I have been writing about South African wines in this column for several years now -- first with curiosity, then with hopefulness and most recently with real enthusiasm. However, I'm aware that critics hold a limited supply of credibility and that before making the Big Claim, I had better apply the Big Test.

So, before asserting that South Africa has risen to the ranks of the major players in the world of wine, I tasted almost every bottle available here, keeping in mind three questions:

* Can South Africa consistently achieve excellence from year to year, or only when blessed with a lucky growing season?

* Can it show depth, with many excellent wines in particular categories, or does it have only a few star wineries?

* Can it achieve excellence with a broad range of wine types, or is it just a niche player?

South Africa passed. Indeed, in my recent tastings of more than 300 current releases, it passed on all three counts. Instead of making a swashbuckling Big Claim, I'm reporting established facts. The facts are that South Africa has attained competitiveness with the world's top wine-producing countries in terms of consistency, depth and range. Regarding consistency, it is now clear that South African producers can cope quite effectively with the variation in vintage conditions that they (like all vintners striving for excellence by working in marginal climates) confront from year to year. As regards depth, the numerous examples of superb red blends and Sauvignon Blancs show that South Africa's strength stems not from just a few clever winemakers but from roots running deep into the country's soil and climate. South Africa can also come up with the goods when range is at issue, as I believe I can demonstrate conclusively with today's recommendations.

Beyond the beautiful red blends and Sauvignons I reviewed recently, I was able to recommend some terrific Syrahs, Cabernets and Chardonnays here two weeks ago, and today we can show how well rounded South Africa has become with a selection that includes Pinotages, Merlots, Chenin Blancs, white blends and dessert wines. Recommendations are listed in order of preference within categories, with regions of origin, approximate prices and importers indicated in parentheses:


Wildekrans (Walker Bay) 2001($25, Boutique Wine Collection): Pinotage is a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault developed in 1925 in South Africa, and good renditions from low-yielding vineyards are must-try wines for all lovers of robust reds such as Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. This delicious bottling is black in color with very dense pigmentation and excellent interplay between intense bla?ckberry fruit and assertively spicy oak.

Spice Route (Charles Back) (Swartland) "Flagship" 2000 ($37, Vineyard Brands): Massive and very ripe, but surprisingly fresh, with a streak of fresh red cherry flavor accenting a core of dark berry fruit. This is mature and ready to drink, with tastefully restrained oak notes.

Kanonkop (Stellenbosch) 2001 ($28, Wildman): Burly but not surly, this is intensely flavorful but ripe and soft in texture, with very complex aromas.

Kaapzicht (Stellenbosch) 2001 ($15.50, Fairest Cape): Dark, deeply concentrated, and intensely flavored, with ripe (but bright) blackberry fruit that is firmed and framed by smoky wood notes.

Simonsig (Stellenbosch) 2001 ($10, American Wine Distributors/Bacchus): An excellent value, this shows gutsy berry fruit with nice red and black cherry accents, a light floral top note, and a well-measured whiff of oak.

KWV (Western Cape) 2002 ($9, 57 Main): Medium body with full flavors of ripe black plums and red berries. Rugged and faintly earthy, but with fruit notes in the forefront.


Plaisir de Merle (Paarl) 2001 ($23, Dreyfus Ashby): Soft and succulent, but with impressive depth and dimension. Plum and black cherry fruit is soft and accessible, with firmness in the finish lent by just the right touch of spicy oak.

Jardin (Stellenbosch) 2002 ($17, Vinovative): Delicious and very tastefully wrought, this features lovely berry fruit with lightly herbal aromas and soft, sweet tannins.

Fleur du Cap (Coastal Region) 2001 ($14, Maisons Marques & Domaines): Classy and complex, but still generous, this is a fine example of a South African red with one foot in the Old World and one in the New. With fresh, medium-bodied berry fruit augmented by a lightly earthy streak, it could pass as easily for a good Lalande de Pomerol as for a California Merlot.

Backsberg (Paarl) 2002 ($9, American Wine Distributors): Concentrated and deeply flavored, but with bright fruit character and light oak lending freshness and soft texture.


Groote Post (Coastal Region) 2002 ($9, 57 Main St./National): South Africa is very well endowed with plantings of this potentially excellent grape, which is underappreciated because it is so often overcropped. This delicious, totally convincing bargain features highly expressive aromas of pear and melon fruit, with flavors that are so vivid that the wine seems sweet before culminating in a fresh, zesty, dry finish.

Kanu (Stellenbosch) 2003 ($9, Cape Classics): Fresh aromas and flavors mark this wine from stem to stern, with fruit notes of melon and peach, along with a light floral scent. Satisfyingly rich and rounded, but with a crisp finish.

Ken Forrester (Stellenbosch) "Petit Chenin" 2003 ($9, Boutique Wine Collection): Rounded and lush on the palate, with ripe notes of stone fruits and melons. Lively acidity lends clarity to the flavors and balance to the finish.


Goats do Roam (Charles Back) (Western Cape) 2003 ($11, Vineyard Brands): For you statisticians, this is made of 28 percent Clairette Blanc, 24 percent Semillon, 14 percent Grenache Blanc, 12 percent Gewurztraminer, 9 percent Cape Riesling, 8 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 5 percent Chenin Blanc. For the rest of you, it is a party in a bottle, with fresh, faintly floral aromas, moderately full body, and juicy peach fruit with a ripe, soft finish.

Firefinch (Robertson) Colombard/Chardonnay 2003 ($13, Country Vintner): This wine has a great name and explosively fresh flavors that make it one of the best summer sippers I've encountered all year.

Bradgate (Stellenbosch) Chenin Blanc 70 percent/Sauvignon Blanc 30 percent, 2003 ($10, Vinovative): Aromas of honey, melons and dried herbs lead the way into rounded and substantial melon fruit that gains lift from refreshing citrus notes.


Onyx (Groenkloof) "Noble Late Harvest" 2002 ($17 for 375 milliliters, Boutique Wine Collection): This shows expressive aromas of honey and ultra-ripe stone fruits, with great richness and breadth on the palate but also fine balance from fresh acidity.

Rudera (Stellenbosch) Chenin Blanc "Noble Late Harvest" 2003 ($28 for 375 milliliters, Country Vintner): Lusciously sweet and very deeply flavored, with lift and cut lent by zesty acidity in the finish.

Michael Franz will answer questions today at noon on washingtonpost.com.