South African wine has arrived. Smart wine buyers seeking good values and wine geeks looking for exciting discoveries are making their way to the rapidly expanding South African section of their wine store.
For the first time in, well, forever, delicious, distinctive South African Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs are showing up in U.S. wine stores at prices that are as surprising as the wines: $10 to $18 a bottle. Even South African Pinotage is making a comeback, this time without its notorious barnyard-in-a-bad-way funk.
What’s changed in South Africa? Everything. The new wines represent a massive transformation of the country’s insular, low-quality, high-volume wine industry that began two decades ago after the end of apartheid.
Young winemakers working with ancient, abandoned vineyards kicked off the revival. Devoted to organic, dry-farmed vineyard management, their wines showcased the potential buried in South Africa’s arid coastal climate and varied soils.
New generation of winemakers emerge
Following their lead, a new generation took the helm of the large, established wine houses and rose to the challenge of meeting international standards for wine quality. The combination is enabling the oldest non-European wine region in the world to rise above its plonky past.
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“A lot of things have come together for us,” says Eben Sadie, a leading winemaker working to revive the coastal Swartland region north of Cape Town. With 15 vintages under his belt, Sadie Family Wines is producing some of the most celebrated wines in South Africa’s 400 years of winemaking. Even though he limits his production to 4,000 cases a year, many of his wines are priced close to $60 a bottle, near the top of the market for South African wine.
“We don’t want to push prices up too high,” Sadie says. “South Africa has a place of its own on the wine shelf now. Even our most commercial bottlers — wine companies producing 500,000 cases — are making much better wine. There are great South African wines, amazing wines, for $20.”
Although wine writers are applauding the new South African wines — Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson christened them a “new era” for the country — few of them made it to the U.S. In 2014, South African wine exports to the U.S. surged 37% and are still climbing.
“There is a ton of good stuff here now,” says Ryan Woodhouse, the South African wine buyer for San Francisco-based K&L Wine Merchants. “The wines from South Africa’s old vineyards are liquid gold.”
Selling it, however, is an uphill battle. Many producers, including DGB of South Africa, one of the country’s largest wine companies with an extensive collection of properties, are entering the U.S. market for the first time. They have to build awareness of their brands from scratch. “It a big challenge,” says Niël Groenewald, chief winemaker at DGB’s Bellingham Collection. No one in the U.S. has ever heard of his wines. Still, Groenewald says, the company is “grabbing the opportunity.”
This is a pivotal moment, says Pascal Schildt, a U.S. importer specializing in the new South African wines. As a whole, South Africa hasn’t expanded its overall vineyard acreage, he says, with most vintners focusing instead on improving their farming and winemaking. If wine drinkers are disappointed this time around, they may not give South Africa another chance. “No one wants South Africa to just be a flavor of the month,” Schildt says.
Sadie isn’t worried. “We aren’t going backward from here.”
Shopping for new South African wines
Good value South African wines are easy to find if you shop at a trusted wine shop where the people behind the cash register understand the wines they sell. But beware of discount bins. Junk South African wines haven’t disappeared.
Top regions. Swartland is the hot spot; the wines of Western Cape, Paarl, Hermanus, Citrusdal Mountain, Stellenbosch and Walker Bay are also gaining acclaim.
Rising stars. South Africa’s best producers have made a decision to over-deliver, to produce wines that exceed expectations for the price. Look for Sadie Family Wines, Badenhorst Family Wines, Mullineux Family Wines, The Three Foxes, Fram Wines, Hederberg Winery and Botanica Wines.
Leading importers. Two companies stand out for their selection of top quality producers. Look for wines imported by Pascal Schildt and Broadbent Selections Inc. Also retailer K&L Wine Merchants is directly importing some choice South African wines available only in its stores.
I recently picked up a 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland. The initial fresh, light fruit flavors quickly dissolved into a rich complexity that lingered far longer than I had any right to expect for $13.
Another gem was a 2012 False Bay Pinotage from a region slightly south of Swartland on the West Cape. It also was a fresh tasting, balanced wine. The bonus this time was a sophisticated earthiness that made it a steal at $15.
Main photo: Adi Badenhorst, one of the new generation of winemakers at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa. Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines