Sipping South Africa, Part 1 

An introduction to the wines of South Africa.

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For the past couple of weeks, I've been on a wine mission. I've been tasting my way through some 20 different wines from South Africa. Yes, it's a lonely job, but somebody has to do it.

In the past, I've not exactly championed the South African wines I've tried, finding most to be mediocre, at best. Perhaps that's why Wines of South Africa (WOSA)—a not-for-profit group based in Stellenbosch, South Africa, which represents and promotes South African wines to international markets—reached out to me. And so, I decided to once again turn my gaze to South Africa. I'm glad I did.

Understanding some of the country's winemaking history will help to understand the present-day wines. The first South African wines were vinified by Dutch colonists in the late 1650s who made wines from wild-growing native grapes. Those grapes, in tandem with Dutch farmers' lack of winemaking skills, got South Africa's wine industry off to a very rocky start. To put a not-so-fine point on it: The wines sucked.

And so, a commander of the Dutch East India Co. named Jan van Riebeeck, stationed at South Africa's southwestern tip (the Cape), sent a missive back to Holland requesting that a shipment of European vine cuttings be sent to him. French vine cuttings, most notably Chenin Blanc, were sent to Riebeeck and, within a decade, Chenin Blanc and Muscat vineyards were thriving on the Cape. Today, Chenin Blanc (also called Steen) is the most widely planted varietal in South Africa, accounting for nearly 25 percent of that country's wine production. In all, some 40 different grape varietals are grown in South Africa, with most vineyards—or, "wine farms" as they're called there—concentrated in the southwestern part of the country.

As is true with our own country's polluted past, South Africa's earliest wine production was based, in part, on slave labor. In 1658, the Dutch brought slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar by ship to work the vineyards. And until the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 imposing sanctions on South Africa was repealed in 1991—and apartheid itself ended in 1994—most Americans had never tasted wine from South Africa.

But by the end of the 1990s, bottles of South African wine were beginning to show up in wine stores in the United States. Flash forward to today, and you'll discover that South Africa currently leads the entire world in sustainable and biodiverse winemaking. Black-owned businesses are gaining traction in the South African wine industry as well. According to WOSA, in 2012, 65 percent of all fairtrade wines sold worldwide originated in South Africa.

Although Chenin Blanc is South Africa's most widely planted wine grape, much of it is used for making cheap brandy. That's a shame, because South Africa produces world-class Chenin Blanc—a floral, peachy wine that is sometimes compared to French Viognier and Alsatian Pinot Gris. Other common white wine varietals in South Africa include Colombard (called Colombar, there), Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling and Viognier—the last three mostly used for blending.

When I think of South African red wine, I most often think of Pinotage. This is South Africa's own grape variety—a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which makes rustic, mostly simple and inexpensive reds. Although Pinotage is synonymous with South Africa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two widest-planted red-grape varietals. If there's a South African wine you're probably familiar with, it's The Chocolate Block, a hugely popular, rich wine with chocolate-like flavors that's even made its way into Costco stores that sell wine outside of Utah.

Next week in Part 2, we'll taste our way through a mess o' South African wines.

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