Let’s play what I call the “Fold the Atlas” game. Split the globe along the equator and between 30 and 45 degrees north and south latitude.
Note that the great winegrowing regions of the Northern Hemisphere — Europe and northern California — nearly mirror those of the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile/ Argentina and South Africa. Great grapes grow in both climatic bands.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that South Africa is included in discussions about some of the world’s best wines. This land known for its mining and exotic wildlife also grows beautiful vines.
Earlier mariners saw good conditions for vineyard production near the Cape of Good Hope, mostly as a means to restock and to alleviate the anguish of scurvy during long ocean voyages. The warm coastal areas near Cape Town, Breede River Valley and the Boberg region are ideally suited to grow a number of white and red grapes, including, on the white side, Steen (local name for chenin blanc), Hanepoot (muscat), columbard, sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay; and cinsaut, cabernet sauvignon, pinotage, syrah, merlot, cabernet franc and pinot noir among the reds.
Nowadays, South Africa is best known for its clean, fruit-centric syrah, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc.
I think the wines serve as a nice change of pace from their domestic and Australian counterparts. “Terroir,” the French term for sense of place affecting a wine’s character, absolutely comes into play here. Both the Atlantic and Indian oceans influence the coastal areas with regular fog, cooling breezes and bright sunshine.
Inland areas can be hot, which increases sugar and thus alcohol levels. Soils vary from shale and sandstone to gravel and sand mixes. It’s a small place with lots of options.
A quick scan of the wine cellar at AJ’s Fine Foods in Chandler shows half a dozen top brands from South Africa, including Backsberg, KWV (the nation’s largest cooperative), Clos Malverne, Cathedral Cellars, Robert’s Rock and Mont Rochelle.
And as AJ’s wine pro Clyde Schachner says, the wines are noted for good value.
“But the wines are not always available,” he says.
A quick sip of pinotage from Clos Malverne shows lots of ripe plum, berries and wood-spice impressions, a big, fruity wine with good structure. Let’s fire up the grill with this one.
Finally, there are terms you need to be familiar with when shopping for wines from South Africa. Regulatory markings on the bottles ensure the quality of what you’re buying. Wine of Origin, or WO from a particular region, emphasizes grape variety and truth in labeling requirements. Think of Italy’s D.O.C. or France’s A.O.C.
For example, a bottle of pinot noir with the Stellenbosch WO designation is required to be made of 85 percent pinot noir from that region if exported (75 percent inside the country). This is a good thing.
These designations ensure that you get what you pay for.
So when you’re talking about wines to consider going forward, don’t let geography throw you for a loop. Add South Africa to the fold.
Winemakers from Down Under continue to please our palates. The recent 2004 Shiraz-Grenache release from Rosemount Estates speaks to our penchant for rich, round, accessible fruit at a good price. This wine is a winner with nice berry-red fruit flavors and pleasant bakery-clove spice. It’s soft and creamy and delicious. $12.