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Meet South Africa’s Iconic Grapes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Citara, BT Contributor   
January 2017

Red, white, and you: Agreeable wine for $12 or less

I Pix_Vino_1-17owe this column to The Mouse.

Let me explain.

Very many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- when newspapers and magazines still made money and “journalist” wasn’t another way of saying “unemployed” -- I did a culinary road trip through Disney World in Orlando for a magazine feature story. First night there, I had dinner with one of The Mouse’s army of good-humored flacks, who took me to a restaurant that interspersed vaguely African dishes with more accessible Middle Eastern and Indian-inflected fare…and, of course, grilled steaks.

Over an array of surprisingly good dishes, including a succulent chermoula-roasted chicken with vegetable tagine, we knocked back a pricey bottle of South African Pinotage. I had tasted a fair amount of South African wine before and virtually all of it was, well…crap. This wine, however, was a revelation -- rich and elegant, with Bordeaux-like depth and complexity. I never looked at South African wine quite the same again.

Time travel to the present, and formerly unemployed journalists have finally found work (“Would you like fries with that?”), and South African wines have shed their reputation as industrial-grade swill and are now seen as capable of going cork to cork with wines of any of the world’s great producers.

Sadly, for most of us, hundred-dollar-plus bottles of Pinotage are more dream than reality. But within our more modest budgets, there are plenty of South African wines you’d be happy to pour at your table, whether you’re serving filet mignon or fast-food burgers.

You can’t talk about South African wine without talking about Chenin Blanc. One of two of the country’s iconic grapes (more on the other, Pinotage, in a moment), the perpetually under-appreciated Chenin Blanc was one of the first wines cultivated in South Africa (in the 1650s) and today is its most widely planted grape, accounting for almost 20 percent of vineyard acreage.

As befitting a wine of its popularity, South African winemakers produce Chenin Blanc in a wide variety of styles -- fresh and fruity or made for aging, dry or dessert-sweet, fermented in oak or stainless steel, 100 percent varietal or blended with Viognier, Chardonnay, or Sauvignon Blanc.

Two wines in the young, fresh, and fruity style are the 2016 M.A.N. Chenin Blanc and the 2016 Indaba. The M.A.N. is the more fruit-forward of the pair, showing off lush citrus, apple, and melon aromas that segue into flavors of lemon-lime, grapefruit, and green apple with subtle grassy notes. The Indaba is more closed at first, with a slight musty smell that quickly blows off. It offers some richness, too, but with more pronounced citrus and apple flavors, and stiffer lemony acidity.

That same crisp, clean flavor profile marks the 2016 Beach House Sauvignon Blanc. Grapefruit, gooseberry, and lemon aromas carry through to the palate, where richer apple and melon flavors also join in. Balance is also key to the 2014 Excelsior Chardonnay. The wine is an aromatic delight -- notes of lemon, orange, melon, apricot, and toasty oak tell your taste buds what to expect, along with ripe apple and peach flavors, and a rich, creamy texture.

Now about Pinotage, South Africa’s other iconic wine. It’s a blend of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (called Hermitage in South Africa) created by a Stellenbosch University professor of viticulture in 1925. Despite its association with South African wines, it constitutes only a tiny part of the country’s production. It can be a tricky wine to make and to love, veering from sweet to tarry, but in the right hands it can be quite pleasant.

The 2015 Releaf Iswithi Pinotage calls itself a “sweet red wine,” and that’s the truth. It’s not icky-sweet like cough syrup, but a full glass will definitely give you a sugar rush. It’s a good choice for people who don’t like dry wines but aren’t ready for dessert. The 2015 Spier Pinotage is on the smoky-tarry side. It’s as big a wine as the Releaf is sweet, with 14.5 percent alcohol, buckets of tangy cherry-berry fruit, and frank tones of tobacco, olives, toast, and cedar.

When it comes to moderately priced Cabernet Sauvignon, you can do a whole lot worse than the 2015 Robertson. Bracing aromas of black cherries and cassis, black olives, and grilled meat carry through to the palate, where approachable tannins provide both balance and structure. It’s an excellent wine for everyday drinking.

Thanks, Mickey.

 

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