Mead On Wine

© 1996 JDM Enterprises
All Rights Reserved
Vol. H No. 45


by Jerry D. Mead

A serious shortage of grapes and wine in California is hastening our discovery of some other wonderful wines of the world. Australia and Chile first gained strength here during past periods of price escalation, and dramatic price increases are pretty common right now. It goes with the shortages.

Argentina is making its first serious move in 25 years and I have recently been exposed to tasty wines from Bulgaria and Rumania. There's renewed interest in Austrian wines and we're buying scads of wines from regions of France that never had much appeal here before. The French have finally learned to tailor the wines to our taste and label them with packaging that appeals to the Yankee eye.

We are also seeing a serious move by the vintners of South Africa, and if your memories of South African wines are similar to mine of a decade and more ago...overripe, high alcohol reds, oxidized whites and syrupy sweet dessert wines, well, forget everything you remember.

Like most of the rest of the wine producing world, South Africa dramatically improved its winemaking technology and talent in the past 10-15 years. We perhaps didn't notice in SA's case because of the lengthy absence of her produce due to the lengthy political sanctions. Meanwhile, SA wines were knocking them dead in Britain and taking top prizes at European wine shows.

Before I review a smattering of SA wines recently tasted, here's a couple of general comments:

The level of quality I tasted, for the prices quoted, is exceptionally high. The wines will compete with wines produced in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

The packaging has not caught up with the quality and value. Many of the labels are near impossible to read, due to small type, background colors that make type impossible to see, much less read, and with poor graphics on labels, cheap glass and terminology we don't understand. They have not yet learned the lesson the other international producers have learned, which is to create special packaging to appeal to this very major market.

Saxenburg 1996 "Stellenbosch" Sauvignon Blanc ($10) Not as much the bargain as some of the wines, and one of the most limited as to availability, but it is truly special. More compatible stylistically with France's Loire Valley or New Zealand, than anything from California, it is overtly but pleasantly herbaceous with minty overtones and grapefruit-citrus flavors. Rating: 92/84

De Wetshof 1995 "South African" Chardonnay ($10) An exceptional value. It's label is not unattractive, but it's one of the hard to read ones. About all you can see is the brand name. Chardonnay is in tiny type and everything else is even smaller. But the wine is delicious, from a winemaker who apprenticed in Burgundy and studied at Geisenheim in Germany. Very tasty, very French in style, with delicate green apple fruit, lightly oaked with a little smoky quality. Think Chablis with a little wood. Great food companion. Rating: 90/94

Springbok 1995 "Breede River Valley" Chardonnay ($7 or less) An ugly green on green label with creatures all over it (a Springbok is a deer-like animal and a kind of national symbol, I'm told). Very light and delicate and crisp. Zero oak presence. It actually doesn't taste very much like Chardonnay, but it's a pleasant white wine and food companion nevertheless. Rating: 81/86

Backsberg 1993 "Paarl" Shiraz ($10) Very ripe (just avoiding overripe), mostly plum flavors and bold tannins in a firm backbone that should see the wine benefit from several years cellaring. Rating: 86/89

Clos Malverne 1994 "Stellenbosch" Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) Another "Best Buy" and a "world class" example of its variety. Big, bold cassis and black cherry fruit enhanced by an almost, but not quite, dominating American oak presence. Dill and cedar complexity. Very intense and firm, but also supple and silky. Rating: 92/90


Springbok 1994 "South African" Merlot ($8 or less) Hooray! They redesigned the label and it is the best looking and the most readable of the SA labels. And this wonderful wines deserves it. Trust me. Buy this one by the case. It's a steal. Forget Chile! Forget California! At least in this price range. Deep, black cherry fruit with lots of smoky, cedary wood and earthy, truffley complexity. Way more wine flavor than you have any right to expect at this price. Rating: 88/96

South Africa has always had a reputation for Sherries and Ports (and other dessert styles) and they have some of the best prices on these wines anywhere in the world. Unlike the U.S., they don't pay inventory tax for every year the wines age in cask, a decided advantage.

KWV "Renasans" Pale Medium Dry Sherry ($7) Combines fruitiness with Sherry nuttiness and while the alcohol is in the typical (for Sherry) 20 percent range, there's no awareness of alcohol at all. A touch sweet for it's "medium dry" designation. Good for cooking. Rating: 85/88

KWV "Full Ruby" Port ($7) Big fruit, with plum, cherry and currant. It has both more fruit and sweetness than we're used to from either California or Portugal. It is extremely smooth and easy to drink. Rating: 86/90

KWV "Full Tawny" Port ($7) This wood-aged Port is the most complex and interesting of all the fortified (brandy-enriched) wines, but it still has way more fruit and less oxidation than we're used to in the style. There's just a hint of apricot and caramel and a major nutty note. Rating: 90/94

Most of these South African wines are available in 20, to as many as 40, states. You're most likely to find them at wine specialty shops, but some are available at major supermarket chains in California. If you have trouble finding them, contact the South African Wine Co. at (800) 504-9463.

Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value. For a reprint explaining the scoring system in depth and a pocket scoring guide, send $1 to: Mead's 100 Points, P.O. Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702-1598.


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Latest Update: November 19, 1996