This column marks 10 years for me in this Most Excellent Job, raising the question: In which country have we seen the most momentous development during the past decade? Strong candidates include the emergence or re-emergence of Austria, Greece and Spain (from, respectively, scandal, obscurity and insularity).
Also quite important are the commercial success of Australia and the expansion of excellence beyond Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Argentina and Chile have made extraordinary progress and have (or should have) producers around the world quaking.
However, my vote goes to South Africa, which resumed sales to America roughly a decade ago and has since improved its wines at a pace that is nothing short of astonishing.
A trickle of South African wines began reappearing here after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and they started to arrive in significant numbers after he was elected president in 1994. The wines were eagerly anticipated, since South Africa was not an upstart producer but rather a country with a vinous history extending back to the 1650s.
Yet, the first wave of wines to hit our shores looked less like the development of a decade than a bitter disappointment. Many wines simply did not measure up after years away from the rigors of international competition because of anti-apartheid sanctions. A high percentage of bottlings were marred by outmoded production techniques, unattractive packaging or heat damage suffered in transit.
Nevertheless, this rocky start was followed by a remarkable recovery. A commercial shakeout removed most of the disappointing products from circulation, and more careful importers replaced them with wines that are much more consistent and attractive in all respects. Packaging and product integrity are now vastly improved, but the most exciting characteristic of the wines as a group is their uncanny combination of the moderately ripe restraint of European wines with the vibrant fruit and soft texture of New World wines.
The wines that best exemplify this valuable profile are blended reds, sometimes referred to as "Cape Blends." Blending wines made from different grapes enables winemakers to achieve greater consistency from year to year while also striking a balance between Old World structure and New World fruitiness. Blended reds are rapidly emerging as the calling-cards wines of South Africa, and the best current releases are reviewed in order of preference below, with growing regions, approximate prices and American importers indicated in parentheses. These blends offer excellent quality and value.
But South Africa has many other eye-opening wines, so I'll be back in two weeks with wonderful Sauvignon Blancs and in four weeks with the best of the rest.
Darling Cellars (Groenekloof) "Onyx Kroon" 2001 ($25, Loest & McNamee): This marvelous Pinotage/Syrah blend is built on very deep and intense fruit with notes of blackberries and black currants, braced by well-measured oak. Explosively flavorful but civilized, this is great now and sure to improve for another five years.
Rust en Vrede (Stellenbosch) 2001 ($33, Vineyard Brands): A dynamite blend of 53 percent Cabernet, 35 percent Shiraz and 12 percent Merlot, this features red berry and black cherry fruit with balanced notes of spices and vanilla.
Rustenberg (Stellenbosch) "John X. Merriman" 2001 ($32, Cape Classics): This blend of 53 percent Merlot and 42 percent Cabernet Sauvignon also has a 5 percent dash of Cabernet Franc and is extremely impressive in terms of color and flavor. Muscular but balanced.
La Motte (Franschhoek Valley) "Musique" 1999 ($22, Confluence Wine Importers): A classic Bordeaux blend of 37 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Malbec, this is woody when first opened but smooths out within an hour to show rich, soft, dark berry fruit with oak accents.
Springfield Estate (Robertson) "The Work of Time" 2001 ($31, Country Vintner): A blend of unspecified composition, this shows impressive concentration and tannins that provide backbone but no hardness or astringency. Energetic but smooth.
Rupert & Rothschild (Coastal Region) "Classique" 2001 ($21, Caravelle): Very soft and showy, with lots of succulent ripe fruit and accent notes from oak.
Warwick (Stellenbosch) "Estate Reserve" 2000 ($32, Broadbent Selections): Deep, concentrated fruit is backed with lots of smoky oak that lends vanilla and spice notes to the basic berry and black cherry flavors.
Delheim (Simonsberg, Stellenbosch) "Grand Reserve" 2000 ($29, Fairest Cape Beverage Co.): Dark, intense, assertive stuff, with intense dark fruit notes and nice oak edging.
Kaapzicht (Stellenbosch) "Estate Red" 2002 ($14, Fairest Cape Beverage Co.): Formidable but not hard, this features delicious dark berry fruit with light oak and soft tannins that make for a long finish.
Groot Constantia (Constantia) 2001 ($12, 57 Main Street): A lovely wine and a terrific value, this shows very strong materials and excellent winemaking. Dark and quite rich, but still soft and juicy.
Umkhulu (Stellenbosch) "Titan" 2001 ($17, AIDC): A blend of 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot, 11 percent Cabernet Franc and 7 percent Malbec, this shows lots of power but remains balanced and classy.
Laborie (Paarl) Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($12, 57 Main Street): The blend here is 60/40 and the results are superb. With open, expressive plum and berry fruit supported by lightly spicy oak, this tastes more like a $20 bottle.
Charles Back (Western Cape) "Goat Roti" 2002 ($16.50, Vineyard Brands): This tastes closer to South Australia than the Northern Rhone, but with soft, ultra-ripe fruit firmed by seriously spicy oak, nobody will be inclined to quibble.
KWV (Western Cape) "Roodeberg" 2002 ($12, 57 Main Street): This wonderful bargain is based on fruit that recalls plums and red berries. With delicate accents of cedar and spices, it is admirably versatile with food.
Warwick (Stellenbosch) "Three Cape Ladies" 2001 ($25, Broadbent Selections): Soft and supple but sufficiently robust to work well with food, this wine offers blackberry and red cherry fruit with subtle oak and pleasant texture.
Le Riche (Stellenbosch) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2001 ($22, Confluence Wine Importers): Bradgate (Stellenbosch) Cabernet/Merlot/Shiraz 2003 ($10, Vinovative); Graham Beck (Western Cape) Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon "Railroad Red" 2002 ($10, Country Vintner); Guardian Peak (Western Cape) "Frontier"2002 ($9, Vineyard Brands); Charles Back (Paarl) "Goats do Roam" 2002 ($8.50, Vineyard Brands); Robert's Rock (Western Cape) Shiraz/Malbec 2001 ($7, 57 Main Street).
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.