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Tannic Panic! Issue #17: South African Sip n' Save
South is the Africa That Wines Your Juice
As some of you may know, and most of you may don’t, Zach and I are now in the midst of studying for our WONDERFUL little WSET L3 exams (a test to determine if we’re really wine snobs). The birth of this newsletter precedes our “official” studies, but writing these articles is a wholesome way for us to learn you something while we rant about this fermented juice we’re obsessed with, and now that school is no longer out for summer, we’ll keep you *lightly* posted on our own little journey into the maw of the beast goes, as it goes.
As it were, our studies have most recently taken us clomping around the Southern Hemisphere, so we thought it would be a fitting time to weave South Africa (our reader pick for future topics in an earlier poll!) into the newsletter rotation.
Over the course of our systematic studies of wines from all over the globe, we have made the astute observation that wines from the Southern Hemisphere (especially Australia, Chile and South Africa) often exhibit a charming little Southern Hemispheric signature, typified by some combo of mint/menthol/eucalyptus/woodsmoke/green pepper notes. The good stuff.
But before we get too deep into those sweet, sweet tasting notes, we ask that you brace your tiny little minds for a journey back in time. South Africa's wine history stretches back to the 17th century, making it the oldest New World wine region. Over the centuries, it has seen the blending of various cultures, traditions, and viticultural practices, each contributing to the unique flavor profiles of its wines.
The 1650s: The Humble Beginnings
Let's rewind to the 1650s when our hero, Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutchman with more than just clogs up his sleeve, decided to plant the very first vineyard at the Cape of Good Hope. By 1659, he's raising his glass and proclaiming, "Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes." He has unfortunately since passed away, but had he not, he would be the oldest living man alive. RIP Jan.
The 1680s-1690s: French Finesse
Enter the Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in France. With them, they brought their “SECRET SAUCE,” if you won’t, of wine-making expertise.
1690s-the 20th Century
Don’t worry about it.
The 20th Century: A Bumpy Road
Phylloxera hits the vines, but South Africa bounces back with some nifty grafting techniques and the creation of Pinotage. Born in 1925 from a passionate grapey rendezvous between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (back then known as Hermitage in SA, hence the name "Pinot-age" … or is it “Pino-tage”?), this grape variety is both a hallmark and a matter of pride for South Africa. Unlike any other varietal, it encapsulates the soul of South African terroir, and it enabled growers to cultivate vines in areas that its temperamental momma grape, Pinot Noir, just wasn’t able to thrive.
Late 20th Century: End of Apartheid & World Stage
Post-apartheid, the global gates open. South African wines waltz into international competitions, earning gold stars and turning heads.
DID YOU KNOW… South Africa is home to the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the Southern Hemisphere. This gnarly old vine, an indigenous grape variety known as "Crouchen Blanc," was planted wayyyy back in 1771. While we've seen empires rise and fall, this grapevine has just been there, LIVING THE DREAM.
SOME CLIMATE STUFF
If you were thinking South Africa should be HOT — you were right. Its proximity to the equator subjects it to a goodly bit of heat, but between the Atlantic's chilly embrace and the dramatic mountains in the region, South Africa’s got a mixed bag of microclimates and soil types. It's this magical combo that ensures every grape balances ripeness with zesty acidity. While grapes are getting their sun-kissed glow on, the chilly breezes from the cheeky Benguela Current saunter in and whisper sweet nothings in their ears. The result? Grapes that ripen with gusto, giving the wines a hearty dose of alcohol, yet maintaining a backbone of freshness thanks to that cool air.
The sharp diurnal temperature shifts (that's wine speak for “scorching days and cool nights”) ensure the grapes develop intense flavors while holding onto their precious, mouth-watering acidity. So, when you sip that South African Chenin Blanc and taste a burst of tropical fruit followed by a zesty lime kick, you’re basically reliving a day in the life of a South African grape.
Coastal regions benefit from maritime influences, gifting the wines with a refreshing salinity. Meanwhile, elevated regions, such as Stellenbosch's mountainsides, provide both shelter and cooler vibes, helping grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon ripen more slowly, teasing out flavors of ripe blackcurrant with hints of that classic Southern Hemisphere eucalyptus.
Blah, blah, blah — LET’S DIVE INTO THE JUICE.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2019 KWV Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Cape / 88 Points / $12
Profile: Black currant, black cherry, cedar, green pepper, woodsmoke and tobacco.
This puppy really drives the point home that South Africa brings the value. You wouldn’t in a billion-gazillion years find a $12 bottle of California wine that delivers at this level (AKA no recipe winemaking here). Luscious black fruit leads this party, with the quintessential green notes we’ve been yammering about all afternoon close in-tow. The wine is dry with good structure and a medium Southern-Hemispheric finish. Neato!
2021 KWV Roodeberg Classic Red Blend*, Western Cape / 90 Points / $12 [VALUE PICK!]
Profile: Blackberry, black cherry, black plum, ripe strawberry, licorice, cocoa powder, cedar, woodsmoke and a hint of spearmint.
Once again a wine that punches above its weight class. Truly exceptional for the money — toss your “Prisoner Red Blend” in the garbage where it belongs.
A rather unconventional blend of pretty much everything and the kitchen sink, we’ve got ourselves another dry one with smooth tannins, high acidity, and a lingering finish.
Pair with a well-stuffed poblano pepper. Chile relleno, OR OTHERWISE.
2021 Neethlingshof Estate Wine Pinotage, Stellenbosch / $15 / 89 Points
Profile: black cherry, raspberry, coffee, chocolate, toasted oak, wood smoke.
This bad boy is really led by the toasty coffee and chocolate notes, supported by some rich bramble fruit and a hint of wood smoke. A joy to drink, and just an all around good entry level Pinotage.
Pairs great with my bruised ego.
2020 Spier Seaward Pinotage, Coastal Region / 91 Points / $19
Profile: Black cherry, black plum, blackberry, stewed strawberry, campfire smoke, a little brine, coffee, mocha... and a hint of Elmer’s glue (but not a bad thing LOL)
A really interesting and layered bottle, this one blows its discount brother (the $10 Spier Pinotage also available at Total Wine that we tasted but are not recommending here) out of the water.
There’s lots of rich, ripe, black fruit, a whisper of that classic maritime brine note, some campfire smoke, coffee, mocha, stewed strawberries, and just the tiniest hint of Elmer’s glue (THE GOOD KIND!)
It is dry with medium tannin, medium+ acid, medium+ body, and high alcohol (but fear not — it is well integrated into the wine). Very nicely balanced, a joy to drink and quite different from the more entry level Neethlingshof we’ve recommended above.
2020 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound Cape Bordeaux Blend, Stellenbosch / 93 Points / $20
Profile: Blackcurrant, blackberry, black plum, mocha, cedar, black pepper, fresh mint, black tea and tobacco leaf
The wine is dry with high tannins, high acidity, full body and a medium+ finish. This is a rich and concentrated Bordeaux blend with plenty of structure indicating that it will likely improve and develop further #Southern-HemisphericComplexities with more years of aging in bottle. Amazing value at $20. Kudos to the wonderful people of South Africa (except Elon Musk).
While wine enthusiasts may be catching on, South African wines are still somewhat of an "insider secret" on the global stage. This relatively lower international demand (compared to, say, Bordeaux or Napa) naturally leads to better pricing. But all good things come to an end, and as the markets wise up, the prices rise up — so get in while the gettin’s good!
Until next time, HAPPY DRINKING.
Isaac & Zach
An extra special thanks for Victoria for keeping the gears turning on this one!
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