Talking with customers few remember the South African wines that were sold in the US before apartheid ended in the late 1980s. To be blunt, they were mostly awful. At the time the vast majority of the exports were from the Co-operative Winemakers Union, better known as the KWV, and like almost all of the cooperative wines of the time, European or otherwise, their perception of quality was very low. It did not help that due to embargo’s from most of the western world the country operated in isolation, removed from the technological and viticultural improvements happening elsewhere.
Fast forward to the early 2000’s and the decade after the embargo ended, an explosion in wineries across the Western Cape of South Africa. While much was home grown a significant amount of investment and partnership also started with many western wineries. There was a massive shift away from growers selling grapes to the KWV and starting their own wineries, as new wineries and plantings also began to spring up. By the later part of the decade the quality was improving enough but there was still the lingering issue of the red wines tasting of band-aids.
The source of this odd smell, interesting at best and off-putting most of the time, was the subject of much debate. One winemaker I spoke with felt it was due to underripe fruit caused by picking too early, because many vines suffered from leaf-roll virus. This is a malady that prevents vines from finishing the job of ripening the grapes and hastening the need to pick. Others felt it was caused by a bacteria that hitched along with native malolactic conversions and worked alongside undetected. Finally, the most obvious cause was simply not working clean enough in the cellars. Whatever the cause, by the time I visited “the wine lands” in 2016, it was a very uncommon trait that only appears in a couple of my hundreds of tasting notes at that time.
Today the wines of South Africa provide an interesting gateway for consumers eager to not only experience new wines, but also find a comfort level with what they currently drink. Almost without exception you can count on wines from South Africa to deliver a new world sense of ripe fruit and alcohol (for the reds) around 14%, very similar to most US west coast wine regions. At the same time the wines are generally more savory and dry, with a more natural sense of acidity similar to those of the old world. Think Bordeaux, Rhone, Rioja, Montalcino… And the best part is the wines are frequently great values. (Oh yeah, the band-aid smell is no longer an issue.)
This week (May 11th) we will be hosting a producer tour with 8 winemakers from South Africa divided between the Central Florida stores. These are club member appreciation events but we will also be spotlighting two of the wineries in our weekly newsletter, so stop in over the weekend and give them a taste. No only will you find the wines to be exceptional quality but also amazing values.