The Best New Wines from South Africa

My most extensive tastings to date of recent wines from South Africa turned up numerous interesting new bottles, as well as a growing number of producers who have what it takes to compete on the world wine stage. But I needed to wade through nearly 300 currently available South African wines in order to recommend the 100+ bottles on the following pages. For every pleasant surprise in my recent series of group tastings, there were two or three disappointments. On literally dozens of occasions I spent time jotting down descriptions of interesting aromatics, then enjoyed the entry of a wine on my palate, only to be driven away by elevated acidity if not pronounced bitterness on the finish. Too many South African wines, especially merlots and cabernets, are made virtually undrinkable by excessive acidification. And many Cape wines are simply dilute. But for every few hard, tart, charmless reds in my recent group tastings, I'd run across one with ripe fruit, pliant texture, well-judged tannins and considerable appeal. Some of these wines offer excellent value.

Recent vintages. South Africa has had three consecutive very warm, dry years in '98, '99 and '00, all of which have favored red wines. In fact, the most recent vintage, 2000, may have brought the most extreme conditions of all. (Some readers may recall reports of Los Angeles-style brush fires in South Africa last January that affected a number of winemaking facilities and some vines, fanned by extended drought conditions and hot winds.) Making white wines with intensity and depth of flavor, much less varietal character, has often been a challenge in these hot years, but there are nevertheless a number of standouts. Nineteen ninety-seven, in contrast, witnessed a very long, cool growing season from which late pickers had the chance to make wines with uncommon balance, complexity and depth; the best of these wines should age well. The vintage before that, 1996, was a mostly dreadful year: the combination of a cool season, a record crop load, and rains during the harvest made for a mean set of wines. Incomprehensibly, several U.S. importers sent me samples from this vintage in recent months; I can only deduce that they haven't actually tasted these wines themselves.

Among the standouts in my recent tastings were numerous wines from importer Ken Onish (Southern Starz), some of which represent terrific value. Andre Shearer Cape Classics is the next best place to look for superior South African bottles. As to varieties, I was impressed by a number of sauvignon blancs and by a few chardonnays. Among reds, merlot is mostly weak, perhaps not quite as green as most examples from New Zealand but usually thin and lacking in character. Odds improve somewhat with cabernet and pinotage; in the case of the latter, more pinotages are being vinified to show fresh fruit, while a diminishing percentage remain dry, rustic, old-styled wines unlikely to win friends outside South Africa. Many of my favorite South African reds were shiraz, in some instances blended with cabernet.