Well, I had that backward. In the past four years, we’ve seen delicious wines from Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Moldova and other areas of the former Soviet bloc. Turkey has also sent some tasty wines made from grapes that are almost as hard to spell as they are to pronounce. South Africa, however, has been relatively quiet. Perhaps distance is the reason. Importers who are already going to Italy or Austria can extend their trips to visit the Balkans, while traveling to South Africa requires an extra investment of time and effort.
And yet: In a recent exploration of South African wines, I found some terrific values, matching high quality with affordable prices. Some of these are old standbys; the Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines has always been a personal favorite, and the Secateurs red, made from shiraz, is also a reliable choice.
Some of the most intriguing wines I tasted were represented by young importers exploring South Africa as a new market where they can plant their flags and establish a reputation. Travis Vernon and his wife, Carolyn, established their company eight years ago as the Spanish Wine Importers, but when they decided to branch out beyond Spain, they rebranded as Well Crafted Wine & Beverage Co., based in Manassas, Va. They soon focused on South Africa.
“We believed South Africa was underrepresented in the market, and the wines that were here did not reflect the quality of wines being produced in South Africa,” says Vernon, 35. “We came back convinced there were wines of incredible quality for the price, but also unique, artisanal wines of intrigue.”
Well Crafted imports Remhoogte, a winery in the Stellenbosch region. Remhoogte bottles a racy red called Soaring Eagle, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. (South Africa adopts the Australian name for syrah.) At $14, it’s affordably priced and ideal for a backyard cookout.
But my favorite from Remhoogte was a pinotage called Vantage. Pinotage is South Africa’s own red grape, just as zinfandel is California’s. It is a cross of pinot noir and cinsault developed in South Africa almost a century ago and grown almost nowhere else, for good reason. (A few persist in Virginia, and I’ve enjoyed some from California more notable for novelty than anything else.) Tasting a South African pinotage can seem like licking the tar of a freshly paved road, but Remhoogte’s Vantage is a different animal altogether. This wine is delicious, with dark cherry flavors and a mysterious hint of wild herbs carried on a night breeze. It improves over the next few days, if you can restrain yourself from finishing it all at once.
Another small company focusing on South Africa is Red Wolf Imports, the husband-and-wife team of Ian and Alyssa Wolf. (The company name refers to Alyssa’s mane of red hair.) They decided to import wine after returning from a South Africa vacation in 2014 and discovering the wines they enjoyed there were not reaching U.S. markets.
Red Wolf carries an outstanding Chablis-like chardonnay called Ataraxia, with limited distribution, mostly in restaurants. More widely available are the wines from Kaapzicht, in Stellenbosch, including a delicious and vibrant red blend resplendent in New World verve aptly called Kaleidoscope, and a more restrained, though no less delicious, chenin blanc. Priced around $16, these are no-brainers. Find them, try them, love them.
“We were struck by how excited the young population was about the changes occurring in the wine industry,” Alyssa Wolf recalls of her initial experience in South Africa. “That wasn’t reflected back in the States, though. You’d just see the same wines over and over with no sense of what was happening over there.”
Red Wolf and Well Crafted are following in the footsteps of Broadbent Selections, which imports Badenhorst and others such as Duncan Savage’s eponymous wines (the latter are also primarily in restaurants). Suffice to say, South African wine may not have become the next big thing, but our choices from that part of the world are certainly getting better.