The Best of South Africa

My annual tasting of new releases from South Africa made it abundantly clear that a small but steadily growing number of estates are crafting predictably good and in some cases excellent wines. Prices for many of South Africa's top bottles now exceed $20 on retail shelves, but the best of these offer reasonable value in today's market. Among the most important forces driving quality higher on the Cape wine scene since the early 1990s has been the replacement of virused vines by grafting over new vines onto virus-free rootstock, or simply via replanting. In the process, many white grapes, especially chenin blanc, which represented 34% of land under vine as recently as 1990, have been supplanted by internationally popular reds like merlot and cabernet sauvignon. One major benefit of the new, healthier vines is their ability to produce riper fruit as much as two to three weeks earlier than previously, fruit that's less likely to show the green or tea-like flavors that have plagued South Africa's wine grapes in the past. Wineries that began this process early were able to take maximum advantage of the above-average vintage conditions of '97 and '98.

In addition, as more and more producers in South Africa become intimately familiar with the wines they compete against in international markets, they have increasingly taken steps to cut yields, modernize their winemaking facilities and bring in consulting winemakers from Europe, California and New Zealand. There is currently a glut of grapes, especially whites, at the low end of the market, but this oversupply is far less of a factor at the level of top-quality fruit, where prices remain firm. In fact, many of the top estates in the Stellenbosch region, barely 30 miles east of Capetown itself, suffered substantial loss of vines this year in a series of Los Angeles-style brush fires, fanned by gale-force wines, that burned out of control in mid-January during a period of baking heat.

Recent vintages. 1999 was a hot, dry year that produced rich red wines but was brutal for white grapes from non-irrigated sites, especially sauvignon blanc. The experience of this vintage prompted Mulderbosch, producer of South Africa's most consistently excellent sauvignon blanc, to install drip irrigation. 1998 was a more classic vintage featuring a longer, cooler growing season, and was especially strong for white wines, which show excellent intensity and varietal character. 1997 produced numerous blockbuster reds from small grapes; these wines possess substantial but mostly sweet tannins.

I recently sampled a host of wines mostly from smaller domains (as opposed to large co-ops that still have an important presence on the local scene). Upwards of 75% of the best Cape wines in the U.S. market come by way of two importers, Cape Ventures (Stamford, CT) and Cape Classics (New York, NY), as you will see in the notes, which are limited to wines I scored 85 points or higher. In my lists of other wines tasted, those that rated 83 or 84 points are marked with asterisks.