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Sip and Spoeg Like an Expert
South Africa currently has more growing areas than ever that yield a huge selection of very different wines. One of the best ways to find your way around the enormous selection is to buy one of the local magazines, such as the monthly Wine magazine (R25), devoted to the subject. Wine prices ex-cellar are significantly cheaper than most retail outlets, so if you're looking for a bargain, buy directly from the farm.
Ah, but your land is beautiful
When it comes to South African terroir, think sun, sea, and soil. While Northern hemisphere farmers work hard to get as much sunlight onto their grapes as possible, local viticulturists have to deal with soaring summer temperatures (this is why the cooling influence of the two oceans is so welcome). South Africa also has some of the world's oldest soil, and there's a mineral element to its wines, a quality that's most prominent in the top-end sauvignon blancs like those produced by Cape Point Vineyards, Steenberg, and Springfield.
You can't leave without trying Pinotage
In 1920s, a professor at Stellenbosch University decided to create a truly South African varietal. He crossed pinot noir (a tricky grape to grow) with Cinsaut (a vigorous and very hardy grape)—he liked the idea of combining a drama queen with a pragmatic, no-nonsense type—and came up with Pinotage. Though it's had its ups and downs, including being accused by everyone from critics to connoisseurs of being bitter and rubbery, strides are being made to express the grape's character. One example is the coffee Pinotage. It's been on the market for just a few years and is hugely popular because it's a ballsy, bold wine. There's a distinct mocha flavor to the wine that's a combination of the soil and the wine-making technique. A good example of this is the Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage. Other Pinotages to keep an eye out for: Stellenzicht Golden Triangle Pinotage, Spier Private Collection Pinotage, and Kanonkop Pinotage.
Hundreds and thousands to choose from
Wines that have helped put South Africa on the map include chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and Bordeaux-style red blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. South African red blends have done well at international competitions, and the quality rivals some of the world's best producers. Until recently, chenin blanc was something of a Cinderella varietal. It accounts for the bulk of South African white wine plantings but, because of its versatility, was largely overlooked. Luckily, this has shifted, and there are now more than 100 chenin blancs out there demanding attention and commanding top prices.
Good Sauvignon Blancs: Alexanderfontein Sauvignon Blanc, Springfield Estate Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc, and Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.
Great red blends: Stellenrust Timeless, Rustenberg John X Merriman, and Kanonkop Paul Sauer.
Great Chenin Blancs: Kleine Zalze barrel fermented chenin blanc, Rudera Robusto Chenin Blanc, and Ken Forrester FMC Chenin Blanc.
A rosé by any other name
Though it legally can't be called champagne, Méthode Cap Classique, South Africa's version of the bubbly, is made in exactly the same way. You'd be unwise to pass on an offer of Graham Beck Brut Blanc de Blancs or Villiera Brut Tradition.
There are some iconic South African wines you really should try before you leave the country. Of course, the list of such wines varies depending on whom you talk to, but keep an eye out for:
Kanonkop Pinotage or Paul Sauer
De Toren Fusion V
Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Reserve
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Cape Point Isliedh
Springfield Méthode Ancienne Cabernet Sauvignon
Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon
Boplaas Vintage Reserve Port
Potential future icons include Columella and Palladius, both made by Eben Sadie, and Raats Family Vineyard Cabernet Franc.
To ship or not to ship
You're bound to want to take some great South African wine home with you, but it's not as easy as cramming your hand luggage with your favorite tipple. Travelers to the States can take only two bottles on board. Any more than that and it will need to be shipped to you by an agent. Each person is allowed two cases (or 24 bottles), but some states won't allow you to import a single bottle without an importer's license. Expect to pay around R1,500 per case of wine (East Coast destinations are usually cheaper than those on the West), and it will take anywhere from six to 18 days to reach you. Alternately, when you're wine tasting, ask the estate if they distribute in the United States, as you might find a local agent closer to home. The Vineyard Connection (www.vineyardconnection.co.za) is just one of the agents who could help you get your favorite bottle delivered to your door!
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