What We're Tasting Podcast: Why South African Wine Has Something for Everybody | Wine Enthusiast
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What We’re Tasting Podcast: Why South African Wine Has Something for Everybody

Old World? New World? How do you describe South African wines? Take a look at white wines, red blends, explore the Swartland region, and experience Pinotage redemption. Also learn about the collaborative spirit guiding the Cape Winemakers Guild.

The wines discussed in this episode are:
@4:15 Tokara 2017 Reserve Collection Sauvignon Blanc (Elgin)
@12:44 Terre Brûlée 2016 Le Rouge Red (Swartland)
@17:41 Adi Badenhorst & Duncan Savage 2016 Cape Winemakers Guild Love Boat Red (Swartland)



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Read the full transcript of “Why South African Wine Has Something for Everybody”:

Jameson Fink: Welcome to the Wine Enthusiast, What We’re Tasting podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode I’m exploring the wines of South Africa with Wine Enthusiast Managing Editor and Tasting Director, Lauren Buzzeo, who covers and reviews wines from South Africa. What we’re tasting is sponsored by Vivino. With the largest online inventory, Vivino finds the right wine every time, including a vast array of South African wines, of course. Download Vivino to discover and buy your favorites, and stock up at vivino.com/wineenthusiast.

So one of the things that’s really interesting about South Africa as far as its wine history is it dates back to the 17th Century, and it’s often labeled a New World wine region, but really, I’m wondering why it doesn’t have more of an Old World reputation, and actually, that is just something that I’m paraphrasing from Lauren.

Welcome, Lauren. When you were talking about South African wines I guess in general, is the a New World region or an Old World region, or both?

Lauren Buzzeo: Well, the short answer is it’s both. In a lot of consumers’ eyes, it is considered a New World wine region. But you’re right, the history goes back centuries, hundreds of years. Wine has been produced in South Africa for longer than many other what’s considered Old World wine regions. I like to say it has an Old World heart and a New World soul. So basically what happened was a lot of the winemaking was controlled by the government-owned co-op, so everything was sort of regulated and controlled by the government in South Africa up until fairly recently. Up until that point, there wasn’t really a lot of manipulation and variety and experimentation that these winemakers could do. They were really very strictly regimented and set in terms of making wines for mass production use, cultivating grapes that were very fruitful and gave you a large quantity of juice.

So up until that point, they were very restricted, again. So it’s considered New World wine region in a lot of people’s eyes now, because really, South African wine as we know it has only really been around for I’d say since the ’80s, maybe even the ’90s. So we’re only talking about 20, 30 years that South African wine as we know it has really existed.
And what happened was the government-controlled co-op wasn’t mandated anymore. People had the flexibility to experiment with different grapes to really do soil analysis to plant what they wanted, to make styles of wine that they wanted, and that was something really new and unique that people, again, were unable to do before. So once that happened, it was sort of a new day, a new dawn, a new era, for South African wine. And additionally, the borders were open, so these winemakers were able to travel around to different regions and really absorb a lot of the techniques, the skill, the advice, the experience, that they really just didn’t have in their homeland.

So once they were able to gain that experience and to understand wine from a more global perspective as opposed to just centralized in the South African wine industry, there was just a lot of change and a lot of evolution that took place as a result of that.

JF: This whole New World, Old World, kind of dichotomy, it’s funny, I was thinking back, when you’re evaluating wines, you’re taking wine classes, one of the first things that they tell you to do is to put it, “Is it New World, is it Old World?” Put it in this category and then start from there. It’s kind of one of the first things you do. And on my way here, I was thinking about South African wine and that old Reese’s Peanut Butter commercial, peanut butter cups, where it’s like, “You got chocolate in my peanut butter, you got peanut butter in my chocolate.” And it’s sort of like I’m thinking of South African wine in the glass. It’s like, “You got Old World wine in my New World wine,” or “You got New World wine in my Old World wine.” It’s sort of like this kind of coming together of a long tradition and new techniques and new ideas and new thoughts.
And I know one of the categories with South African wine that you’re really excited about is the white wines, and you’re a big champion of those. And so the first one I wanted to talk about was the Tokara 2017 Reserve Collection Sauvignon Blanc from Elgin, 91 points and editor’s choice, your choice. What is … and Sauvignon Blanc is so popular. I mean, especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and then I think of France and Sancerre and Loire Valley. What is South African Sauvignon Blanc like?

