by Andrew Harwood
Everyone’s got an angle. No matter the industry, each player seeks an edge to stand out from the crowd. For retailers and restaurants alike, competing on price or offering a dizzying array of vintages and producers is a battle all too commonly won by the largest bank account. If, however, you are looking to distinguish your wine portfolio, yet your bank account does not rival the GDP of Burundi, differentiating yourself with a dedicated South African wine program just may provide the answer.
The quality of South Africa’s wines is indisputably on the rise, with latent potential bursting at the seams. Doug Frost, MW/MS, notes “South Africa doesn’t have as many entrenched ideas and industries that hamper experimentation as they had only a few years ago. The regulations of the old regime are no longer a bulwark against improvement.” Not only do the wines display character and balance, but they also speak of place. Rory Callahan, founder of Wine & Food Associates, points out, “South Africa’s terroir is unique in allowing them to consistently fashion wines that embody classic ‘Old World’ structure with the always sought-after ‘New World’ fruit.” Thelema’s 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon provides ample proof with its smoke, earth, and elegant tannins matched to dried cherry and blueberry flavors that are anything but bashful.
Owing to the influence of regional characteristics such as climate, soil, and topography, South Africa’s wine producing zones are based on the French A.O.C. system. A quick geography lesson is offered by simply tasting the wines. While Stellenbosch may be the most recognized region in South Africa, an ocean of wine is found outside its borders. In Paarl, slightly inland from the coast, Glen Carlou 2002 Chardonnay is capable of converting the most stalwart Chardonnay-hater.
The broader Coastal Region is a valuable option for winemakers looking to blend fruit from multiple and varied coastal vineyards. Brampton’s 2002 Sauvignon Blanc, selling around $11, makes the case that this is by no means an inferior designation. The coastal region isn’t afraid to tackle red varieties either, as Graham Beck’s 2000 The Cornerstone demonstrates the heights to which these wines reach where rich blackberry and currant flavors are meted out alongside a dose of smoky oak.
While South Africa’s wine growers are encouraged by the recent press and accolades bestowed upon their wines, Peter Morales of 57 Main Street, a leading importer of South African wines, notably KWV, reminds that, “While knowledge-thirsty consumers are demanding greater diversity of selections, the per capita consumption here in the United States continues to grow at an alarmingly slow rate.” Why have retailers and restaurants all too often failed to give South African wines their due? Quite possibly, it is fear of commitment.
When differentiating your wine program with a selection of well-chosen South African wines, give them prominent placement on your list. On many lists organized by country, South Africa gets lost in the “Other” category. Better to showcase the wines on their own page, with a font size rivaling that of France. Same goes for retail. Michael Green, wine consultant to Gourmet Magazine, laments; “South Africa’s vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and rich, yet sinewy Cabernets have spent too much time in wine stores collecting dust in the ‘odds & ends’ bin.” It’s time to give them eye-level shelf space.
One downtown New York retailer, Manley’s Wines & Spirits offers a dozen bottlings from South Africa, with plans to augment their selections owing to increased customer demand. You’ll find bottlings such as the excellent value, fruit-driven KWV 2001 Shiraz alongside Fairview’s 2001 Solitude Shiraz which, at $29 can compete with many of Australia’s best. It seems consumers are taking notice of more South African wines on the shelves, evidenced by the strong correlation between increased offerings and higher sales.
Jeanine Burke, wine director of Nell’s Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, tries to offer the food-friendliest wines she discovers and finds that South Africa offers a plethora of bottlings which yield both the rich fruit that consumers demand along with the finesse and requisite balance demanded by executive chef Philip Mihalski’s flavorful, yet subtle cuisine. These wines, she explains, “allow me to satisfy consumer’s desire for weight and ‘gobs of flavor’ while simultaneously offering the structure, body, and balanced flavors needed for food and wine harmony.”
The Mulderbosch 2003 Sauvignon Blanc is her most recent list addition, due to its clean, zingy, lemon-lime flavors which work alongside the wine’s grassy, slightly herbal edge. The brand’s Chenin Blanc, which supplies enough snappy acidity needed for a great food wine along with citrus rind and mineral notes, is another. The much-maligned Pinotage, South Africa’s own inter-species cross of Cinsault with Pinot Noir which many believed would be the country’s “national” grape, has only recently earned its debut appearance on her list thanks to the rich, smoky fruit she found in Simonsig’s 2001 Pinotage.
Fred Price, wine director of New York City’s Union Pacific, has noticed that, “people are asking for South African wines more than ever before.” Although some wine neophytes “are often shocked to find out that South Africa produces wines, and has been doing so for 200 years,” that is changing, he believes. Price, long an advocate of these wines, first introduced me in 1997 to Mulderbosch’s interpretation of the Sauvignon Blanc grape while he served as wine director of Picholine in Manhattan. The seven years hence have been good to the wines of South Africa as people are recognizing their charms, yet retailers and restaurateurs can still profit from them as yet untapped potential.
South Africa’s producers, on the other hand, must in turn commit to their responsibilities. Impressive advances have been made in the short ten years since the lifting of both Apartheid and the numerous restrictive measures imposed upon growers, yet more work lies ahead.
Just as Sauvignon Blanc is to New Zealand, and Shiraz is to Australia, South Africa needs, as coined by Gourmet’s Michael Green, a ‘Calling Card.’ As experimentation continues and growers determine empirically which combinations of soil, climate, and grape produce the best results, they will be increasingly able to present consumers with a collective offering of regional wines bound together by the telltale traits that speak of place. This will, however, take time.
Shaw-Ross, the Florida-based importer, is betting that the American public is more ready than some may think to accept a mass-marketed South African wine. Their recently introduced brand, Long Neck, is a line of popularly priced varietal wines that play on exotic association consumers have with South Africa, embodied in the painted giraffe on the bottle. Bruce Hunter, senior VP, director of wines, believes that Long Neck has the potential to become the next Yellowtail, which would certainly do a lot to broadcast the country as a region for quality and value.
Looking ahead to the future, Ken Onish of Southern Starz, one of the few highly-committed importers of South African wines, believes in the distinct nature of the many micro-climates, landscapes, and soils throughout the country. “We market wines by wine region and hope one day someone will catch up with the wave.” Those licensees choosing to be proactive now will reap the rewards lying in wait as the wines gain greater acclaim.
It would, admittedly, be unfair to posit that the lack of South African wines in today’s market is simply an oversight on the part of restaurants and retail outlets. There are countless regions which merit discovery. Yet with the daily morass of meetings, wines samples from Moldova to Otago to Walla Walla littering the desk, and concerns over allocations of the next 97-point “masterpiece” a la the Wine Spectator, it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal – making wine accessible to more people and helping them find their own palate. It does, however, offer the opportunity to preach diversity. Words alone will not deliver the message, a committed program backed up with bottles on the shelves will. South Africa awaits an invitation.
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