouchen, Palomino, Trebbiano, Semillion and Muscat of Alexandria, the grape that produced the famed dessert wines. South Africa also has its own hybrid. Pinotage, a blend of pinot noir and Cinsault, once comprised nearly 7.5 percent of the country’s vineyards, but that number has since fallen slightly as the country seeks to be more competitive in the marketplace.
The current crop includes wines for almost every taste. Here are a few worth trying.
• Beyond Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($12) blends the grapes’ tropical fruit flavors with an edge of minerality and herbal notes. Think passion fruit, kiwi and lime for this wine made from grapes hailing from several regions.
• Edgebaston Honey Shale Hill 2014 ($15) from the famed Stellenbosch region blends sauvignon blanc (57 percent), chardonnay (29 percent), Semillion (7 percent), and Viognier (7 percent). Tropical notes combine with floral overtones to create a wine with a creamy mouthfeel cut with acidity to keep the flavors full and the palate vibrant.
• DeMorgenzon DMZ Chardonnay 2014 ($17), aged in both stainless steel and French oak barrels, builds on its tropical fruit foundation with strong chardonnay characteristics. Expect peach and pineapple flavors to be complemented by notes of vanilla, caramel and toast.
• Glen Carlou Chardonnay 2014 ($19) follows the same flavor threads as DMZ, but with a creamy mouthfeel and a more comprehensive oak presence. Hints of citrus and stone fruits appear on the palate.
• Edgebaston The Pepper Pot 2014 ($15) follows the Stellenbosch winery’s penchant for blending. Syrah (80 percent), Tannat (11 percent) Mouvedre (6 percent) and Grenache (3 percent) create a blend of white pepper and cloves with raspberry and plum and a whiff of vanilla from aging in American and French oak. This one sparks the palate.
• Indaba Mosaic 2015 ($11) is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (74 percent), Petit Verdot (12 percent), merlot (7 percent) and Malbec (7 percent). The wine speaks with a palate of black currants, dark chocolates and subtle spice that coats the palate and begs another sip.
• Kanonkop Kadette 2013 ($15) builds on a basis of the native Pinotage grape (54 percent), adding cabernet sauvignon (29 percent), merlot (10 percent) and Cabernet Franc (7 percent) to the blend. The Stellenbosch wine embraces the Bordeaux character, but with a distinctly smoky, even earthy character.
• Glen Carlou Grand Classique 2012 ($19) is another oak-aged Bordeaux-like blend of cabernet sauvignon (50 percent), Malbec (20 percent), merlot (13 percent), Petit Verdot (9 percent) and Cabernet Franc (8 percent). Smooth and supple on the palate with concentrated flavors of ripe plum, cloves and cinnamon, the wine is both complex and elegant.
• Painted Wolf “Guillermo” Pinotage 2011 ($20) is a full dose of South Africa’s signature grape aged in a mix of French, Hungarian and American oak. Flavors of mulberry, blueberry, vanilla and exotic spices help this wine stand apart from the crowd.
The Appetizer Restaurant Listings
Silver Spring House
Bustling long-running bar and grill offering draft beers, pub grub and American food. Monday all-you-can-eat ribs; Wednesday & Saturday, prime rib dinners; Friday, fish fry.
6655 N. Green Bay Ave., Glendale, 414-352-3920; silverspringhouse.net
Screaming Tuna Restaurant
Sushi with a view: Casual Asian-fusion bistro known for tuna but also succulent steaks to vegan- and gluten-friendly. World-class sakes and wines to locally sourced beers and craft cocktails.
106 W. Seeboth St. Milwaukee, 414-763-1637; screamingtuna.com
Specializing in ribs & choice steaks. Happy Hour runs from 2–6, Sunday–Thursday. $3.00 calls & imports. Karoke Thursdays. Private party room for parties.
8900 S. 27th Street, Oak Creek, 414-761-7611; jimdandyspub.com
Award-winning food, authentic Irish specialties, signature burgers, Friday Fish Fry, 21 HDTV’s for all your sporting events. $4.00 Bloody Mary’s every Sunday.
8933 S 27th St, Franklin, WI, (414) 304-0300; mulliganson27th.com
French restaurant. Fresh fish daily. Reasonably priced wines. Excellent service.
4313 W. River Lane, Brown Deer, 414-354-1995; pastichebistro.com