The most surprising wines of this week’s Australia/New Zealand/South Africa staff tasting for me came from South Africa. They were fresh, focused, with steely nerve and expressive aromatics. I left inspired to learn more. And what do I really know about South Africa anyway? Not much. My experience with it has often been bacony/smoky overproduced Pinotage, because for quite awhile, that was what was widely available on the U.S. market. But this is a new era. Folks, it’s a great time to be a wine geek. Across the vinous landscape, there is a wave of energy and experimentation. So why hadn’t I anticipated it from South Africa?
South African wines have a long, varied history, dating back to 1655 when Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town and its first vineyard. As you might expect, SA wine has always been intertwined with colonialism and politics. Under British colonial rule, the wines gained popularity in Europe, but then fell out after a series of setbacks--phylloxera in the late 19th century, changing tariffs, and long ocean voyages all made SA wine more expensive than their French counterparts. South Africa began a long period of overproduction and low-quality grapes, often made just for distilling into fortified wines. The end of Apartheid in 1994 was a turning point, opening export markets and ending international sanctions and boycotts. Since then, there’s been a concerted effort by industry organizations to focus on quality. Several decades in, the momentum and enthusiasm are definitely hitting their stride.
The region is well situated for a renaissance. With a largely Mediterranean climate, there’s a long, warm growing season tempered by a few unique factors: the chilly Benguela Current from Antarctica cools the western Atlantic coast; a strong wind called Cape Doctor inhibits fungus and disease. It also beats up the vines pretty well, but the best growing areas are cradled by mountain ranges for protection. What’s more, the Cape boasts the oldest geology in the wine-growing world--ancient soils based on granite, sandstone, or shale--and the richest floral biodiversity on the planet. It’s apparently quite stunning to visit.
I was intrigued by the wines from the Kloof Street label, a project by husband-and-wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux, who seek out abandoned old, bush-vine vineyards to create wines that showcase soil and terroir. They’ve received a lot of recognition for their single-terroir Syrahs, each one grown on an isolated soil of granite, schist, quartz, or iron. They farm sustainably and without irrigation. Andrea, the winemaker, was awarded International Winemaker of the Year in 2016 by Wine Enthusiast. They’re in Swartland, north of Cape Town, in the town of Riebeek-Kasteel, which has become something of an unofficial wine capital. It’s a hotbed for a lot of the creative energy that is influencing the South African wine scene currently.
The Kloof Street label is their ode to fresh, drinkable, affordable wines. When I revisited the wines today, they were were showing even better than I’d remembered, especially the 2017 Kloof Street Chenin Blanc. It is absolutely enchanting. Green apple and ripe golden pears on the nose, making way to bright, mineraly notes on the palate with an underlying hint of cantaloupe. Finishes with lipsmacking acidity that nearly vibrates. It’s pure, fresh Chenin, and if it weren’t noon, I’d have another glass.
The 2016 Kloof Street Red Rhône Blend is also lovely--it’s a pinnacle of balance, everything in its right place. The blend is mostly Syrah with 4% Cinsault and 2% Carignan. It’s pretty and expressive, with deep plums and blackberries and hints of black pepper, finishing on firm tannins and balanced acids. There’s a bright lift to it, most likely from the Cinsault and Carignan. With a medium-bodied fluidness, it ripples over your palate--not at all bulky, but lively, with a just-right grip on the end like a reassurance you’ll see each other again. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?
These wines will be poured at each of our three stores today, but even if you don’t make it, pick up a bottle! They are each $19.99, which isn’t steep at all for this much vinous pleasure.
- Kate Soto