It's rare that my location in a beta wine market (let's face it, Atlanta is not exactly the most cosmopolitan place when it comes to wine) leads to a great on-the-ground contact, so I was really excited when I got an email from a local dude who found my blog/Facebook page and who wanted to taste me on some of his wines. I was even more excited when I found out that his portfolio was made up of wines from South Africa, a place near and dear to my heart after my trip there a few years back.
So after a month of trying to get it on the books, finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, I met with Tom Lynch, founder of Worthwhile Wine Company. He showed up in jeans and a Worthwhile Wine t-shirt and his warmth and enthusiasm were immediately apparent. He prefaced the meeting by saying that, even if I didn't dig his wines, from the blog/Facebook stuff I seemed like someone he'd like to hang out with. That won me over right away (ok, I'm pretty easy, but still -- I could tell it was going to be a nice hour together). Flattery will get you everywhere, apparently.
But I digress...
Tom is a sharp, very cool guy and his story was amazing. Almost 2 years ago, he left his big job working for a prestigious online ad agency following a trip that he and his teenage daughter took to South Africa. This wasn't the kind of trip I took when I went there -- all plush and full of tasty food and wine -- rather it was a 2-3 week excursion that involved staying in a ramshackle hut and doing community service in a small, impoverished village. Tom and his daughter were so personally moved by the trip that they decided to take action. Of her own volition, his 13 year old started a foundation to help this community and others like it. Tom gave her the support and help she needed (including allowing her to home school so she could focus more time on the foundation!) and it's still going strong.
What does all this have to do with wine? Well, while his daughter was working on her foundation, Tom took a stock of his life. He had grown weary of his Mad Men existence and sought to pursue a passion he had started over 20 years ago when he worked in the wine biz as a sales rep. Tying in with his daughter's new found passion, he launched a company to represent small, high quality, boutique producers of South African wines who needed a broker to bring them to the US. All the wines are sustainably made -- adhering to the triple bottom line: combining environmental and social responsibility with economic profit. You know, worthwhile wines...hence the name.
Although new to many of us, South Africa is old hat in the wine world. It has been making wine since 1655 when the Dutch East India Company set up settlements on the southern tip of Africa as restocking stations for ships traveling between Holland and India. Obviously, no seafaring people in their right mind would travel without wine, so the Dutch scouted out regions for vineyards and after some trial and error, made a good go of it. Over the centuries, they honed their techniques, made some great wines, and were famed for a sweet, Muscat-based wine called Constantia, which was enjoyed by the wealthy and elite set in Europe.
Today the grapes grown are from the International set -- the regular suspects, so to speak -- Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc (sometimes called Steen here). The novelty act that you may also have heard of is South Africa's own hybrid, Pinotage (Pee-NOH-taaahje), a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that sometimes tastes like raspberry flavored dried paint chips (true story).
Before I get to the wines, there is one last weird thing about South Africa that I want to mention. Although they've been making wine for more than 350 years in this region (as compared to other New World regions where it's been less than 200 years), the region is still considered New World because:
a) it's not in Europe
b) the political and economic fallout from apartheid crushed the wine industry and the rebirth of the industry is New World in it's reliance on technology and techniques, and
c) the style is somewhere in between European and New World styles.
I'm not sure what wine gods decide these things, but I think there's a good argument that South Africa should be considered Old World...story for another post or over a drink sometime.
Ok, with that long-ass preface, here's the lineup:
Wine 1: Dornier Chenin Blanc
Where it's from: Stellenbosch (the most famous wine area of South Africa)
The Grape: 100% Chenin Blanc
Price: About $13
Color: Chenin Blanc is the main grape in Vouvray of the Loire Valley and there it can be a rich yellow color because winemakers often leave a bit of sugar in the wine, which can darken it up, and in ripe vintages the skin can impart a golden hue to the appearance. Left to its own devices, however, Chenin Blanc is a very pale color and is deceptive in that it looks like it doesn't have a whole lot going on...which is why you smell and taste it.
Smell: Damn, this is an aromatic wine. Just swirling it on the table 2 feet away, the wine smelled like a bottle of really fragrant, floral shampoo. It was so distinctive, although I was a little frustrated that my usually very keen sniffer couldn't quite place the exact flowers and herbs I was smelling. All I can say is that it was smelled like a greenhouse of flowers. Add to that a bit of pistachio nut and I was hooked. Did it smell like Chenin Blancs I've had? No way. Was it delicious nonetheless? I was ready to try it.
