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Wine: Tooting the horn for South Africa

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

While watching the World Cup, why not kick back and hoist a cupful of wine from the host country? South Africa makes some delicious wines, especially whites, and can make a case for producing some of the world's best chenin blancs.

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Chenin blanc is an under-appreciated wine grape variety, a fact that vexes many sommeliers who love its minerality, expressiveness and compatibility with a broad range of foods. Consumers, however, often shy away from it, probably because of its variability. Chenin blanc can be bone-dry or honeyed; too often, it is somewhere in the indistinct middle range. When there's no easy way to know what's in the bottle, can you blame people for sticking with chardonnay? In the grape's homeland, France's Loire Valley, a dizzying array of appellation names makes chenin extra tricky to sort out (although I would argue that it's worth the effort to do so).

"Most people assume that chenin blanc is always sweet," says Kathy Morgan, sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. The better examples from the Loire Valley "combine searing acidity with seriously funky earth, which makes them great food wines but difficult to drink by themselves," she says. "South Africa, because of its warmer climate, produces chenin blanc with lower acidity and higher alcohol. And that makes it more accessible."

That is good news. South Africa's chenin blanc, sometimes called Steen there, tends to be dry without challenging palates with the Loire's "funky earth."

The quality of those I've tasted recently -- straightforward quaffs as well as more complex examples -- has been consistently good. Best of all, they are terrific values.

South Africa has also earned critical acclaim in recent years for its sauvignon blancs. These tend to be aggressively grassy, in the style New Zealand winemakers favored a few years back before they discovered the merits of complexity and nuance. So if you favor that style, those wines are worth exploring. The quality, however, is not consistent. One highly rated sauvignon blanc had me reliving a childhood nightmare involving canned peas.

But the chenin blancs are delightful. They include unoaked versions fermented and aged in stainless-steel tanks, which feature crisp acidity and citrusy notes, and fleshier wines that hint of a few months' aging in used barrels, or "neutral oak," as the marketing lingo prefers. The barrel treatment gives body without much oak flavor, trading freshness for complexity.

And as you sip them along with your World Cup buffet, during a lull in the action you might discover how well these wines pair with all sorts of food. You might even want to pick up a vuvuzela and toot their merits for the neighborhood to hear.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dmwine.



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