Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Out of South Africa: The Wines have Earned a Reprieve

Overcoming a prejudice against South African wines has not been easy. In the past, a combination of unpleasant band-aid flavors and disturbing political associations has engendered total avoidance. But it’s time to let South Africa out of Time-Out.

With the demise of Apartheid in the mid 1990s the wines of South Africa began creeping back into the U.S. market. They had been available all along in many parts of Europe, particularly the U.K. where they had thriving sales. But the wines were overly loaded with asphalt and sweat sock aromas and flavors. The KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt) controlled pretty much all the wine production and it was a lake of less than lovely stuff. One of the worst elements had been the use of the DOP system to pay vineyard workers. They were paid in alcohol. The system originated in the early years of Colonial settlement. The problems are obvious. To read more about the DOP system and South African vineyard history visit

Which brings us to the purpose here. Anthony Hamilton-Russell visited recently and presented his wines, both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Hamilton-Russell vineyards in Walker Bay, and the Southern Right brand wines, Sauvignon Blanc and a uniquely South African Pinotage.
Hamilton-Russell’s obvious passion for his craft, his dedication to healthy treatment of his vineyards and his employees, and his devotion to family made for a worthwhile evening. Oh and the wines were really good too.

The 2009 Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc won the day for best value. Crisp, clean, and classic with a combination of lemon zest, mineral, slight herbal undertones and flavors of Asian pear. Find this wine for under $15 a bottle.

Overall favorite may have been the 2008 Hamilton-Russell Chardonnay. Elegant, well-balanced and pure with rich melon and apple aromas and flavors. The oak was a complement to the wine, not a distraction. It retails in the mid to high 20s.

Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, has been a problematic wine. The descriptor most often used is “band-aid.” But the 2007 Southern Right Pinotage showed none of this and was a well-balanced combination of cherry, strawberry, leather and earth. This would be a great match with grilled meats and vegetables. It’s around $25 per bottle.

The 2007 Pinot Noir was notable because it did not seem to be emulating any other styles. It was unique. It was neither Burgundian nor Californian. There is an unusual aroma of sandlewood and spice. While the classic Pinot Noir cherry and vanilla flavors were there, it’s overall style is more exotic, more interesting than so many of the textbook Pinot Noirs. Wine Spectator gave it 93 Points. It sells in the mid-40s.

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