A tangy chenin blanc, a fresh sauvignon blanc, and an evocative organic syrah, all from South Africa
Ken Forrester Workhorse Chenin Blanc 2012 (£7.99, Marks & Spencer) South African wine had a very good year last year. According to the generic marketing body Wines of South Africa, exports of Cape wine around the world reached record levels, and in the UK, where we drink more South African wine than anywhere else, sales were up by a fifth. The main reason for that is not particularly glamorous: when they’re filling the cheap seats in their ranges, supermarket buyers tend not to care all that much about where the wine comes from and just shop around for wherever they can find the best deal. South Africa, with a weak currency and a bumper 2012 crop to sell, was simply better placed to do this job last year than European producers, who’d had a bad time with the weather two summers ago. Quality at this level is often an afterthought, and that means that many of the least appealing wines I’ve tried in the past year have turned out to have South Africa on the back, if not the front, label. But the Cape’s competitiveness has also meant bargains, and none more so, perhaps, than this taut and tangy white from the evergreen master of chenin blanc, Ken Forrester.
De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc, Durbanville, South Africa 2013 (Waitrose) It would be wrong to say that South Africa’s current good fortune is all about the cheap and its varying degrees of cheer, however. As an excellent book – Wines of the New South Africa – published last year by the South African wine writer Tim James describes, there has been a flowering of creativity in the Cape wine scene in the years since it emerged from the isolation of apartheid, and particularly in the past decade. As I’ve written here before, this new South Africa, driven by some of the world’s most talented and thoughtful winemakers, has its most distinctive expression in the whites made from chenin blanc both on its own and in blends, from producers such as Donovan Rall, Eben Sadie, AA Badenhorst, Vergelegen, Miles Mossop, Mullineux and that man Forrester. But the country has also developed a justified reputation for sauvignon blanc which, while not so singular in style, can certainly compete with the Loire and New Zealand for quality in the hands of Ataraxia, Iona, Cape Point and, in this quivering, zesty box-fresh example De Grendel.
Reyneke Organic Syrah, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2011 (£10.50, winedirect.co.uk) Perhaps the biggest leap made by South African wine, however, has been with its reds. And there was plenty of room for improvement. When I first visited the country in 2002, my abiding palate-memory was of a dirty ashy quality that had more to do with bad winemaking and poorly managed vines than, as some South Africans said, the unique Cape soil. You can still find that flavour, and not only in the bargain basement, but it’s increasingly rare, and the better bottles are carving out an identity that is distinctively South African in a much more agreeable way. Although I’ve had some very creditable cabernets and pinot noirs from the Cape, the wines that are most convincing and evocative so far are those made from southern European varieties, particularly syrah. At the top of the tree is the pair of syrahs named after the soils they’re grown on by Mullineux, Granite and Schist 2011 (£64.50, bbr.com). Reynecke’s dark and sinewy organic syrah is a more realistically priced alternative.