A Taste of South African Wine Yields Thirst For More

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My family and I went to Cape Town, South Africa recently to explore nature and to see for ourselves where Nelson Mandela spent three decades in prison trying to liberate from apartheid. We came home wondering how we could get our hands on more of the country’s delicious wines.

All the South Africa guidebooks we read before we left on our trip raved about the beautiful vineyards within a few hours’ drive of Cape Town, and encouraged tourists to make side trips there. Given our preference for eco-friendly hiking, biking, and natural history, we ignored those recommendations as we finalized plans to pedal down to the Cape of Good Hope and trek up to the summit of Lion's Head, one of the city’s most prominent rockfaces. Once we’d spent a couple of days dining in Cape Town, however, we were sorry most of those plans were set in stone.

Cape of Good Hope

After arriving on an overnight flight from London and a short transit through Johannesburg, we dropped our bags at our city center lodge, cleaned up, then headed down to the waterfront to grab some dinner and try to get a sense of this wonderfully exotic city. My daughter Dana and I decided to share a bowlful of fresh salad greens and what turned out to be a plate of the lightest, most delicate calamari we both agreed was the best we’d ever eaten. Dana, who is just 21, prefers airy, somewhat sparkling wines to my favored heavier reds. She chose a Jordan Riesling 2009 for both of us before we sat back to enjoy twilight at the bottom of the world.

Diane and her daughter

The Riesling arrived with a flourish as the waiter uncorked the bottle and poured a sip for my daughter to taste. She ooohhed and aaahhhed as she nodded her approval, and I quickly seconded her choice. The wine was refreshingly crisp, light without being too sweet, a hint of lemon and lime enhancing its fruitiness. We could not have picked a more perfect drink to inaugurate our holiday. Only later did we discover that the Jordan Wine Estate had received the “Top Wine Estate Trophy” at the 2011 Novare SA (South Africa) Terroir Wine Awards. The Riesling, in fact, was one of the vineyard’s two wines that received a National Trophy award. How was such a perfect wine produced? Notes the winery’s website, “The Riesling was harvested from a single 23-year-old dryland-farmed S-facing vineyard, situated on 600 million year old decomposed granite, one of the highest and coolest sites on the Estate. Once the perfect balance between fruit and acidity was reached, the fermentation was stopped to retain a hint of natural residual sugar.“ My daughter and I agreed they got the blend of fruitiness and spiciness just right.

Our next full day of sight-seeing in Cape Town found us having lunch at a sidewalk café overlooking the sparkling blue waters of the south Atlantic Ocean. We normally don’t drink in the middle of the day (well, I don’t; who can say what my daughter and her 24-year-old brother do when I’m not hovering overhead?), but heck, we were on vacation, and the Riesling of the night before had put us in an adventurous mood. My son, a body builder, still opted for sparkling water. But my daughter and I hovered over the wine list once again. She picked a glass of the de Morgenzon Dmz Chardonnay 2011, produced in the region known as the “western Cape.” I tried a glass of the Brampton Chardonnay from the more northerly Stellenbosch region, which is also where the Jordan Riesling is produced. I found the Morgenzon a bit acidic. The Brampton, though, was quite flavorful, infused with the aroma of pears, melon, peach and ginger. We lingered over lunch, sipping wine and feeling absolutely content.

We were staying at a lodge within walking distance of a grocery store whose wine shelves were stocked with only wines from South Africa. That made sense, seeing as how the country’s best wineries are no more than a two hour drive from Cape Town, and the nation’s oldest vineyard, Groot Constantia, lies right outside the city’s borders. I looked for interesting choices that wouldn’t break my ten-dollar-a-bottle budget, and ultimately chose a Springfield Sauvignon Blanc, affordable even though it’s “smooth rank” was an impressive four-and-a-half wine goblets out of five. I also picked up a reasonably priced 2009 Ashton Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, mostly to get my “red fix.” Whether we spent a busy day browsing the street markets or exploring the 3,000-foot-high Table Mountain, it was a pleasure getting back to our hotel and sipping one of those wines as we made our evening plans.

It wasn’t long before I realized I’d made an error not booking a trip out to Stellenbosch and the Franshoek Valley. In addition to terrific vineyards, both regions boast gorgeous scenery and charming colonial architecture that harkens back 400 years to the Dutch and French Huguenot settlers who brought their cultures along with their wine-making skills when they settled South Africa. I did try to get to Constantia. But apparently I wanted to visit there on the same day that everyone else in South Africa did, too. The traffic was so horrendous, I had no choice but to turn back.

We continued to try South African wines throughout our eight-day visit, even up to our last moments in the country. At Cape Town International Airport, half a dozen wineries have set up tasting stands and “kiosks” that would be the envy of many small liquor stores in the U.S. Though we were being called to the gate, Dana and I raced to squeeze in a few final tastes. We were in such a rush, I don’t remember what they were, just that we had fun trying.

Now back in the U.S., I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I’m a serious advocate of “buying local” when it comes to food. Normally, that means my wine would come from California, or even better, the expanding wine country of Virginia, which is as near to my Maryland residence as wine making gets. But I can’t stop myself from browsing the South African selections when I shop, just in case I come across a bottle of that Jordan Riesling again. If I do, I’ll have to snap it up. After all, I’d be buying it locally, even if it was made 10,000 miles away. I hope that counts!

Diane MacEachern


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