LB: So it’s interesting that we started this conversation talking about the Old World-New World dichotomy, and sort of that peanut butter Reese’s reference was great, because indeed in a lot of these wines, you get the best of both worlds. You get that Old World wine with a New World soul. So when you’re talking about South African Sauvignon Blanc in particular to start us off, you’re talking about wines that can express some of that New Zealand character, but it could also veer more towards those Old World Loire-style Sauvignon Blancs. So you can get some of those greener notes, those herbal tones, pyroxene, which is pleasantly so, yeah, but it’s also juxtaposed by that really ripe tropical fruit or stone fruit.

And the best thing about South African wines to me is that you generally have this beautiful, natural acidity across almost all varieties, and even when it’s grown in warmer climates, they’re able to retain this beautiful acidity that just keeps everything so fresh and so vibrant and also gives these wines the ability to age a little bit.

As a culture, we’re totally obsessed with drinking the freshest, freshest white wines, and it always makes me think The Jerk, right, the scene in The Jerk where he’s like, “What is this old stuff? Give me the freshest wine.’ I feel like that’s what we’re like with our wine consumption. If we see two sauvies side by side, one ’15, one ’16, immediately people think that the ’16 is going to be better. It’s totally not the case. In so many circumstances, the ’15 is going to just have a bit more nuance, a bit more mellow, it’s going to be more integrated. It’s not to say that it’s going to be duller. It’s still going to have those bright fruits, that really great acidity. It’s just going to be a more complete and harmonious package, whereas the ’16 is probably going to be a little leaner, tighter, more austere, whatever the case may be.

So it’s funny, but indeed you could get the best of both worlds, and I think Elgin is a great example of that, because you’re talking about one of the coolest climates in South Africa in Elgin. So it’s in the Overberg region about 40 miles southeast of Cape Town, so it’s about an hour’s drive consider Cape Town. And it’s fairly high elevation, and it’s also close to the ocean, so you get a lot of that really cool character. You get a lot of that herbal freshness, and you get that beautiful salinity that you don’t get from global, anywhere in the world Sauvignon Blanc, right? It’s definitely a unique characteristic for them.

Tokara, this selection in particular is an interesting one, because Tokara is actually based in Stellenbosch, although obviously for this wine labeled Elgin, they sourced their fruit from an Elgin vineyard. But there’s so many wonderful producers in Elgin. It’s such a beautiful valley, traditionally an apple valley, a real orchard valley, that now and again in recent years has turned their attention to high-quality wine grapes. They make beautifully expressive sauvie, but also, the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir, ’cause again, we’re talking about a relatively cool climate for South Africa, are just beautiful expressions from there.

JF: Yeah. And now I have to own up to something. I totally transposed that and said Elgin. So I did. I am aware of that. So my apologies on that.

I really like what you had to say about vintages and freshness in wines like Sauvignon Blanc, because I do think … I mean, I was guilty of this as a retail buyer. It’s like, “I don’t want my Sauvignon Blanc, my Pinot Grigio, my rosè, to be last year’s. I want the newest, freshest. And I kind of didn’t think, do people really care? If you’re just recommending a wine, you’re like, “Hey, you should try this. It’s great. It’s really refreshing. It’s crisp.” And I don’t know if most people are like, “Well, what vintage is it? Is it the most recent one?” You don’t even need to go there.

