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Wine lovers: Give South African wines a chance

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
Oct. 30, 2002
A local wine lover who attended last week's tasting of South African wines said it best.
She was right. From top to bottom, the unfamiliar choices proved that South Africa is ready to enter the American wine scene and challenge established vintners.
The featured speaker was Peter Koff. He is originally from South Africa, but relocated to America and now owns a wine importing business. Koff acknowledged that in the early 1990s wine makers from his country exported inexpensive and undistinguished wines to the American market.
South African wine producers have done a 180 degree turn. The wines Koff presented were tasty and comparable to, or better than, many others in the $20 to $30 price range from various countries including our own.
Louisvale wines
Koff offered six wines for tasting. The first was Villiera Blue Ridge Blanc Paar, 1999, a blend of sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc. Tasters found it a rather simple wine which did not particularly show off the virtues of either grape. Pleasant but not special.
But when wine number two hit the table it was a different story. This was a 1999 chardonnay made by Louisvale from the Stellenbosch area. It received several votes as the wine of the evening with its full but not overly fruity flavor. One taster told me it could easily be habit-forming.
Koff also presented a Pinotage also made by Louisvale. Pinotage is a South African grape no one had ever tasted it before. They will again. Koff introduced it as a remarkably food-friendly wine and indeed it was. Smooth with wonderful fruit, but restrained fruit, and a touch of smoke in the flavor. It is the kind that leaves you shaking your head, not because it's overpowering, but because it's rich. With lamb or veal it would be stunning.
My wife absolutely fell in love with it, as witnessed by the fact that I later bought some to keep in my cellar. It, too, drew votes as the best of the night.
Two cabernets were presented. One was a cabernet/merlot blend from Villera in the Paarl area.
The fruit and the blend married beautifully, one with the other. This wine was one of my favorites, tasty, deep and ready. This cabernet/merlot blended wine is in the $20 class and darn well worth it. If you want to serve a wine that is slightly different, but wonderfully so, buy a bottle and give it a try.
The pure cabernet was made by the same producer who made the Pinotage, Kaapzicht. A nice sturdy wine and it made a number of fans. I found it comparable to similar wines made in California, but not superior to its fellows in the $20 class. You'll like it if you try it and it does have the added charm of being from South Africa, a country relatively unknown to wine lovers in our state.
Grand finale
As happens so often because we design these tastings this way, the best was saved for last. In this case the best was the Delheim Shiraz 2000, a blockbuster if there ever was one.
I freely admit I like the power and spice of well-made shiraz from South Africa and a few of the better syrahs from California. Shiraz and syrah are the same grape with a different name depending on the point of origin.
The Delheim from Koff's homeland has it all deep dark color, a lovely bouquet that rises from the glass, a wonderful peppery flavor with spice and a touch of licorice and a finish that simply won't go away.
It was the most expensive wine of the evening, about $40, but a show of hands also revealed it was the majority's favorite. For most buyers, it is probably a special occasion wine at that price, but if you would like to impress your guests and your own pallet, give it a try.
Expanding market
It's going to take several years before the wines of South Africa really get their toe in the door of the American wine market. But this time they've got something to fight with, lovely tasty wines, fairly priced, that offer a change many consumers will embrace once they give them a chance.
As the gentleman said about the chardonnay, "Once you taste that first glass you just have to have more."
That was not merely the chardonnay. It was true of them all.