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Posted by Robert Whitley on July 22, 2014 at 4:29 PM

South African Winery Sets Sights on U.S.

 
Figuring out what the average American wine consumer wants is no more challenging than walking into Trader Joe's or Costco and spending a few minutes in the wine department.

Wines from Chile and Argentina are prominent. Both countries are well-represented in the American wine market for good reason: Both are universally respected for the quality of their wines at reasonable prices.

Yet this tried and true business model doesn't work, or hasn't worked, for everyone. The most glaring example is South Africa, which has been a serious wine-producing nation for at least three centuries.

The wines of South Africa can be very, very good and are generally very, very cheap, owing to a currency exchange rate of 10 U.S. dollars for one South African rand. It would stand to reason, then, that South African wines would be every bit as attractive to the average American consumer as the wines of Chile and Argentina.

Yet that is not the case, a condition that longtime South African winemaker Niel Groenewald is at pains to reverse. Hence the chief winemaker for Bellingham Winery, established in 1693, recently made his first trip to the United States to put a genial face on the wines of South Africa.

This is an important step, it seems, because South African wines were shunned somewhat during the era of apartheid. Precious little has been done in the two decades since the end of apartheid to position South African wines to benefit from the sustained wine boom that has seen the United States emerge as the largest wine market in the world.

If South African wine is known for anything, it is typically the frequently disparaged red wine known as pinotage, made from a grape variety that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault (which at one time was called hermitage in South Africa).

I am no fan, but had to concede the 2011 Bellingham "Bush Vine" pinotage ($30) Groenewald presented at lunch recently was a world class red, a meaty, smoky, firmly structured, complex wine that could stand as a benchmark for pinotage of a certain ilk.

"Because pinotage was a relatively new grape variety and only planted widely in the 1950s, there was no clear style that dictated what pinotage should be," he explained. "Stylistically it was all over the map."

The Groenewald expression of pinotage is clearly an attempt at classically structured red wine that will improve in the bottle for a decade or more.

"The best pinotage ages very well, even better than cabernet sauvignon in South Africa," he said.

The overall impression left by the Bellingham wines, including the independent brand Boschendal (established 1685), was positive. The wines are clean and well-balanced, with an emphasis on freshness. Chenin blanc is perhaps South Africa's signature white wine, and the chenins of South Africa may well be the best chenins in the world outside of France.

But being good and cheap doesn't in and of itself guarantee success in the market.That's why the talented winemaker Groenewald is out on the wine stump spreading the word. It's a small step, but a step nonetheless.

Dry Creek Vineyard, Clarksburg (California) Chenin Blanc Dry 2013 ($12)
This wine might very well represent the greatest value of any California white wine.  Its quality is unimpeachable and its pleasure quotient is off the charts, especially in summertime.  The price undoubtedly reflects the lack of demand for wines from the Chenin Blanc grape, compared to those from Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and even Sauvignon Blanc.  This is a dry, medium-bodied, unoaked white with lots of fruity aromas and flavors ranging from melon, orange, lemon, white peach and ripe apple, along with delicately spicy notes and a nuance of chalky minerality.  The flavors show good concentration all through the taste, right into the rich finish.  This wine has vitality, weight, richness of texture and freshness. What more can you want with your grilled prawns, prosciutto and mozzarella, or corn chowder?
90 Mary Ewing-Mulligan

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This Issue's Reviews
 
MacRostie: Shining Brighter than Ever
Linda Murphy

I've enjoyed Steve MacRostie's wines since the early 1990s, when a retailer recommended a MacRostie Carneros Chardonnay for me to serve at a wedding anniversary dinner for my parents. He told me the wine was food-friendly and certain to please everyone; it also earned points with me for the tartan label, which would appeal to my Scottish-roots mother. The Chardonnay was a big hit, and I've followed Steve MacRostie's winemaking ever since.
Prosecco: The Pinot Grigio of Bubbly?
Michael Apstein

What is real Prosecco? The name has such wide spread recognition that it is already becoming synonymous with 'I'll have a glass of bubbly,' especially among Italians, and much to the dismay of the Prosecco producers. Much as most American consumers refer to any wine with fizz as 'Champagne,' Italians, at least in the Veneto, the region in the northeast that includes Venice and the Prosecco production zones, refer to all bubbly as 'Prosecco.'
Wine With
WINE WITH…Eggplant and Tomato Gratin


We tend to take eggplant for granted. Unlike many other fresh summer vegetables such as fresh corn and local tomatoes, eggplant is pretty much available in supermarkets year round, and it is almost always pretty good. When we recently prepared a couple of eggplants we'd bought at the farmers' market that morning, we were reminded that very fresh eggplant is actually far superior to the well-travelled industrial specimens we depend on most of the year. Compact yet tender, these recently harvested vegetables had a uniquely delicate flavor that seemed designed specifically to be baked with tomatoes and cheese, and enjoyed with a glass or two of wine.
On My Table
Re-Defining a Category
Mary Ewing-Mulligan

In a recent blind tasting of miscellaneous white wines, I suddenly 'got' the Oregon Pinot Gris style. Here before me was a well-made white wine, solid in quality and yet simply delightful in personality, a pretty, flavorful wine that aimed to please more than simply to impress. It was a wine that, on a warm summer day, might tempt a critic to quit the analytical wine-tasting, grab the chilled bottle and head for the patio. I knew that many Oregon producers aim for a crowd-pleasing style in their Pinot Gris wines, and here it was.