Taste: The wine was much less floral and much more green with a good kick of mouthwatering acid than what I expected. It's a subtle wine, no doubt, and I think is one that would do best with some crackers and goat cheese. Alone, I thought it was soft, light, and a little like uncooked green herbs. Nothing stunning, but a nice porch wine for $13.
Drink or Down the Sink?: It's a good wine, but by no means the best that South Africa makes in terms of Chenin Blanc. I like its but I'm not going out of my way to seek this out. I'd rather have a dry Vouvray, with its nuttiness, peachy character, and floral depth for $6 more.
Wine 2: De Wetshof Limestone Hill Chardonnay
Where it's from: The Robertson District, kind of inland from the more popular regions of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, had previously been known for making crap bulk white wine, but it's now an up and comer for Chardonnay and Shiraz. I feel like the literature needs to be updated on this area, since most books I have all but say that this area is kind of a wine emporium de crap.
The Grape: 100% Chardonnay
Price: About $18
Color: This looked similar to the Chenin Blanc in color, which I was happy to see in a Chardonnay, which can often be golden because of its time spent in big oak barrels. Tom explained that the wine is made by Danie de Wet, who learned winemaking in Germany, a place where the vineyard and the grape rule flavor in wine, not the winemakers decision to put the wine in an oak barrel or use other winemaking tricks to change what nature intended.
Smell: This wine isn't called Limestone Hill for nothing -- it smells like minerals and limestone rock! It was slightly herbal, but the main impression was of a stream or waterfall. This wine is a perfect example of why I question the fact that South Africa is a New World region. This wine is much more like a European Chardonnay from Chablis or from the Languedoc area of Southern France. The land the grapes grow on produce this flavor that is so unique and distinctive -it's unlike any other New World wine region and unlike any other Old World one either.
Taste: The wine was fruitier than it smelled with green apple and lime flavors. Its mineral character was enhanced by a nuttiness and softened by the fact that the wine was aged sur lie (the yeast eats sugar and turns it to alcohol, and then the organisms die in the process, suicide machines that they are. They settle to the bottom of the tank and if the winemaker decides not to "clean up" the wine by moving it to a new barrel or tank, they can stir the dead yeast periodically, causing them to break up and release nutty, creamy flavors. Sounds gross, but the resulting flavors can be pretty damn good). The wine was light, and wasn't too textural either -- no strong acid or alcohol, just kind of middle-of-the-road.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink. I think this is a pretty unique Chardonnay. I liked the mineral and green apple notes. The subtlety of this wine was lovely and I think it would be great for fish, salads, or light appetizers. I'm really impressed that this kind of wine can come from South Africa, which I usually associate with oakier Chardonnay, and from a region I had previously thought of as jug wine/crap imitation Sherry country.
Wine 3: Rupert & Rothschild, Baroness Nadine Chardonnay
Where it's from: When I was in South Africa a few years back, I actually went to this winery, which started in 1997 as a joint venture between a South African, Dr. Anton Rupert, and Baron Edmond de Rothschild or France, of the famous Bordeaux wine family (two of the best wines are produced by Rothschild Chateaux -- Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Lafite Rothschild). It was an amazing place in one of South Africa's best kept secret in wine - the Francshoek area, which was settled by French Hugenots in the 17th century and is known in South Africa for having amazing quality that is often better than the famed region of Stellenbosch.
The Grape: 100% Chardonnay
Price: About $25
Color: Yep, this was a blonde beauty of a Chardonnay: a golden, brassy, dark yellow wine with sexy legs. This stuff had been doing time building sugars on the vine (which leads to richer flavor and higher alcohol) and in oak barrels, which darkens a wine.
Smell: Burnt caramel, a fireplace with burnt logs, toast, and baked apple dominated my nose: A true mark that oak was taking center stage. This smelled more like a typical California Chardonnay than something from South Africa, which I always think of as having balance between mineral, fruit, and oak. I guess this is what happens when someone from Bordeaux, used to making red wines that benefit from lots of oak aging, makes a Chardonnay. The Rothschild part of the partnership stuck with what they knew and made an oak bomb. I was a little concerned, since this is patently not my style, but I went in with an open mind...