And then the whole idea with freshness, too. You’re right. It’s not like, quote, unquote, last year’s Sauvignon Blanc falls off a cliff, like it’s totally undrinkable. It’s like, “It’s fresh, it’s fresh, it’s fresh, and then it’s dead. It’s DOA. It’s vinegar.”

And also, sometimes, as a wine buyer or as a consumer, you can get … as a wine drinker, people are trying to get rid of these wines, and you can get really good deals on last year’s rosè or Sauvignon Blanc or whatever it may be.

LB: Totally. When I see that, I get all excited and I buy up everything I can, because basically they’ve done a favor for you. They’ve aged the wines, they’ve hopefully kept it temperature controlled so it’s properly stored, and you have wines that are more ready to drink now than those that were just released. And I think it’s frustrating for producers to see that and to experience on the retail end. And again, you’re talking mostly just consumers that go into a shop that look at the shelves and see the two vintages and then make the selection based on that, right?

It’s not really so much that people are necessarily going to ask, as you were saying, but when they see that and they go immediately for the freshest one, it’s so frustrating, because sometimes these producers hold it back knowing that the wine’s going to improve with a little bit of time. Sometimes there might be different aging techniques, for instance, if it’s aged on oak for six months or eight months, whatever it may be, and it just therefore is then a little bit behind schedule of the un-oaked, quote, unquote, fresher wines. It’s frustrating to have that stigma around those wines. So if you’re listening, don’t drink your white wines too young. Age them.

Don’t be scared of older vintages.

JF: Yeah. I mean, it’s like if I went over to someone’s house for a barbecue and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got wine. We’ve got Sauvignon Blanc.” And I’d be like, “Great. I’ll have a glass.” I mean, I’d like to think … and I probably would be that guy. But I’d like to think I’d just be like, “Yeah, I’d love a glass of Sauvignon Blanc,” not like, “Oh, what vintage is it, blah-blah-blah?” It’s like, “If you have it, it’s cold, it’s good. I’m going to drink it.” Just be less vintage obsessed.

And it’s really interesting to take a wine, just an expensive Sauvignon Blanc, and buy, if you see two vintages, buy them and have someone pour them blind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the older vintage came out on top.

LB: Totally. Absolutely. By the way, you totally would be that guy, unless you were at my house.

JF: I have been.

LB: Then you wouldn’t be that guy.

JF: I have been that guy at your house. “Oh, this vintage? Oh, that’s great, Lauren. I’m calling an Uber right now and going home.”

And then quickly I want to talk about the other blanc I know you’re passionate about is Chenin Blanc. And I remember reading online at winemag.com your viewpoint about South African Chenin Blanc. And you made no punches about it as far as what’s happening now in Chenin Blanc the hallowed grounds of the Loire Valley. Why should I be paying attention to South African Chenin?

LB: Everybody should be paying attention to South African Chenin, because it is so freaking exciting, and there’s absolutely something in the category for just about every palate. I think that’s the most exciting thing about Chenin Blanc for me. Beyond just talking about that, sure, you can trace Chenin back to Loire historically, but really, in terms of a calling card, country-identified white grape, I have to say that South Africa absolutely has the edge on it. People don’t have that automatic association with any other region beyond South Africa for Chenin Blanc, and there’s a reason why. They do it exceptionally well. It has a variety of expressions, and it has a variety of styles.

So let me differentiate between the two. Stylistically, you can have a fresh, un-oaked, dry Chenin; you can have a more fuller bodied, robust, rich, oaked Chenin; you can have a semisweet Chenin; you can have a fully sweet Chenin; you can have a late harvest Chenin; you can have a sparkling Chenin, all with different characteristics, and then beyond there, in terms of expression, from the different WOs or Appalachian system within South Africa, completely different expressions, again, of the grape, showing different characteristics from one to the other.

So there’s just so much beauty and diversity with a common thread with one variety that there’s just so much to explore and discover. And again, there’s absolutely something for everybody’s palate, no matter what end of the spectrum you like it. If you like white wine, you can find a Chenin that you are going to love.

