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 winesan undercurrent of minerality, a dash of characterthat 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 1600sat 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 winesSouthern Rhônestyle reds and Chenin-heavy whites. These are racy, vibrant wines that are definitely heading in the direction of world-class.
Sadie, 39, is widely regarded as South Africa's most talented young winemaker. He has worked overseas, and he now owns a winery in Spain's Priorat along with his eponymous Swartland property. Strongly influenced by his time in Burgundy, Sadie is a terroir fanatic, obsessed with finding great vineyards and creating wines that convey a powerful sense of place. In Swartland, grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, and there is a good amount of old-vine Chenin, too. Sadie's signature red wine, Columella, is a Rhône-style blend, earthy and elegant but with an underlying wildness. His mineral-rich white, Palladius, is a combination of 10 different grapes anchored by Chenin Blanc. (The wines are not available here at the moment, as Sadie no longer has a US importer, but this is unlikely to remain the case for long.)
Sadie is effusive about South Africa's prospects. He says that there's now a contingent of young winemakers who share his focus on terroir, and with matching the right grapes to the right sites. "We do not plant what sells," he says, "we plant what belongs." While South Africa will perhaps never be the flavor of the month (as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec have been), this philosophy is essential for South African wines to excel. Sadie acknowledges that blended wines are riskymost wine buyers think in terms of individual grapesbut blends are what work best in Swartland; they are the wines that should be made there. To Sadie, risk-taking is what he and his peers are all about; they're bringing a frontier spirit to the vineyard and cellar. "This has always been a country for pioneers," he says. "It's exciting."
Badenhorst radiates optimism, too. A 39-year-old, third-generation winemaker, Badenhorst makes two excellent flagship winesa red Rhône blend and an eclectic white comprised of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Verdelho. He also makes a less expensive red blend and a straight Chenin, both called Secateurs, which are also quite good. Like Sadie, he has worked abroad, but he feels that a lot of South African winemakers who trained overseas came home intent on mimicking the wines they'd tasted in France, California and Australia. Badenhorst came back with a different take: All of those places made unique wines, and if South Africa was going to achieve greatness, it would need to create its own distinctive wines. In recent years, he says, there's been a sort of Great Awakening among up-and-coming vintners like himself: They have been uncorking a lot of older South African winesfrom the '50s, '60s and '70sand have found, to their surprise, that some of them were sensational. "It's instilling confidence in the younger generation," Badenhorst says. "Some of these wines have wonderful expressions of terroir, and it shows that South Africa doesn't have to stand back to anyone. There are going to be some exceptional wines coming out of this country over the next 10 to 15 years."
Sadie and Badenhorst aren't the only rising talents. They're joined by producers like Duncan Savage of Cape Point Vineyards, south of Cape Town, and Chris Mullineux from Mullineux Family Wines in Swartland. In Stellenbosch, Donovan Rall wins high praise for the blends at his eponymous winery; in Hemel-en-Aarde, Kevin Grant of Ataraxia makes superlative Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
There's also growing international interest in South Africa. May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, the former owner of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, purchased the Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch a few years ago. Charles Banks, the American former co-owner of Napa Valley cult Cabernet Screaming Eagle, has long been bullish on South Africa, and last year purchased Mulderbosch Vineyards, one of the country's best-known wineries. Going from producing a red wine that fetches north of $1,000 per bottle to peddling a $15 line of whites might seem like a step down, but you'd never know that by talking to Banks, whose enthusiasm for South Africa borders on evangelical: "I'm a huge believer in the place; I think it can make better white wines for the money than any country in the world." And he's not just optimistic about his own prospects; he thinks winemakers like Sadie and Badenhorst, along with others, like Adam Mason at Klein Constantia, are doing wonders for South Africa. "Historically, what you had in South Africa was a bunch of wealthy guys who owned the wineries," he tells me. "It was all about the lifestyle. But the last thing South Africa needed was another multimillion-dollar showcase winery. What was needed was more time in the vineyard." That's exactly the attitude driving the new generation.
"Things are changing," says Banks. "South Africa is reinventing itself with these exuberant young guys."
Michael Steinberger is the author of Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. His website is winediarist.com.
Where to Sleep and Eat in South African Wine Country
Much like California's Napa Valley, South Africa's stunning Cape winelands have gorgeous hotels and some of the country's best restaurants. Here, three great new destinations.
An eight-acre garden provides ingredients for the restaurant at this restored 17th-century farm-estate.
Delaire's 10 super-luxurious private lodges have stunning views down to the vineyards of Stellenbosch.
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.