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Cape of good wine

South Africa's wine odydssey


The average American lacks any strong feelings toward South African wine. Unlike its southern neighbors Australia, New Zealand and Chile, South Africa has yet to find a discernable market niche and some kind of identity for its exports. Maybe it needs a mascot like a koala or a penguin? There are so many to choose from--impala, springbok, ostrich or kudu? Unfortunately, South Africans eat all of these, blended into the many dishes of the local Cape Malay cuisine! Or could it be that the difficult Dutch and Africaan names stultify sales as they do for German and Austrian wines? Certainly Boekenhoutskloof, Vitkyk and Blaauwklippen don't exactly roll off the tongue.

But whether unpronounceable names, lack of a symbolic marketing theme, or the need for better public relations is the problem, I simply don't see many readers rushing out in search of a bottle of steen, pinotage or Roodeberg.

South Africa produces 3 percent of the world's wine output, placing it eighth in the scheme of things. In 1990, the percentage of white wine production compared to red was 85 percent to 15 percent. In 2005, the numbers are 60 percent red to 40 percent white; what a change in just 14 years! South African wine writer and guru John Platter calls it "the velvet revolution."

In 1998, South Africa's Integrated Production of Wine board instituted a huge program to inspire and convince vintners to produce all their wines organically without the use of pesticides or fungicides. To quote one of their mottos: "South African wines are healthy, clean and environmentally friendly." Could this become a South African gateway to international success?

In the 20th century, winemaking was largely controlled by the Kooperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging, thankfully shortened to the initials K.W.V. Beginning in 1918, the K.W.V. was established to settle three major areas: minimum pricing for South African table wines, prices for other grapes destined to be distilled into spirits, and the purchase of any surplus production. It was a protective device that worked reasonably well, but like most monolithic enterprises, it had its good and bad points.

The incentive to produce superior wine was squelched. In fact, South Africa was long known for the high quality--and low prices--of its everyday wines. They were practically all that was made. But when apartheid was finally abolished in 1992, there was a clamor by farmers to enter free markets, promote individual enterprise and export their finest products. This led to K.W.V.'s eventual loss of power in 1997, although many good wines continue to be made and exported with a K.W.V. label attached to them.

Success is not for lack of glamour or splendor. One look at the Boschendal Estate, 60 miles east of Capetown, will confirm that. Take a virtual tour at to see the extraordinary grandeur of the property and the stunning elegance of the 18th-century Manor House (with its thatched, bug-laden rooftop!). The name Boschendal comes from the Huguenot term "bossendaal" meaning "wood and dale." Sandwiched between the Groot (Great) Drakenstein and the Simonsberg mountain ranges, it is listed on South Africa's "National Historic Trust" as a gem of national pride, beauty and history.

Boschendal formally reopened to the public in 1976. Until recently, Boschendal was owned by South Africa's most famous and visible business venture--DeBeers, the diamond kings. In 2003, it was sold to a consortium of South African citizens that includes a 30 percent black economic empowerment investment. Originally founded in 1685, today's winery is ultra modern, with a vast cellar 20 feet underground filled with barrels stacked five high and 25 deep. This investment shows up in the winery's growing portfolio. Native winemaker J.C. Becker makes a wide range of whites and especially reds here in the Franschhoek (Little French Corner) Valley, a subregion of the larger Paarl district.

Boschendal wines tend to show their warm, sometimes very hot climatic conditions. The red wines are extremely ripe, close to jammy at best and swampy at worst. (This is a quality that plagues many South African reds.) Becker makes good wines that promise excitement in their bouquet but often don't deliver in the mouth. There's a hollowness and lack of substance on the palate that I feel sure can be remedied. In the 2001 Merlot Reserve the promise has already been fulfilled, and it shines with a unique bouquet and abundantly generous texture and flavor. Here are my tasting highlights:

2004 Sauvignon Blanc $14
Sweet pea, grassy, lemon tinged bouquet with a lilt of acidity. True, clean flavors, delectable and polished. Well made, if a bit too smooth for its own good. 85 points

2001 Syrah $17
Iron rich, almost sweet nose with overripe plum, anise, beet and earthiness. A touch of tobacco. Rather light in actual body. Seems overly processed without much heft. Smooth, direct, but tannic and a bit lean. 84

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon $15
A rich, round bouquet of warmth, mulberry and chocolately qualities. Herbal and a touch weedy. Flavors are very direct, but the bottom drops out. Little mid-palate weight or body. A good wine that promises better. 86

