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The South African Vanguard: A Few Tasting Notes

It’s been 11 years since I first visited South Africa. And after writing that sentence, I went back to find the post I wrote capturing my impressions of the country’s wines. If you’re curious you can read it here.

In the intervening decade, I’ve followed the trajectory of the industry as best I can, through trade tastings, samples and reading, but the combination of these are a poor substitute for spending weeks in the country making winery visits and tasting.

Nonetheless, it’s extraordinarily clear that South African wine has done nothing but improved since I was there in 2008, shortly after the birth of my daughter. And as she is now a lively 6th grader, South Africa’s wine industry has also come a mind-bindingly long way in terms of knowledge, technique, sophistication and quality.

Since I was in Capetown, hundreds of smaller wine producers have come on the scene. Led by the inimitable Eben Sadie, Swartland has become a hotbed of upstart winemakers of exceptional quality. The edges of different wine regions have been pushed farther towards extremity — whether that be cooler climates, higher elevations or riskier viticulture and winemaking techniques.

Of particular interest to me, winemakers continue to explore new grape varieties even as they hone their skills at working with those that have traditionally characterized the industry. Chenin Blanc, for instance, is finally living up to the hype that somehow preceded true levels of quality outside of a few exceptional producers. Pinot Noir and Pinotage continue to be mastered with greater precision and honesty, and Syrah, especially cooler climate renditions, deepens in its profundity. Like in many places around the world, new oak percentages are in retreat, as are alcohol levels and sulfur additions.

In short, these are exciting times for South Africa. For that reason, getting back to the Cape Wine show is high on my list of industry events to attend in the coming years, but until I make that happen, I’m stuck peering at the industry through the narrow neck of a wine bottle.columella_16.jpg That is to say, I’ve got only press samples and my own buying habits to contend with.

The latest round of wines I tasted from South Africa came courtesy of a press mailing that touted the few bottles I received as part of a tour of winemakers whose importers have dubbed them “South Africa Redefined.” The combined effort of a couple of key importers, this series of tastings was seemingly an effort to get people exposed to the talent of some of the hottest producers in South Africa. While I couldn’t attend the tasting (which skipped San Francisco as a destination) they did send me a few of the wines, and I’m happy to share my notes with you.

BEAUMONT FAMILY WINES
Founded by Jayne and Raoul Beaumont in 1974, Beaumont Family Wines existed as very small project on the family farm for 20 years before Jayne released the first commercial wine under the Beaumont name in 1994. The farm itself has a long history in the region, having produced wine for more than a century. Indeed the site is the oldest wine cellar in the Walker Bay region. The Beaumont family farms about 70 acres of grapes planted in ancient shale soils about 4 miles from the ocean.

2018 Beaumont Family Wines “Hope Marguerite” Chenin Blanc, Walker Bay, South Africa
A light blonde in the glass with a hint of creamy bronze, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, celery and unripe pears. In the mouth, gorgeous quince and pear flavors have a wonderful citrusy snap thanks to excellent acidity. A deep underlying minerality makes for a sense of power in the wine. Gorgeous and long in the finish with citrus pith and a touch of spiciness and the sweetness of honeysuckle. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $39. click to buy.

CAPENSIS
In 2014, Barbara Banke, head of the Jackson Family Wines empire, entered a joint venture with Antony Beck, from the well-known South African producer Graham Beck Wines, to purchase the Fijnbosch farm in the Stellenbosch region. The farm includes 20 acres of vines heavily planted to Chardonnay, some of whose fruit Jackson Family Wines had already been purchasing. The roughly 1000 cases of Chardonnay under the Capensis label are made by winemaker Graham Weerts.

2015 Capensis Chardonnay, Western Cape, South Africa
Light to medium yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream, melted butter and lemon curd. In the mouth, intense lemon curd and cold cream flavors have a gorgeous silky texture and a nice snap to them thanks to excellent acidity. The wood is quite well integrated and provides a sappy, toasty note in the background of the wine. Classically styled and gorgeous. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.

BEESLAAR
Abrie Beeslaar spent many years making the famed wines at Kanonkop before moving on to start his eponymous label in 2011 based on what he could coax out of 6 acres of old-vine, head-trained Pinotage that he got access to farm. He and his wife are making 750 of this single wine that many consider to be among the finest interpretations of the variety in South Africa.

2017 Beeslaar Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of smoky raspberry and cherry. In the mouth, that smokiness continues as suede-like tannins wrap around a core of cherry and herbs. Nutty notes linger in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $52. click to buy.

A.A. BADENHORST FAMILY
Adi Badenhorst is something of a household name in South African wine, having made wines in the region for decades. In 2008 he and his cousin purchased the Kalmoesfontein farm near Paardeberg in Swartland and began the work of restoring the property’s 1930s-era cellar and old dry-farmed, bush-vine vineyards. Their 106 acres of vines are mostly Grenache, Cinsault, and Chenin Blanc and produce around 10,000 cases of wine under the A.A. Badenhorst Family label annually.

2017 A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines “Ramnasgras” Cinsault, Swartland, South Africa
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of mulberry and cherry and boysenberry mix with a hint of dusty road. Faint tannins and beautiful hints of minerality. Notes of cedar and potpourri linger in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

SADIE FAMILY VINEYARDS
Eben Sadie was the first winemaker to open my eyes to the potential of South African wine, and remains, at least to my mind, the finest producer in the country. He farms around 60 acres of vines split across 53 different parcels in and around Swartland, where his family has made its home for generations. His first vintage was in 2000 and since then he has continue to seek out less-well-known grape varieties and old vines throughout the Swartland region. Where he can’t find variety, he plants it himself, and is currently experimenting with Greek, Italian, and other obscure French varieties. He produces around 3800 cases of wine each year under the Sadie Family label across 10 or more different bottlings.

2016 Sadie Family Vineyards “Columella” Red Blend, Swartland, South Africa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberry mixed with exotic flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous fleecy tannins surround a core of blackberry, pepper, dusty road and dried herbs. Savory, aromatic and stunning. A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Grenache, and Tinta Barocca. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.