World Cup competition comes to South Africa in June. Start the celebration of soccer's ultimate event a little early with South African wines. In so doing, experience the country's past, present and future.
Winemaking in South Africa dates back 350 years to the time Dutch settlers first occupied land around the Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of the African continent. Before the abolition of the racial segregation policy known as apartheid, South African wines were the pariahs of the world's wine market, subject to the same global economic boycott as the rest of the country's goods.
Why buy South African wines?
"Value for the money is the No. 1 reason," said South African ex-pat Peter Clinton, president of Vinnovative Imports. His company, based in Denver, N.C., was created in 1995 to reintroduce South African wines to U.S. consumers.
"You get much more bang for the buck," Clinton added. "The wines are real wines, they're not over-extracted, over-manipulated wines that you find in California, or have to pay through the nose for in France."
White grape varieties make up 56 percent of the country's wine plantings, according to industry statistics. Chenin blanc, called "steen" in South Africa, is the top white wine grape.
Cabernet sauvignon is the most widely planted red wine grape, followed by syrah and merlot. In fourth place, according to the annual report South African Wine Industry Statistics, is planting of South Africa's own pinotage, a cross of pinot noir and cinsault (called hermitage there) invented in the 1920s.
Most of South Africa's wine production is centered in the southwestern sections of the country around the city of Cape Town. South Africans follow an appellation or regional system for classifying its wines called "Wine of Origin." On the label, you'll find the appellation name followed by the initials "WO."
Under this system, the smallest regional area is an "estate"; followed in increasing size by "ward," of which there are 64; 21 "districts"; and four major wine "regions," according to Rory Callahan, a spokesman for Wines of South Africa, a trade group.
The country's wide array of wines can be "a blessing and a curse," Callahan said, but the range did lead to a catchy wine slogan: "Variety is in our nature."
"There's so much diversity in South Africa; that goes for wine too," agreed Clinton. "You can drink chenin blanc from six different appellations and drink six different wines."
Clinton believes the future holds much opportunity for South African winemakers.
"Good, little producers are putting good stuff in the bottle at a good price. You will like it."
By the numbers
251,941: Acres used to grow wine grapes in South Africa
1659: First year grapes grown in South Africa were pressed into wine.
9: South Africa's rank globally in terms of wine production
Source: Wines of South Africa
A few to try
2009 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc: Bright, fresh, fruity, this refreshing bottle from the Western Cape wine region epitomizes the charm of chenin blanc. Look for a citrusy nose and crisp fruit flavor. Could be the sippin' wine of the summer season. $15
2007 Bon Cap Cabernet Sauvignon: Colored a dark, plummy red, this wine made from organic grapes has a rich sweet-tart flavor highlighted by notes of plush black cherry fruit and a hint of smoke. Lovely cherry and oak nose. Produced in the Robertson wine district, about 110 miles east of Cape Town. $16
2006 Fairview Shiraz: This wine offers a sweet cherry nose layered with touches of earth and mushroom. Soft, rounded fruit flavor spiked with black pepper. Astringent finish. The winery, based in the Paarl wine district, has its roots in a farm established in 1693. $15
2004 Fleur du Cap Pinotage: Pinotage is South Africa's own grape. Look for a certain earthy quality on the nose and mushroom, eucalyptus and herbs on the tongue. This wine comes from the Stellenbosch wine district. $16
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor and style. Remember, too, prices vary.