Cape crusaders 

Grapes followed the Spanish to the New World and found a congenial home. Grapes followed the French Huguenots and colonists of the Dutch East India Company to South Africa and more or less languished for 300 years — through phylloxera, through a market system composed of large brandy-making cooperatives, and through trade sanctions imposed as a result of apartheid. Two things then happened to jump-start the wine industry: Trade sanctions were lifted in 1994 with the abolishment of apartheid; and the value of South African currency took a nose dive, making the exported wines of some few dedicated producers cheap alternatives on the global market. As far as most Americans are concerned, the industry is barely more than a decade old, yet there are now more than 500 wineries in operation in the country. It’s time to pay attention.

In these parts, one of the best portfolios of South African wines is managed by Chris Thomas of Vineyard Brands, and he agreed to curate this edition of Omniboire. Panelists were Bill Stephens, budding novelist and former wine columnist for the Express-News; Eddie Wyman, wine director at Gabriel’s I-10 & Callaghan outlet; Robert Robles, formerly of Prestige wine distributors and now manager at Zinc Champagne & Wine Bar, our host for the tasting; and yours truly. (Somebody has to take notes.) As is the custom, we tasted blind until the end of the session, when we took a look at non-taste factors such as value and label friendliness.

Thomas had put together a representational sample — leaving hors de concours, a spectacular red, as a reward for finishing the nine wines in the running. The first four were white, and right out of the slot the 2006 Neil Ellis Sincerely Sauvignon Blanc took top honors. This “sincere” imitation of Sancerre does everything right. “It’s varietally correct with grapefruit and citrus, but not overly astringent … and the price is incredible,” commented Stephens, while Robles found “a slight herbaceousness” on the nose.

Nipping at its heels was another screw-capped white, the even better value MAN 2006 Chenin Blanc, Coastal. This immensely appealing wine, a personal favorite made from un-trellised grapes, is named after the first letter of the wives of the three partners. “Honeysuckle and sweet tropical fruit — a great summer wine,” offered Robles. “The Kid Rock of whites,” proclaimed Wyman.

Another 2006 sauvignon blanc, this from Western Cape-Walker Bay by Southern Right (named for a whale) was called grassier than the Sincerely by Robles and myself — who also found a little of the classic “cat-pee” aroma. (Bad on your carpet, but OK in limited quantities in a wine.) Yet this is still a beautiful alternative to the grapefruit bombs of New Zealand.

More controversial was the 2006 Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay, also from Walker Bay. “You can see the ocean from there,” says Thomas, who has visited each winery represented, and this maritime influence, coupled with 100-percent malolactic fermentation and unexpected minerality lead to a potpourri of comments: “Burgundian” (Wyman); both “oaky and flabby” (Robles); “smoke, coconut, and vanilla” (yours truly).

A dry and strawberry-fragrant wine from Fairview, the Back family’s Goats do Roam 2005 Rosé, served as a bridge between whites and reds. Blended from five grapes, it offered “pretty sour-cherry” notes to Robles, who also wanted more acid. “I’m a rosé fan, and this is well-made … vibrant,” countered Wyman.

The reds fared less well as a group, with only one, the lowest-priced (and screw-capped) 2005 The Wolftrap making the usual 13-point cutoff. I suggest, however, that there was a double standard at work here, with the reds held to higher levels of expectation than the whites, if only subliminally. That and the fear of actually liking a wine made from South Africa’s unique love-it-or-hate-it grape, the dreaded pinotage. (“Band-Aids and rubber,” sniffed Robles.) The Wolftrap is an accordingly safe Rhone blend of syrah with cinsault, mourvedre, and a touch of viognier for roundness, and is something of a cult wine, according to Thomas. “Cherry, blueberry, raspberry …” offered Robles.

Close but no cigar honors go to both the 2004 Fairview Shiraz and the 2005 Goats do Roam in Villages, which does add a touch of pinotage to its syrah. Doomed by faint praise, the 2005 Spice Route Swartland Pinotage took bottom honors. “You just can’t get good cheap ones,” admitted Thomas. For a good expensive bottle (around $55), the “reward” wine, a 2004 Syrah from Boekenhoutsloof (wrap your lips around that one), was stunning, at once spicy and smooth, suggesting that whites don’t rule the roost entirely in this fast-forward region.

Select wines are available at Gabriel’s/Dons& Bens, Beeman’s and Whole Foods. Most are available at Saglimbeni Fine Wines and Central Market. 

Sincerely 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, $9.99
Crisp citrus with some melon

MAN Vintners 2006 Chenin Blanc, Coastal, $7.99
Floral/tropical, long finish

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Western Cape, $11.99
Grassy, good acid

Goats do Roam Rosé 2005, $8.99
Strawberry/sour cherry, crisp finish

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2006, Walker Bay, $22.99
Burgundian with caramel & oak

The Wolftrap 2005, $9.99
Rhône-style blend, berry/cola notes



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