14 March 2011

A New Approach to South African Wines

Sometimes wine is just spoiled grape juice that happens to taste good. Other times, it's history in a glass.

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The long story of South Africa is fascinating, but extremely complicated. Throughout the centuries, there have been dozens of factions, shifting alliances, many languages, and plenty of controversy. It's the country where Gandhi first started working on civil rights, where Lord Robert Baden-Powell was inspired to later found the Boy Scouts in England, and where Dave Matthews was born. It takes a lot of work to understand the big picture.

The wine industry in South Africa is likewise complex. Starting in 1659, it ran on slave labor until the British abolished the practice in the mid 1800s, but things didn't necessarily get better for the black workers who tended the vines, picked the grapes, and performed the heavy labor of the region. There was the tot or dop system that persisted in various forms until the 1990s, in which workers were just paid in cheap surplus wine. The big problem is that if everyone in your area is paid in bad wine, you can't really trade it for anything, so the only option is to stay drunk and then keep working to feed the addiction. Thankfully this practice is gone, and while addiction problems persist among vineyard workers, the face of the South African wine industry is changing.

Due to the Apartheid-era embargo, South African wines didn't show up in America until the 1990s, and are still pushing for market share. But I've always said that I love a wine with an interesting story, and here are a few that fit the bill.

A while back I participated in an online tasting of Partnership Vineyards' wines. The webcast included winemaker Zakke Bester live from South Africa. The project has been around since 2004, and involves partially compensating the employees in shares of the company. As of right now, 20 farmers and 151 workers hold shares in the partnership. Both of these wines are made in the Riebeek Valley and carry a Fair Trade Certification.

2009 Partnership Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 13% abv.
Rich and lush aroma, lots of jasmine, lime peel, grass, and wet rocks. Light, not tart, with a refreshing citrus finish. Interesting profile that I'd love to try with Vietnamese food.

2008 Partnership Vineyards Shiraz
$13, 13.5% abv.
Smoky, dusty plum, deep dark fruit aromas, lots of spice. It's not as rustic as a Pinotage, but this has a unique and earthy character that sets it apart from other Shiraz/Syrah around the world. I asked the winemaker for his pairing recommendation, and I think this is my favorite suggestion ever: "Springbok or oryx steak, seared in a pan, or grilled over a braai using grapevine stumps as fuel."

For this post I also took the opportunity to try a wine from Indaba, a brand launched in 1996. Mzokhona Mvemve won the Indaba scholarship, and after studying at Stellenbosch he became South Africa's first black winemaker. He was the head winemaker at Indaba, but has gone on to a number of independent and joint projects.

2008 Indaba Chenin Blanc
Western Cape
$10, 13.5% abv.
Creamy and lemony, smooth and enjoyable with a short finish. This inexpensive wine is pretty easy to find in the US, and should go well with lots of poultry dishes. Chenin Blanc has a long and popular history in South Africa, where it's also known as Steen. Since it's relatively mild, I'd say keep this one in mind for Thanksgiving.

Note: These wines were received as samples.


fredric koeppel said...

I'll keep that wine in mind the next time I see oryx at Whole Foods.

Benito said...


I admit that eating oryx hadn't really crossed my mind before that web session. Now I'm awful curious.


Joe said...

much more of a springbok guy myself. Oryx is too greasy.

Benito said...


There's nearly a hundred different species of antelope out there. I imagine Teddy Roosevelt could identify them all in a blind tasting.


Joe said...

ha! a blind antelope tasting would be epic.