My first job here is to point you toward great tasting wine. Nevertheless, I also hope to provide news about wine. Rarely does it happen, however, that I'm able to point to something that isn't a shift or an uptick but rather a seismic event. Yet, based on a recent set of comprehensive tastings, I'm able to report exactly such an event -- with an epicenter at the Cape of Good Hope.
As I have contended here recently, the biggest story in the wine world for the past decade has been the rise of South Africa as a source of excellent, high-value wines. This is not quite, to shift my metaphor into the sports arena, a "worst-to-first" turnaround story, but it is about as close an equivalent as one finds in the relatively slow-changing field of wine. South African wine can't fit the story line as an upstart, since it has been made for more than 350 years. Nor does it fit the bill as a formerly hapless competitor, since the wines weren't bad a decade ago but rather unavailable here due to anti-apartheid sanctions. Moreover, South Africa isn't quite "deep" enough yet to field a lineup ready to take on the teams from France and Italy.
But they are getting close and are doing so with breathtaking speed. The best red blends are simply fantastic and the top Sauvignon Blancs are among the world's very best (as I reported here four weeks and two weeks ago, respectively). I had intended to devote today's column to a best-of-the-rest wrap-up, but the result of my tastings of more than 300 wines is that I encountered far too many excellent wines to contain within a third article alone. I was frankly amazed at how the Syrah/Shiraz category has soared in quality in just the past couple of years, and I'll offer recommendations below on the very best of these, along with Cabernets and four excellent Chardonnays for white wine fans.
In two weeks, I'll be back with some of South Africa's most distinctive offerings, Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, as well as some wonderful Merlots, innovative white blends and luscious dessert wines. Recommended wines appear in order of preference within categories, with regions of origin, approximate prices, and importers indicated in parentheses:
Spice Route (Charles Back)(Swartland) "Flagship" 2000 Syrah ($36, Vineyard Brands): South African producers have made astonishing progress with this variety over the past few years and have arguably surpassed their counterparts in every country other than France and Australia. This bottling was the top performer (by a nose), with lovely aromas of dark berries accented with notes of spices, flowers, smoke and damp earth. Oak notes are tastefully restrained, and the wine is soft and charming for current consumption but likely to become even more complex with additional aging. Superb!
Boekenhoutskloof (Coastal Region) Syrah 2001 ($44, Vineyard Brands): This marvelous wine is built on big, concentrated, weighty fruit recalling blackberries and dark cherries. Smoky, spicy notes from oak are notable but not overly prominent, leaving the fantastic fruit in the forefront.
Onyx (Groenekloof) Shiraz 2002 ($20, Loest & McNamee): This big, burly wine also has surprising bright, fresh flavor accents and fine acidity that make it balanced rather than overripe or chunky. Impressive material deftly rendered.
Stony Brook (Coastal Region) Shiraz Reserve 2002 ($23, Confluence): I like to think that I'm not a sucker for ultra-ripe, high-alcohol wines that are gushy, soft, fruity and overt, but this wine is all of those things and the fact is that I loved it from my first whiff and sip. The ripe berry fruit is very dense and deeply flavored, with soft texture and fine balance.
La Motte (Franschhoek) Shiraz 2000 ($23, Confluence): This is a supremely elegant, delicate, subtle wine with a gorgeous core of dark cherry fruit. Judging from the gentle, intricate flavors, you'd never guess that the wine packs a punch of 14.5 percent alcohol. Seamlessly integrated, this is very impressive.
Fairview (Charles Back) (Swartland) "Jakalsfontein" Shiraz 2002 ($28, Vineyard Brands): This is a New World-style muscle wine, in contrast to Charles Back's Spice Route "Flagship" bottling, which leans much more toward the northern Rhone. It is deeply, intensely flavored, with oak notes that are assertive but effectively counterbalanced by the concentrated fruit.
Plaisir de Merle (Paarl) 2001 ($24, Dreyfus Ashby): All the wines from this producer are always immaculate, but I often find them too polished and domesticated for my personal taste. Perhaps because Cabernet's inherent intensity and angularity resist this, it is my top pick from this estate and, in 2001, it is indisputably wonderful. Seamless and very soft in the house style, but bearing flavors that are deep and durable (for more than 24 hours in an opened bottle), this is an extraordinary wine.
De Trafford (Stellenbosch) 2001 ($30, Boutique Wine Collection/Loest & McNamee): Excellent in all respects and very complete, this shows great depth of fruit and soft texture, but also real guts and structure.
Alexanderfontein (Coastal Region) 2001($15, Southern Oceans): Soft, juicy and unabashedly New World in style, this wine is nevertheless neither obvious nor simple, and at this price it is a worthy competitor to almost anything from California, Australia, Argentina or Chile.
Mulderbosch (Stellenbosch) 2002 ($28, Cape Classics): These people really, really know how to make wine. Their Sauvignon Blanc is routinely among the world's best, and this Chardonnay demonstrates great skill for crafting wines that are substantial but still sleek and refreshing. The expressive fruit is reminiscent of peaches and mangoes, with delicate notes of oak and minerals that lead into a long, symmetrical finish.
De Wetshof (Robertson) "Bon Vallon" 2002 ($15, 57 Main Street): One of two superb Chardonnays from this producer, this is the more affordable but, nevertheless, slightly more distinctive and interesting of the two. Peach-flavored fruit is vivid and very fresh, with an underlying citrus note and a very fine effervescent prickle lending lift and zestiness. This is a harbinger of world trends in Chardonnay production, as many producers are backing off from oak and malolactic fermentation to produce crackly, lifted renditions that will offer a welcome relief from the ubiquitous, buttery, "international style." The De Wetshof (Robertson)"Tosca" 2002 ($17) is a bit more substantial in weight and rounded in feel, but is still very fresh if not as piercingly edgy.
Springfield Estate (Robertson) "Wild Yeast" 2002 ($22, Country Vintner): This is actually a lightly sweet rather than a dry wine, and I rarely have any sympathy for sweet Chardonnays, but this bottling is so explosively fruity and vivid that I fell in love with it despite my preconceptions. With ripe peach and sweet pineapple flavors, nice acidic edging, and almost no apparent oak, it is the vinous equivalent of the best fruit salad you've ever tasted. Not serious, perhaps, but seriously delicious.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com