2001 Merlot Reserve $19
A ripe, fertile, lush hot climate merlot. Creamy, spicy, herbal nose with understated fruit essence--underbrush, plum, sweet earth, dark berry and cedar. Unique. Medium bodied with nice density and accessibility. Traipses lightly on the palate. 88 GOOD BUY

Boschendal, like many other South African properties, is slow to open its doors too widely. Clive Venning, CEO of Boschendal, expresses the future of the estate: "The plan for the development of Boschendal ... is not aggressive and is based on an 'as is' philosophy.... Buying into 'Boschendal The Estate' will be buying a slice of history and as such we would like South African investors to be the primary participants."

This stay at home, invest at home attitude is somewhat foreign to Western entrepreneurial spirit. There still seems to be a strong, yet quite understandable, isolationist pride: We will share our bounty--but not aggressively, and in our own fashion. This attitude creates a two-edged sword. Nobody, with the abundance of worldwide winemaking, really needs South African wines. However, they would certainly be welcomed on their merits by a slightly friendlier, more outreaching attitude.

Out of Africa
A number of other estate wines were included in my tasting. Here are the best:

2003 Chardonnay Baroness Nadine, Rupert and Rothschild $25
Vibrant fruit--apricot, fig and vanilla, with an underlying oak cushion. Clean, straight as an arrow flavors. Lacks complexity. A bit starchy on the finish. 84

2003 Chenin Blanc, Robertson Winery $8
What the South Africans used to call "steen," and was their favorite white wine for decades. This shows why. Pretty floral and tropical fruits on the nose. Like an island cocktail, but more subtle. Round and supple flavors enhanced by soft acids and an even texture. A dryish summer sipper and a friend to chicken salad. 86 GOOD VALUE

2004 Chenin Blanc, Villiera $12
Brisk and lively fruit acids on the nose. Extremely clean, crisp flavors--total refreshment and tinged with a lemon ending tang. Doesn't fit the general perception of chenin blanc, even from the driest Vouvray. 86

2003 Chardonnay, Glen Carlou $15
Spiced apple and cinnamon swirl around the rich bouquet. Well proportioned flavors, very appley with full but graceful body. It reminds me of an autumn festival. Perfect for pork ribs. 86

2004 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Robertson Winery $9
Pretty, light golden hue. Honeysuckle, jasmine and a garden of earthly delights greet you on the nose. Drinks like a German Auslese--pure pineapple and tropic flavors. Sweet, light and airy with surprisingly good acidity to keep it fresh. A summer evening after-dinner treat. 87 BEST BUY

1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kaapzicht $21
The "view of the cape" estate makes a broodingly dark cab that needs coaxing from the glass. Very concentrated and not the flatterer. It doesn't shout, but commands respect with its concentration, and dusky components that grow in the glass. Sort of a South African St. Estephe. A good red to ponder by. 87

2002 Shiraz, Number One Constitution Road, Robertson Winery $29
Heady and unctuous with a heavenly bouquet of raspberry, toffee laced fruit. Here's a grand red without the slightest suggestion of overripeness. Pure, unfunky and dead-on gorgeous. Fabulous mouth feel with focus, and a long, caramel-like richness. Not overly complex, but complete. 92 GREAT VALUE

Word does travel fast when quality reaches the highest levels. Some South African estates are show stoppers and, subsequently, in short supply. Wineries such as De Trafford, Kanonkop, Klein (Little) Costantia, Mulderbosch, Neil Ellis and Rustenberg all produce some memorable wines, wines that are snapped up coming in and out of our market quickly. The wines of Ernie Els have not arrived yet, and maybe a star golfer might be one key to generating excitement for South Africa. (But at a high price!) One great estate that has just arrived is Vergelegen, perhaps the Cape's hottest property for "world-class" wines. I can't wait to try them.

Great Grapes
It's time for another installment of the Great Grapes Wine, Arts and Food Festival, taking place from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 16 at the Amphitheatre at Regency Park in Cary. It includes over 200 North Carolina wines for your tasting pleasure, plus a rich assortment of varied, tantalizing foods: vegetarian grain salads and smoky mint lamb ribs, shrimp ceviche and proprietary extra virgin olive oils, a Ben & Jerry's sundae extravaganza. This is a great time (I went last year), and it's only $20 per person. Advance tickets are $15. Call 1-800-830-3976 extension 108, or go online at x

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