Grapevine: Out of Africa | Wine | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Grapevine: Out of Africa 

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For centuries in Ethiopia, people have drunk tej, a honey wine that is one of the world’s oldest fermented beverages. It was traditionally prepared by women, and makes no use of grapes, just pure honey. I’ve only tasted tej once—and maybe I just got hold of the wrong vintage, but let’s just say I won’t be planning any wine excursions to Ethiopia anytime soon. n

On the other hand, South Africa is a place with vineyards I’d like to visit. Visiting African Market & Restaurant (see Dining) motivated me to explore some locally available wines from South Africa. Jan van Riebeeck is credited with producing the country’s first wine in 1685. Today, South Africa boasts some 60 wine appellations and is known uniquely for Pinotage—its own grape variety—a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir. There’s also an abundance of Chenin Blanc produced in South Africa—where it’s called Steen—along with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Shiraz.

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In the past, my opinions of South African wines were mixed. Some were terrific and others were terrible. That doesn’t seem to have changed; my recent sampling of a spectrum of South African wines resulted in both yays and nays.

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NAY: The most likeable thing about Herding Cats Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay ($8) is the leopard on the label. I’ve written before about this insipid yet sweet-tasting, vanilla-soda style wine so I won’t belabor the point here. Not South Africa’s best offering.

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YEA: I haven’t found a plethora of pleasant Chards from South Africa, a country and climate mostly better suited to producing Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Neil Ellis Chardonnay Elgin ($24.25) is lush and classy, with good acidity and exotic pear, papaya and hazelnut flavors. Yum-yum. Its lower priced sister—Neil Ellis Chardonnay Stellenbosch ($12.10)—is also well structured with a firm mineral underpinning.

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NAY: Sebeka Chardonnay ($8) from South Africa’s Western Cape is fruity but, to my palate, far too creamy, with an icky vanilla overload.

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YEA: Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc ($14), in my opinion, is a great example of what good South African Chenin Blanc can be. Lemon, lime and pineapple aromas dominate this very clean-tasting, zippy, off-dry wine. I like it with shellfish and lemony dishes like veal piccata, but also just as a lively aperitif. Even better is Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc ($20). Mulderbosch winemaker Mike Dobrovic has been called “Mr. Sauvignon Blanc” in South Africa, and I can understand why. This slightly grassy, gooseberry-flavored, flinty S.B. is simply stellar. It’s great with Chèvre, and it’s a rare wine that plays well with asparagus.

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NAY: I have to admit, I’m just not a big fan of Pinotage. It seems to me a case of Cinsault massacring perfectly good Pinot Noir. A prime example is Fairview Pinotage ($13). The problem I have with it—and with most Pinotage—is that it tastes like someone inadvertently dropped mesquite wood chips into the fermenter. The smokiness is simply overwhelming, so much so that I couldn’t even drink the stuff and used it instead to braise short ribs. Your mileage may vary.

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YEA: Ataraxia Serenity Red ($32) is a finely tuned blend of Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot and the direct opposite of most Pinotage: subtle and refined, even elegant. This is wine is simply lovely.

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YEA: I’m also quite fond of Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir ($39). It’s a sleek, Old World, Burgundy-style Pinot with good tannin structure, earth and dark red fruit—the best Pinot Noir I’ve tasted from South Africa, mate.

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