Last week I accepted an invitation to the Cape Classics portfolio tasting at Aquavit in midtown; Cape Classics being an importer who represents 25% of all imported (to the US) South African wines. And while I have been to and enjoyed Xai Xai, the South African wine bar in midtown, and am a summertime fan of Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, my exposure to the wines of South Africa has been somewhat limited, and so I welcomed this chance to peruse their wines.
With 18 producers and 58 wines, there was some surprising range at this event, most in the form of Chenin Blanc, the mistress of Loire Valley–or Steen–as it’s often termed in South Africa, where it’s the country’s most widely planted grape. And though South Africa has been home to vineyards since they were planted by the Dutch and French by 1659, it wasn’t until the long-long-long awaited fall of apartheid in the 1990’s that South Africa could actually focus on quality and export her wines.
While many of the producers had some Chenin Blanc on hand, including Indaba, whose 2009 Steen from the Western Cape shows minerality, pear, brilliant acidity, and lime–it was Raats Family Wines that offered three different vintages of the same varietal, a demonstration of the grape’s potential.
Raats ‘Original’ Chenin Blanc 2008, from the Coastal Region, was made without oak and so possesses minerality on the nose, alongside dry, asian pear. It’s a medium bodied wine with a minerally finish and surprisingly light (or at least lighter than expected) acidity.
Raats Chenin Blanc 2007 from Stellenbosch, is 100% Chenin Blanc, like the ‘Original’, but with remarkably different aromas. Here there are notes of grain, followed by minerality on the finish, with the same lower-than-expected acidity as the 2007.
Raats Chenin Blanc 2003 is not available on the market, but it was fun to taste. In just six years, some serious oxidation occurred in the bottle, transforming this Chenin Blanc into a fruit forward, sherry-like wine. At 14.5%, the nose is hot, and though it saw only 15% oak, it’s incredible how much the wine resembles fino sherry.
Raats also produced an interesting 2007 Cabernet Franc, with minerality and an herbaceousness that reminded me of the orange blossom “perfume” that I bought in Florida as a kid. Which brings me to note that while the representatives of South African wines were predominantly white, the wines were not . Of the 29 reds on offer, many were typical New World concoctions, with lots of fruit. The greatest exception was Thelema, who was named one of the “Top 100 Wineries of the Year” 2008, by Wine & Spirits magazine.
Of the ten wines at the Thelema table, there were five reds, including three incredibly different Cabernet Sauvignon wines–beginning with the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. A surprisingly lean wine with parsley and powdered chalk on the nose, the 2006 from Stellenbosch shows high acidity and medium tannins, with a clean finish.
Also unavailable on the market, but a pleasure to taste was their Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1992. It’s a savory wine with notes of minty herbs and BBQ, and a juicy tomato acidity that coats the tannins on the palate.
Thelema ‘The Mint’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 has a bouquet of eucalyptus followed by soft fruit and a spicy, astringent acidity that rises like an aroma from the back of the mouth.
And while there are other wines worth mentioning, for now, my notes on South African wines are done.