The cycle of political change leading to economic growth and transformation of a wine industry had already played out for Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, so it was South Africa’s turn. Then, in a toss-off line at the end, I said Eastern Europe would be next.
Well, I had that backward. In the past four years, we’ve seen delicious wines from Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Moldova and other areas of the former Soviet bloc. Turkey has also sent some tasty wines made from grapes that are almost as hard to spell as they are to pronounce. South Africa, however, has been relatively quiet. Perhaps distance is the reason. Importers who are already going to Italy or Austria can extend their trips to visit the Balkans, while travelling to South Africa requires an extra investment of time and effort.
Some of the most intriguing wines I tasted were represented by young importers exploring South Africa as a new market where they can plant their flags and establish a reputation. Travis Vernon and his wife, Carolyn, established their company eight years ago as the Spanish Wine Importers, but when they decided to branch out beyond Spain, they re-branded as Well Crafted Wine & Beverage Co, based in Manassas, Virginia. They soon focused on South Africa.
“We believed South Africa was under represented in the market, and the wines that were here did not reflect the quality of wines being produced in South Africa,” says Vernon, 35. “We came back convinced there were wines of incredible quality for the price, but also unique, artisanal wines of intrigue.”
Well Crafted imports Remhoogte, a winery in the Stellenbosch region. Remhoogte bottles a racy red called Soaring Eagle, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.
But my favourite from Remhoogte was a pinotage called Vantage. Pinotage is South Africa’s own red grape, just as zinfandel is California’s. It is a cross of pinot noir and cinsault developed in South Africa almost a century ago and grown almost nowhere else, for good reason.
Another small company focusing on South Africa is Red Wolf Imports, the husband-and-wife team of Ian and Alyssa Wolf. (The company name refers to Alyssa’s mane of red hair.) They decided to import wine after returning from a South African holiday in 2014 and discovering the wines they enjoyed there were not reaching US markets.
Red Wolf carries an outstanding Chablis-like chardonnay called Ataraxia, with limited distribution, mostly in restaurants. More widely available are the wines from Kaapzicht, in Stellenbosch, including a delicious and vibrant red blend resplendent in New World verve aptly called Kaleidoscope, and a more restrained, though no less delicious, chenin blanc. Priced around $16 (R200), these are no-brainers. Try them.
“We were struck by how excited the young population was about the changes occurring in the wine industry,” Alyssa Wolf recalls of her initial experience in South Africa. “That wasn’t reflected back in the States, though.”
Red Wolf and Well Crafted are following in the footsteps of Broadbent Selections, which imports Badenhorst and others such as Duncan Savage’s eponymous wines (the latter are also primarily in restaurants). Suffice to say, South African wine may not have become the next big thing, but our choices from that part of the world are certainly getting better.