The nation is not only moving past apartheid, but also an insular approach to making wine.
Over the past two decades, South Africa has aimed to shake off the stigma of apartheid and the isolation that came with it. During the same time, its wine industry also has joined the modern world, and the results are there to taste.
Thanks in part to a particularly assiduous immigrant couple, Twin Cities retail shelves and restaurant lists have seen a growth in the quantity and (even more so) the quality of South African offerings.
In a microcosm of their society at large, South African wineries have shaken off the shackles of not only apartheid but of a rigid, old-school view of making wine.
“I think apartheid and the isolation from all the sanctions really kept them as an island,” said Rick Anderson, owner of France 44 in Minneapolis. “Also, they produced wines that they enjoyed, and it wasn’t a style that Americans wanted. Even 10 years ago, what we got was still the traditional South African style, a palate style that was more insular and often harsh.
“It’s been 20 years, long enough for the new guard of winemakers to travel abroad and see what others were drinking and go for a new style. I also think a ton of investment has gone into the South African wine industry.”
Anderson said his store carries about 40 South African wines and that he expects to boost that total to 50 in the next month or so. And while that number might not seem high, he said, “That’s a pretty big slice of our store for an area that is pretty obscure to most wine consumers. Conversely, if you look at Greece, where wine got its start, we have maybe eight wines.”
Much of France 44’s South African portfolio comes from the wholesaler Z Wines, owned and operated by a couple from South Africa (now of Plymouth), Roy Goslin and Dianne Ferrandi. They carry wines from other countries but spend large chunks of their winter in South Africa, seeking out new brands.
“Roy is the reason that South African wines have really blossomed in this market,” Anderson said. “Roy has hit the price points very well. He has definitely blazed a trail, but [other distributors] have gotten on board.”
In the past, South African wines here were mostly two varietals, pinotage and chenin blanc (often called “Steen”), and both often had hard edges. Pinotage remains a work in progress, but vintners have started to tame the massive tannins and often acidified the wines to make them more balanced. Lions Drift pinotages provide a nice introduction.
Today’s chenins (sans the “Steen” moniker) are much more successful, ranging from friendly inexpensive offerings such as Sebeka, Landskroon Bush Camp “The Sundowner,” David Frost and Simonsig to profound bottlings from Rudera Robusto and Jean Daneel.
Still, as South African winemakers have moved toward making more wines in an international style, they have shifted a lot of focus to more familiar varietals such as cabernet, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Many of the better reds are blends such as the inexpensive Landskroon Bush Camp “Our Daily Red,” Kadette Kanonkop and the massive but elegant Rust en Vrede. Among white blends, Goats Do Roam, Tygerberg, Overgaauw and Maankloof (Bouquet Blanc) provide nice bang for the buck.
All of these efforts are working: Shipments to the United States rose 11 percent last year, to almost a million cases.
Riding that wave, an organization called Wines of South Africa is now investing much of its resources and energies into this country, to wit a food-wine tour, “From BBQ to Braai,” that lands in the Twin Cities on Sunday (see box).
The best news is that the wines making their way are not the 20th-century cheap bottlings (“that tasted cheap,” as Anderson put it) but wines that provide great value up and down the price spectrum. And maybe a little excitement, too.
“It’s probably the great frontier for the wine adventurer now,” Anderson said. “There are so many different styles, yet it’s still a virginal land. It’s like the Galapagos Islands. South Africa has been on its own so much that you’re really tasting terroir that Europe doesn’t have.”
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter @billward4