Writer Michael Steinberger has tasted South African wines that hint at brilliance. Here, he considers the up-and-coming winemakers with the talent to fulfill that promise.

April 28, 2012

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Although my palate skews so Old World it could probably qualify for membership in the European Union, I've always had a thing for South Africa. Partly it's because I'm eager for the country to move beyond its tortured history: A flourishing wine industry would become a potent symbol of the new, post-apartheid era. But more than that, it's because of what I've tasted in the wines—an undercurrent of minerality, a dash of character—that makes them more than just standard-issue, sun-splashed New World bottles. Abutted by two oceans, with a felicitous Mediterranean-style climate and a rich array of soils and microclimates, South Africa has enormous winemaking potential.

Yet, despite all this, I have never been profoundly impressed by a South African wine. I've never had that one eureka moment I was looking for, and I'd started to wonder what it would take to make that happen. I think I now have an answer, in the form of some dynamic young winemakers who look poised to deliver on South Africa's promise.

Not that South Africa hasn't already turned out its share of commendable wines. Its winemaking tradition dates back to the 1600s—at one time, a South African dessert wine called Constantia (now Vin de Constance) was among the world's most prized. (Napoleon had cases of it shipped to the island of St. Helena while he was in exile there.) More recently, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, a winery in Walker Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean, has produced impressive Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In the Stellenbosch region, South Africa's answer to Napa Valley (complete with swank hotels, fancy boutiques and hordes of free-spending, perpetually buzzed tourists), De Toren makes first-rate Bordeaux blends, and Rudi Schultz creates fine Rhône-style Syrahs. Raats Family Wines, another Stellenbosch estate, offers something exceedingly hard to find in the New World: a good Cabernet Franc.

Then there is Chenin Blanc. Many people believe that Chenin was introduced to South Africa in the 1600s; it's the country's most widely planted variety, with an abundance of old vineyards. Of all the South African wines I've tasted over the years, the Chenins have most impressed me. The best are richly textured whites that, with their brisk acidity and slight tropical character, seem like a perfect marriage of Old World and New.

These are some of the wines that hint at South Africa's promise. But what will take South Africa to the point where it produces indisputably great wines? For my money, it's young talents like Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst, who I think are making the most distinctive, exciting wines yet to emerge from the tip of Africa. Sadie and Badenhorst are based in Swartland, a rugged area about an hour's drive from Cape Town that many people believe has the most potential of any South African wine region. Its mix of terrains and soils make me think those hopes aren't misplaced, especially not when I taste the wines Sadie and Badenhorst make. Working with native yeasts and using no additives except sulfur, both men specialize in blended wines—Southern Rhône–style reds and Chenin-heavy whites. These are racy, vibrant wines that are definitely heading in the direction of world-class.

Where to Sleep and Eat in South African Wine Country

Babylonstoren

An eight-acre garden provides ingredients for the restaurant at this restored 17th-century farm-estate.

Delaire Graff Estate

Delaire's 10 super-luxurious private lodges have stunning views down to the vineyards of Stellenbosch.

Steenberg Hotel & Winery

This historic winery's Bistro Sixteen82 offers a monthly series of wine tastings and talks.

South African Wine: Star Bottles

Some top producers, like Mulderbosch and Ken Forrester, are widely available. Others are harder to find but worth the search.

2010 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc ($14)

This creamy, effusively fruity Chenin shows why Charles Banks was keen to purchase the property. The 2011 releases will be the first vintage under his watch.

2010 Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc ($15)

Made by one of South Africa's top winemakers, this Chenin has bright tropical flavors, a touch of almond and good acidity to balance the fruit. And it offers excellent quality for the price.

2010 A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc ($16)

Adi Badenhorst's most affordable white, made with fruit from Chenin Blanc vines planted on his estate in the 1960s, offers orange blossom aromas and citrusy flavors.

2009 Ataraxia Chardonnay ($33)

Kevin Grant, the former winemaker for Hamilton Russell, founded Ataraxia in 2004. Its fruit-forward, gently oaky Chardonnay has a New World exuberance balanced with good acidity.

2008 A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines White ($45)

A complex blend of Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and a number of other grape varieties, this exotic white from Badenhorst is mouth-filling and zesty, with a terrific minerally backbone.

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