South African Red Wines Don’t All Suck

I have a confession to make. I have never liked South African wines. Red wines, specifically. The sauv blancs were ok, the chenins impressive, but the reds always smelled like the basement bedroom of a teenage boy. Funky. Weird. As if something died in it.

Perhaps I was just drinking cheap South Africans, the iffy under $20 crowd churned out by the millions. That’s what I thought until one night when I drank a S.A. Cabernet at a friend’s party. I can’t remember the brand, probably something unpronounceable, but I know it had to be high end because this was a party of accountants and lawyers and they don’t usually scrimp on wine. The wine’s owner proudly introduced it as being direct from the winery, unattainable in BC, blah, blah, blah, so, I quickly dumped what I was drinking and held out my glass.

There it was again. That gross-me-out, wet basement, muddy socks smell that does not invite a sip. It tasted ok – not great – but sipping required the holding of breath, defeating the whole purpose. My hubby got it too and asked, is this wine bad? It could have been just corked, but then no body else in the kitchen noticed. They were all smilingly enjoying the wine as they listened to their friend rave about it. We pretended to share their enjoyment before taking a surreptitious pass by the sink for a dumpski-dump.

So, when I got an invite to taste Wines of South Africa this week, I jumped at the chance for an epiphany. Hosted by the Bacchus Group, the lunch featured a seminar with winemaker Marc Kent, who took us through many of his own bottlings – Boekenhoutskloof and Porcupine Ridge, as well the bottles of other producers to give us a cross section of S.A. wine. I sat like a Missourian, thinking, show me.

We started with the rich and creamy Graham Beck Brut and I could see why Obama liked it. Lots of bubble for the buck. Priced well in the states, but at $25, it competes with our local bubblies.

The Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc had more gooseberry than I tasted at the whole New Zealand show and distributors are working to get it into BC for $15. Not bad, so far.

On to the syrah/shiraz, with not a pinotage in sight.

I liked the Boekenhoutskloof 2008 Wolftrap, a deep ripe blend of Syrah/Mourvedre/Cinsault/Viognier, but under all that rich black fruit I detected the slightest hint of funk. Not obnoxious funk, but like a fly stuck in a windowsill, just kinda there.

Okay, at $15 that was a cheapo. I expected that. Next?

The Excelsior 2006 Paddock Shiraz had fine clean fruit and good acidity (acidification is a process allowed in S.A.) and I liked it. No funky stuff there and it runs for $16. The Porcupine Ridge 2007 Shiraz had nice spicy fruit and long oaky finish; no funk, just yummy at $18.

Now we were getting somewhere.

At one point, Kent told us that he never drinks his own wine. Not sometimes, but never. Why? “Because there’s so much else out there to drink.”

Hmm, words obviously not meant to inspire brand loyalty.

Everything else we tasted ranged from $30 to $70 and I will let it suffice to say they were glorious. But, for those prices, one would expect fabulous fruit, awesome structure, and seductive aromatics. Yet, who can afford the Glen Carlou, the Boekenhoutskloof Chocolate Block, the Robertson Constitution Road? Me? No. You?

No matter, the important thing to me is that I overcame my fear and loathing of South African wine by proving to myself that they do make affordable reds that don’t suck.

Epiphany achieved.

Bonus epiphany: the under $20 bunch is available at Everything Wine.
I’m there.

And go, Red Wings! Just stomp those Penguins, grab the cup and get on with life already.

Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.