Taste: I was pleasantly surprised. This wine is pretty oaky and has strong apple flavors, but there is a fabulous acidity to it that makes it refreshing and not cloying. Tom explained that only 40% of the wine went through malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts tart, green apple-like acidity into a smooth, buttery, creamy texture) so it was less creamy and mouth-filling and more refreshing than a wine that had gone through 100% malo-lactic. So we were spared the "I just drank half-and-half" sensation, but the oak was still overwhelming, so if you're not an oak lover, beware because you may be proverbially picking splinters out of your teeth after a sip of this.
Drink or Down the Sink?: It's a well made wine so I can't say down the sink, but I will say that for my palate it was just too oaky with not enough fruit or acid to balance out the burnt character. If you love oak, go for this wine -- it's interesting and high quality. My caveat to the haters of this style: try it with food. Rich creamy sauces on white meat, a butter or tartar sauce on fish, or creamy pasta could be great with this wine's acid and the burnt character could be mitigated by the flavors of the food.
Wine 4: 2006 Lammershoek 'Roulette'
Where it's from: This wine is from Swartland, an area on the West Coast near the Atlantic with fertile soils (usually bad for winegrapes). It's one of South Africa's bread baskets and most stuff I read about it regarding wine is that it's not an area with great potential, but I think that's a big lie. I reviewed a Syrah a while back from a Mullineux, a top producer in this region, and it was probably one of the best I've ever had, so as usual, I will be trusting my experience rather than that of jaded wine "gurus." Needless to say, was excited to try this Rhône blend from the same area.
The Grapes: 62% Syrah, 20% Carignan, 13% Grenache, 4% Mourvedre, 1% Viognier
Price: About $28
Color: The wine was a ruby color that fanned out to a lovely rosy, watery rim. I expected a lighter style from this lighter colored wine.
Smell: Awesome nose! The wine was like baked plums sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg -- it was really delicious. Some mint, blackberry, and raspberry were hanging out in the background, with a little bit of licorice too. It was like a richer, more pungent
Taste: The wine tasted like black cherry and candied raspberries with a good hit of cinnamon -- this was like a fruit compote, but lighter and less syrupy. There were light mouth-drying tannins and a very interesting, flavor of thyme or rosemary cooked in butter. The wine had a little bit of a barnyard/earthy flavor too. It was interesting but still light and would be a great food wine.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink. This was like a high quality Côtes-du-Rhône. This would be great for sipping or with food. This was my favorite of the day. Swartland seems to be my pick for South African Rhône-style wines these days.
Wine 5: 2010 Dark Lady of the Labyrinth
Where it's from: The wine is from Wellington, not too far from both famous areas of Stellenbosch and Franschoek. Pinotage, as I mentioned earlier, is a South African hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It's generally very light in color and flavor and ranges, in my opinion, from an ok novelty, to a horror show that's like drinking paint chips.
The Grape: 100% Pinotage
Price: About $19
Color: This is, by far, the darkest Pinotage I've ever encountered. Like black cherry juice, the wine held its color to the edge when I tilted it in the glass. It looked like prune juice in the glass. Very odd and un-Pinotage-like.
Smell: Ok, let's be clear: Most Pinotage is a red wine that's lighter in style and usually smells like red berries or lightly floral. So, I thought it completely bizarre that this wine smelled almost exactly like the oaky Rupert & Rothschild Chardonnay we tasted 10 minutes prior to this wine. The caramel, butterscotch, burnt smell mirrored the Chardonnay nearly to a T.
The only thing the Chardonnay had that the Pinotage lacked was a distinct minerality. Freakin' weird. Even Tom, the marketer and sales guy who sells and spins these wines all day long couldn't deny the similarity. This is the power of winemaking -- the grapes couldn't be more different, but in the hands of an oak enthusiast, the barrel was a great equalizer. Again, freakin' weird.
Taste: The wine tasted much more in line with what I expected. A light cherry and plum flavor with a touch of oak kept this wine light and pleasant. There was a distinct potting soil note, which was interesting, and although the oak was prevalent, it wasn't as overwhelming on the palate as it was on the nose.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Down the sink. Although it tasted fine, the nose was so powerful that it ruined the wine before each sip. I know the producer was looking to elevate Pinotage to something better than what it usually is -- a watery, sometimes chemical tasting berry drink -- this was over the top. Although this goes down as the strangest wine I've ever had, I can't say I'm going to go seek it out again in the future.
So that's it. Great tasting with some solid wines. I love Tom's company, his mission, and the fact that he's bringing great stuff to my market that I would never be able to experience otherwise. Great stuff and a big thanks to him!!!
Let me know if you've had any of these or other South African wines and your opinions on Facebook or in the comments below!