One of the biggest stories in the wine world for the past decade has been the rise of South Africa as a source of excellent, high-value wines. Although the phenomenon is important, its full significance remains unclear, for the simple reason that the rise is still underway and the ascent still remarkably rapid.
I've been tracking these wines closely since they returned to markets here in noteworthy numbers after Nelson Mandela's presidential inauguration in 1994, and each year sees the arrival of dozens of delicious new wines. I'm currently at work (if you can call it that) on more than 300 current releases and am finding that South Africa can compete with wines ranging from reds to whites to sparklers to stickies, and can do it at both entry-level prices and at the high end.
I'll be back in two weeks with recommendations of top South African wines from an assortment of categories, but today I want to focus on Sauvignon Blanc. South Africa's Sauvignons are among the world's best and most fairly priced renditions, and the sheer number of exemplary wines produced across different appellations and vintages proves that the area around the Cape of Good Hope is one of the prime places on the globe for growing grapes and making wine.
Sauvignons from the general Cape area tend to be medium-bodied, with more ripeness and textural "flesh" than wines like Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from France's Loire Valley. With respect to weight, they are thus closer in a French context to Sauvignon Blanc-based wines from Bordeaux. However, they are rarely blended with Semillon or aged in oak, so those looking for parallels are better off turning toward the New World.
New Zealand offers some plausible likenesses, but South African Sauvignons are usually a bit less acidic than those from Marlborough, and you'll find closer counterparts from warmer regions like Hawkes Bay or Gisborne that produce riper wines. California comes close to the general South African profile in terms of ripeness, but South Africa's Sauvignons usually have better definition and "cut" thanks to more abundant acidity and less frequent use of either oak or malolactic fermentation.
Since none of these comparisons quite hit the mark, you can conclude that South Africa's Sauvignons are distinctive wines that must be tasted on their own terms to be appreciated properly. Toward that end, here are the top wines from my recent tastings in order of preference, with regions of origin, approximate prices and U.S. importers indicated in parentheses:
Mulderbosch (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($24, Cape Classics): This benchmark wine is about as good as Sauvignon Blanc gets -- from anyplace on the globe. Ripe and generous but still edgy and refreshing, this combines melon and citrus fruit with light herbal notes and superbly balanced acidity.
Sincerely (Neil Ellis Wines)(Coastal Region) 2003 ($11, Vineyard Brands): The back label quotes Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832) to the effect that "imitation is the sincerest flattery," and this clever, subtle homage to Sancerre is very flattering indeed. It is fresh and flinty, with great minerality lending remarkable class to the very flavorful fruit. A beautiful wine and a great idea perfectly executed.
Buitenverwachting (Constantia) 2003 ($25, Cape Classics): Here's a mouthful for you, both on the label and within the bottle. The wine is excellent in every respect, from the citrus and melon aromatics with light herb and grass edging, to medium-bodied fruit with impressive depth of flavor, to the long finish poised between fruity generosity and acidic edging. Complete and convincing, this is superb stuff.
Fleur du Cap (Coastal Region) "Unfiltered" 2003 ($15, Maisons Marques & Domaines): The "unfiltered" bottling from Fleur du Cap is effectively a reserve wine. It features expressive, juicy fruit recalling melons and ripe citrus fruit and is very well balanced.
Alexanderfontein (Coastal Region) 2003 ($10, Southern Oceans): A phenomenal overachiever considering its low price, this offers pure, intense citrus fruit bolstered by zesty acidity, with sharply defined flavor and texture but not a trace of sourness.
Boschendal (Coastal Region) 2003 ($14, 57 Main St.): This very solid wine is quite ripe and rounded, but still shows fine definition from ripe acidity and good varietal character in the form of lightly herbal, grassy aromas.
Warwick (Simonsberg, Stellenbosch) "Professor Black" 2003 ($19, Broadbent Selections): With perfectly ripened fruit that shows both taut, acidic citrus notes and broader, riper notes of melon and stone fruits, this is a well-crafted wine built from excellent primary fruit.
Jardin (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($14, Vinovative): The Jardin wines are consistently strong, and this Sauvignon shows ripe, vivid fruit that is structured by fine acidity and light mineral notes.
Kanu (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($15, Cape Classics): This is not a complex wine requiring contemplation, but rather a deliciously simple and straightforward sipper that counterbalances delicious melon fruit with just the right little shot of refreshing acidity.
Southern Right (Western Cape) 2003 ($17, Vineyard Brands): This wine shows classic citrus fruit notes on a versatile, medium-bodied frame, with fresh flavors and a long, satisfying finish.
Groote Post (Coastal Region) 2003 ($12, Four Lakes): Flavorful and admirably complex, with interesting aromas of moderately ripe fruit augmented by aromas of freshly cut grass and grated citrus zest.
Springfield Estate (Robertson) "Life From Stone" 2003 ($19, Country Vintner): Fresh, with mineral notes working nicely with the zesty but fully ripe citrus fruit.
Fleur du Cap (Coastal Region) 2003 ($10, Maisons, Marques & Domaines); Ken Forrester (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($13, Loest & McNamee); Villiera (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($13, Fairest Cape); Iona (Elgin) 2003 ($22, Yellowwood Wine Co.); Boekenhoutskloof (Western Cape) "Porcupine Ridge" 2003 ($10, Vineyard Brands); Fairvalley (Fairview Workers Assn.) 2003 ($8, Vinovative); Nederburg (Western Cape) 2003 ($10, Dreyfus Ashby); Ridgeback (Paarl) 2003($11, AIDC); Graham Beck (Coastal Region) 2003 ($10, Country Vintner); Indaba (Western Cape) 2003 ($9, Cape Classics).
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.