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Wine Memory Lane: South Africa

"I'd never even heard of South African wine before!" said the woman sitting in front of me. "What is Pinotage?"

The woman untouched by Pinotage and I were the first two attendees at Taste the World – South Africa, a seminar presented by Dr. Anita Oberholster of UC Davis' Department of Viticulture and Enology. This was the third and last in a series of wine seminars benefiting Broadening Horizons, a new initiative by the Departments of Viticulture and Enology and Food Science and Technology to increase enrollment of historically underserved student populations. Davis's Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a renowned wine chemist, explained that the program gives enology faculty the chance to convince potential Andy Ericksons that winemaking is the perfect intersection between creativity and chemistry. (Exhibit A: Pinotage is "native" to South Africa in that a professor at the University of Stellenbosch created it by crossing the varieties Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.)

Seated in a classroom at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science, I was feeling nostalgic – the Western Cape of South Africa is the place where I fell in love with wine 10 years ago.

The tasting sheet before me was a time machine. Hamilton Russell was a vineyard I'd visited on that fateful trip. I wrote about it in my first published article about wine. When I worked at Sherry-Lehmann, my first job in wine, Buitenverwachting was a label I sold to customers charmed by the producer's name, Dutch for "beyond expectation." Klein Constantia was the wine I could only imagine the taste of when I read that it could cure a broken heart in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

Nearly every other recognizable South African producer's wine was also poured at this event, where Dr. Oberholster did a fabulous job of explaining the country's geography and history as related to wine production. Although South Africa is lumped into the New World, I was surprised to hear that grapes had been grown in the country since the 1600s.

"We think that Chenin Blanc reached South Africa during the era of Jan Van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape of Good Hope. Now, the Dutch aren't known for grape growing. But Chenin flourished because of its versatility and adaptability to different conditions, as well as good resistance to disease," Dr. Oberholster later wrote to me. Chenin is as crowd-pleasing as a grape gets, as it can be made into a variety of wine styles. If you're new to South African wine, I'd certainly start there. The example we tasted was from Graham Beck and would please lovers of zesty Sauvignon Blanc and fuller renditions of Chardonnay alike.

The other grape that grows prolifically in South Africa is Pinotage. Created to have the flavors and aromas of a Pinot Noir with the color and body of Cinsaut. Despite a somewhat negative reputation, South African winemakers are doing their best to show Pinotage's potential. Diemersfontein, one of the producers we tried, makes a very popular rendition known as the "coffee Pinotage." The winery specially selects barrels and specifies toasting to make its Pinotage smell like coffee. Smart move, as the whims of the growing season don't register in the final product. Other versions I've found can mimic characteristics of Northern Rhône reds with their feral aromas and undertones of dark chocolate. Not for everyone, but no wine should try to be.

Yet for the incredible breadth of wine it produces, the South African wine industry is struggling. Domestic wine consumption is tiny compared to beer and brandy, and international consumers have been slow to embrace South African labels.

"The problem is also that exports consist largely of wine in the basic price categories. This is partly due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to obtain a footing in an international market, especially in the mid-premium price range," explained Dr. Oberholster. "I think that the industry in South Africa can do more to advertise the wine industry overseas. Although individual wineries are attempting this by taking part in international wine events, I think if the government and the wine industry stand together to do this for the industry as a whole, it will benefit all."

So do your part. Until you taste it, you never know which wine might change your life.