JF: There’s a Chenin for everyone.

LB: There’s a Chenin for everyone. I’m on the Cheninista train.

JF: I want to shift gears to talk about red wine a little bit. The second wine is the Terre Brûlée 2016 Le Rouge Red from the Swartland, 89 points, and this is a Shiraz-Cinsaut blend. Can you talk about blends in South Africa? Especially red blends, I think those Rhone-style blends are really exciting.

LB: Yeah. Rhone-style blends are definitely a huge thing right now in South Africa. But I’ll just say additionally, single-varietal wines are, as well. But in terms of blends, especially in the Swartland, we’ve seen a lot of attention paid to and a lot of success with Sera particularly, but also Rhone-style red wines from the Swartland region. So the Swartland region is about 40 miles north of Cape Town, so it’s about an hour’s drive north, as oppose to Elgin, which was southeast. And it’s a very warm, very dry, very hot area. Swartland is actually Dutch for “black land,” so that just gives you an idea of just sort of what type of terrain.
It is very mountainous. It has the Paardeberg Mountain and the Malmesbury Shale typically is what the terroir is based in. It has a little bit of granite, but … So you get these beautiful, rocky expressions, a lot minerality in the wines that, again, are very synonymous and very well-suited to these Rhone red grapes.

Historically, red blends in South Africa have played a very important part, and particularly I love that we’re talking about this wine, because it is a Syrah-Cinsaut blend, right? And Cinsaut has a really fantastic history in South Africa in terms of a blend component, because it’s a very rigorous, very juicy grape and it was used in a lot of blends in South Africa for decades … but it wasn’t always labeled on the wine. And it was used, actually, really to get the juices going and to keep the machines lubricated, the presses and everything. And again, it added a little bit of vigor, a little bit of acidity, and a little bit of bright fruitiness to these blends.

So say you had a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1979 from South Africa, chances are it had a pretty significant percentage of Cinsaut in it, as much as 25 to 35%. And this wasn’t realized until actually only recently when a lot more analysis was done on these historic wines. So we’re seeing right now absolutely a resurgence in terms of Cinsaut and its popularity and its significance and importance in South African winemaking, so a lot of winemakers are gravitating towards the grape and turning back to those more traditional South African red blends and incorporating it into them, whether it’s, again, a traditional Rhone-style blend, meaning Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre. Or, if it’s a, if you will, Cape-style blend that has Cabernet Sauvignon, maybe Cab Franc, maybe a little Pinotage … we’ll talk about that later.

JF: Oh, yeah, definitely. We’re out of time. We can talk about Pinotage.

We are not ending this until we talk Pinotage.

Okay, okay. We’re definitely talking Pinotage.

LB: But yeah, I mean, the Swartland has had a ton of success with these grapes, with these styles of wines. And they’re beautiful. They’re great expressions. Again, you get that minerality, you get that beautiful, vibrant fruit, but you have a wonderful structure to go along with it.

JF: Yeah. And I was thinking about … I think I was in South Africa like six years again, and going to the Swartland, it’s so markedly different. You’re in Stellenbosch and there’s mountains and some lush. The terrain is really … I mean, it’s beautiful everywhere. But just it was much more desolate and barren. I remember I think I was at Spice Route, and also just this guy was like, “Oh, here’s a giant snake crawling around.” And there was just snakes everywhere in the vineyards. There are probably snakes everywhere in all vineyards, but it was just so markedly different, and the soil was really different. It was really a dramatic … And now it’s become … It’s sort of like … I mean, this was years ago, but it’s really sort of a hotbed for winemaking sort of as you see the diversity of the wine regions in South Africa.

LB: Totally. And you’re talking again about a hot region, so they do a lot of dry farming, no irrigation, and there’s absolutely … some people might have heard about the Swartland Revolution. It was this group of producers, most notably Eben Sadie, the Mullineuxs, and Mark Kent from Boekenhoutskloof, you’re talking Spice Route, was involved in that, as well.

