The Best New Wines from South Africa

As an antidote to high Burgundy prices, I offer my most extensive coverage to date on the best new releases from South Africa, a category that now merits the active interest of serious wine lovers in search of very good wine at reasonable prices. Barely five years ago, it was possible to taste 100 or more wines without finding one that merited an outstanding rating. But South African wine has upgraded considerably since then, and in my recent tastings I uncovered upwards of two dozen outstanding bottles, many priced in the $12 to $20 range. Not only has grape-growing and winemaking undergone rapid improvement, but more of South Africa top estates are now represented in the U.S. market. The best news of all is that retail prices here for South African wines have been essentially flat in recent years, due to a decline in the value of the South African currency against the U.S. dollar. Importers have enjoyed wider margins while consumers continue to pay the same prices for wines of steadily improving quality during a period when most other wine prices have escalated. For those who have not yet discovered South African wine, now is a very good time.

The 1998 through 2001 period brought four very warm growing seasons conducive to making rich, ripe red wines. While most white wines produced in 1998, 1999 and 2000 lacked real flavor intensity and verve, the most recent vintage, 2001, in spite of a series of hot spells before and during the harvest, appears to have yielded excellent whites as well as reds, including the best crop of sauvignon blancs I've yet tasted from South Africa. Today's better sauvignons are riper and more substantial than formerly, some of them reminding me of examples from New Zealand in their combination of varietal character, brisk acidity and density of texture. They are generally priced in the extremely reasonable $12 to $15 range.

Shiraz and pinotage bottlings also figured among the best South African wines I tasted this winter. I sampled more shirazes than ever before that show accurate varietal aromas and noteworthy complexity. These wines are sweeter and fleshier in their youth than examples from the Rhone Valley but firmer-edged and less extravagant than most of the new-wave shiraz bottlings from Australia; in short, they are distinctively South African. Perhaps the quintessential South African wine is pinotage, the cross between pinot noir and cinsault developed in 1925 at Stellenbosch University. As recently as the early 1990s, most pinotage was distinctly rustic and dry. However, with each passing vintage, a growing number of wineries are making pinotage in a more modern style that preserves fresh fruit: they are harvesting their grapes earlier, before overripeness sets in; they are vinifying at cooler temperatures; and they are using a higher percentage of better-quality French barrels to age the wines. The best of these bottlings possess dense but sappy fruit while retaining pinotage's distinctive varietal notes of smoked meat, leather, iron and burning tobacco. Many of these newer-style pinotages can be found in the retail market for $15 or less, making them stunning value.