WHAT: This week’s wine is a delightful Chardonnay from South Africa, full of citrus aromas and flavors. It has a fresh acidity that makes it perfect with a meal and it has a great price.
South African wines have been around for hundreds of years, but most American drinkers know little about them.
We might have heard about their Chenin Blanc, which has not been a popular varietal in the United States. Or we might remember Pinotage, a red wine that gained some interest as a curiosity in this country, but then faded as poorly made wine hurt the market.
The South African wine industry has been changing during the last 20 years with a rise in quality, a concern for sustainability and many new vine plantings. Their wines are poised to make a major splash on the world market, and the industry is rolling out an aggressive marketing strategy in the United States. We will be seeing more of these great wines, probably first in restaurants and then in wine shops as consumers get comfortable with them.
The Reyneke Vinehugger Chardonnay is a wine that is easy to get comfortable with. It is a gorgeous straw yellow in the glass with enticing lime and citrus aromas. The first sip hints at green apple and tropical fruit, but the flavors become more complex as the wine opens in the glass.
It is an elegant, rich wine, and the great mix of fruit and acidity allows it to stand up to big meals. This isn’t one of those big oaky, buttery Chardonnays you can only drink at cocktail parties. This is a great dinner wine, made to pair with food.
Grapes for this 100 percent Chardonnay were sourced from predominantly sandy-loam soils in the Western Cape. A portion of the wine spends time in French oak, adding texture and length to the palate.
Hand-harvesting and organic yeast are just two of the practices Reyneke employs to keep their wines as close to natural as possible.
I recently learned a lot more about South African wines during a master class in New Orleans, taught by Jim Clarke, market manager for Wines of South Africa USA.
We tasted 12 wines as Clarke told us about the climate and soils of South Africa, which are particularly well suited for quality wine production. The vineyards are in the same latitude as Mendoza in Argentina and the best regions of Australia. Most of the best wines come from the Western Cape region, home of Reyneke.
The area at the southern tip of Africa where two oceans come together has cool breezes, fog and lots of sunshine. There are 67 types of soil, with sandstone, shale and decomposed granite being the most widespread.
South Africa has the most Chenin Blanc planted in the world. Their Chenin Blanc vineyards (covering 18-19 percent of South African vines) total more than the rest of the world combined.
Although grapes have been grown in South Africa for 350 years, starting with Dutch settlers, the industry didn’t keep pace with the rest of the world during the Apartheid era, which ended in 1994.
“Now they’re catching up,” Clarke said. “The quality has accelerated, 15-20 years later. We’re now ninth in total wine production in the world. We have been slower to penetrate the market because we don’t have an easy wine to hang our hat on. We won’t be depending on fads; we will sell on quality.”
Clarke said sommeliers have caught on to the diversity of South African wines and know how to present them to customers.
“Restaurants are the most likely place to find South African wines,” said Clarke. “The economy of restaurants allows them to train people to enjoy new wines more. South African sales will be driven by Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon blends and Syrah.”
WINERY: The Reyneke family had been farming their property, Uitzicht, for years when Johan Reyneke Jr. took over farming activities from his mother and produced their first wines in 1998. Since then he has moved steadily toward organic farming.
He is one of a small number of winemakers around the world producing biodynamic wines. In South Africa, he is considered a ground breaker and trendsetter in the field.
Reyneke says he does not use chemicals because they hide the uniqueness of the terroir where the grapes are grown.
“The intention here is to interfere as little as possible, to allow nature to be the real maker of the wine and to truly produce terroir-specific wines of the highest quality,” he said.
The winery also makes a Reserve White from Sauvignon Blanc, and a Reserve Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah or sometimes 100 percent Syrah. Their biodynamic range includes Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage.
GOES WITH: This fresh Chardonnay pairs perfectly with spicy food. We had it with barbecue shrimp made from a package of spices I brought back from New Orleans.
My wife, Teri, and I served the shrimp over rice and with salads. It was quite a feast. The citrus flavors and acidity calmed the heat from the spices and left a pleasant aftertaste. The citrus was a great match for shrimp. As much as I enjoyed sipping the wine by itself, the flavors exploded when paired with food.
The winery recommends paring this wine with tropical dishes such as coconut shrimp. I think it also would go well with many seafood dishes, grilled chicken and soft cheeses.
Many South African wines also go well with food on the grill, which you might expect from a country that is wild about barbecue. They call their barbecue Braai (bry), and it is so popular that their national independence day is called Braai Day.