They really brought up prominence of the region, Adi Badenhorst, but now we’re seeing with the Swartland independent producers, we’re seeing a new generation of these Swartland producers that are really picking up and expanding the knowledge of what Swartland wines and what Swartland wineries can produce.

So not only talking about the red blends and the Syrah, but they’re really showcasing the best of what Chenin can do. You have someone like Silver Fish, which is doing a Solera system Chenin Blanc, which is awesome, you have Rall, who’s doing a lovely Grenache Blanc. So there’s really a lot more diversity and experimentation going on even just within Swartland than there was, say, five, 10 years ago.

JF: So the third wine also from Swartland is the Adi Badenhorst? Did I say that right?

LB: Adi Badenhorst, yeah.

JF: Okay. I’m just going to say that again. The third wine is the Adi Badenhorst and Duncan Savage 2016 Cape Winemakers Guild Love Boat Red, and 94 points on that. And I wanted to talk about this wine just because I want to give a chance to talk about the Cape Winemakers Guild, the auction, and what it means for the industry.

LB: Yeah, so the Cape Winemakers Guild is a group. It was formed in 1982. It’s now about 50 members strong, I believe. And it’s a group of winemakers that came together to really try to showcase the best of what South African wine and the best South African winemakers from the country. So there’s a lot of rigorous selection. You have to be nominated to be in it. You have a lot of peer tasting, a lot analysis done to your samples, and then every year there’s a Cape Winemakers Guild auction where these winemakers make these special barrels, usually very limited quantities, maybe one barrel of something special that they put on auction for this occasion that are really some of the most exciting, unique and beautiful wines coming out of South Africa today.

Certainly, they’re very hard to find, and they definitely command higher prices than people are probably used to spending on South African wines, but they’re absolutely worth it. And this wine in particular, it’s interesting, because you have Adi Badenhorst, who, as we talked about, is in the Swartland region, so really, this sort of renegade, wild character, sort of like the Didier Dagueneau of Swartland, and you have Duncan Savage, who’s this total surfer boy in the best way, so please don’t take offense, Duncan, totally casual, awesome, laid back, very cool, minimalist intervention type guy who’s based actually in Cape Town.

Come together to make this really interesting Rhone-style red blend, which again, is Shiraz-based, so it’s interesting that we’re talking again more Shiraz. But so this beautiful wine that they called the Love Boat Red for the Swartland, they also made a Love Boat White for the auction. And they were definitely two of the finest wines that I tasted for the 2016 auction releases.

JF: And you were kind enough to bring a Cape Winemakers Guild wine that I am enjoying right now.

LB: I did, and it’s another Shiraz. It’s actually from Boela Gerber, who is the current chairman of the Cape Winemakers Guild. They do change. So previously, the previous chairman was Miles Mossop, who actually makes the wine at Tokara. All of this seems to be going full circle, the first wine that we tasted. But Miles is no longer with Tokara. He has his own winery.

But anyway, it varies from year to year. So this is from the current chairman, and he’s the winemaker over at Groot Constantia that’s based in the Constantia region. Beautiful area, so idealic, bucolic, beautiful. It’s right by Cape Town. It’s right by the water sort of inlet. So this Shiraz was absolutely one of the top bottlings from the Cape Winemakers Guild tasting again. And I thought it would be interesting to just showcase the wine of the current chairman of the organization.

JF: It’s really delicious. Thank you.

LB: Yeah.

JF: Okay. We definitely have to talk about Pinotage. Actually, this is good, because I went to a portfolio tasting a couple months ago, and I had a couple Pinotages. I’ve been sort of notorious, like a lot of wine people, for like, “Oh, I don’t like Pinotage.” But I had a couple that I really genuinely really like, not like, “Oh, this was interesting,” code for like, “I’m tolerating it,” or “It’s intellectually curious in a way, but there’s no pleasure.” I drank them with pleasure, with gusto.

LB: I’m so happy to hear you say that.

JF: I know, I know. It’s been a long time coming.

Obviously, we’ve talked about this before. Argued. Talked. But maybe it’s because I think … I think it’s maybe something that you said, that Pinotage was often sort of treated in a manner to make a bigger … people treated it like Cabernet or something like that, trying to make a big, powerful wine out of it, and now people seem to be being much more gentle with it and thinking of it more like a Pinot Noir or a Gamay. Am I on the right track?

LB: Absolutely. So the lineage of Pinotage … you’re talking about Pinot Noir, and I think you’re right, we have talked about this previously. There was a little bit of over-manipulation of the grape. People were almost overly … in my opinion, a bit overly forceful with it. There was a lot of extraction, a lot of punch-down. They were, again, very aggressive and wanting this really big almost brutish wine, whereas now we’re seeing winemakers that are treating it little bit more delicately and a little bit more like Pinot Noir as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon.
So we’re finding that there’s these new expressions that are coming out from winemakers that are taking this approach that have the more sort of refined elegance and nuanced tone, the more demure side of Pinotage, if you will, Jameson.

JF: I like demure wines. That’s more my style.

Yeah, so it was an awakening for me. It was a seminal event in my wine life.

LB: Totally. For anybody that’s listening, if you’ve had a Pinotage and you didn’t like it, I strongly encourage you to try another one, because-

JF: I’m your biggest success story.

LB: Exactly, for the reasons we’re talking about now. Things are always changing. It’s, again, a young industry, and there’s definitely a lot out there to try and new styles, different styles. So don’t be turned off if you had one you didn’t like. Just try, try again. That’s what it’s all about.

JF: And then finally, we started off with a little splash. It’s like 85 degrees today. When it’s over 70, I start complaining loudly. I just don’t like the heat. So we started with a little splash of 2017 Mulderbosch rosè of Cabernet Sauvignon, and I’ve been drinking that Mulderbosch rosè for … I mean, I think if I look back on my blog, I’m sure there’s posts from like 10 years ago or something like that drinking this rosè. So I love it. It’s a really inexpensive fresh – and Cabernet is not something you see made into rosè a lot, so I thought I would pour a little for you this hot day.

LB: I love it. Thank you so much. The Mulderbosch rosè has absolutely been a go-to of mine for probably over a decade, like you’re saying. You know what? The availability of it is great. Also, you find it a lot of places. But the winemaker, Adam Mason, who’s been with Mulderbosch for a while, just always makes a really beautiful release. Again, it has that beautiful fruit, but also that freshness, so you get kind of the best of both worlds in your rosè, as it’s not like a super dainty delicate I taste almost nothing type deal, but it’s not a super robust or flavorful in-your-face fruit bomb. So it strikes that beautiful balance.

JF: Well, you know what’s interesting? So today we’ve talked about Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Shiraz-Cinsaut, rosè, we touched on sparkling wine, all these wines. So I think the thing about South African wine is that there’s so much to explore. It’s so exciting. I mean, it’s literally a great time to be drinking anything and everything from South Africa.

JF: So Lauren, thank you for joining me today and just continuing to open my eyes about South African wine. And biggest news in the world is me sharing some pleasurable moments of Pinotage.

LB: I love it. I’m so happy. And thank you for talking South Africa with me.

JF: We’ll celebrate my Pinotage awakening.

LB: Let’s do it.

JF: Okay. Thank you.

And thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting podcast, sponsored by Vivino, wine made easy.

The three wines we talked about today are: the Tokara 2017 Reserve Collection Sauvignon Blanc, the Terre Brulee 2016 La Rouge Red, and the Adi Badenhorst and Duncan Savage 2106 Cape Winemakers Guild Love Boat Red. Find what we’re tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you’d like today’s episode, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes, leave a comment, and tell your friends. What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.

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