Arts & Entertainment

Cape Grapes

The novelty’s over. A serious look at South African wine lands yields adventure and beauty for wine lovers.

Tourists on the wine trails will find big mountains, blue seas, white-washed wineries and restaurants with round Dutch gables among the farms and vineyards. Shoppers in Florida will discover bright chenin blanc, a spicy cousin of pinot noir, lush ports, bubbly and world class reds.

There’s a vast industry with winemakers who give good value beyond the $6 rack. You’ll find superb bargains between $10 and $20. Top labels like Meerlust, Rust en Vrede and Bouchard Finlayson fetch $40 or more, still half what the Europeans are charging for their best wines.

If those prices mirror Australian and Chilean wine, well South Africa does have much the same "New" World story. Europeans who settled in the southern hemisphere thirsted for the wine of home. Over centuries some got pretty good with old favorite wines like port and grapes like chenin blanc, as well as wild blends and newer imported varieties such as chardonnay and syrah.

South Africa started earlier, in 1684, and with its own mix of colonists, Dutch farmers, English, French Huguenots and more. What made South Africa especially different, was the harsh apartheid, which subjected the majority black population until the end of the 20th century.

South Africa’s years of banishment cut its wineries off from changing world tastes, technology and trade. That’s a petty matter compared to human rights. Yet when the liberation of Nelson Mandela brought the country back into world acceptance 18 years ago, the wine industry was stodgy, stagnant and dominated by one big co-op.

It took time to catch up, for world buyers to try South African wines, and for Americans, including Floridians, to import the best small wines.

Now winemakers there are playing up to form. They have old traditions and vineyards, plus tricks as modern as a trio of golfer wines from David Frost, Gary Player and Ernie Els.

South Africa’s new energy and old virtues showed up at Florida Winefest in Sarasota last month. The biggest list of South African wines, more than 130, is at Jiko, the signature African restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando.

"Americans are realizing there is good wine in South Africa and now that more people are visiting, they realize that these people have made wine for 350 years," said Linda Bragaw, a Boca Grande importer who lived in Africa for 12 years.

Bragaw brought winemaker Peter Finlayson and his wines to Sarasota. Finlayson is called the "prince of pinot" for his success with Burgundian grapes in partnership with Paul Bouchard. Other winemakers focus on syrah and spicy Rhones, strong cabs and German varietals. The local specialities are pinotage, a red cross of pinot noir and cinsault, and steen, as they call chenin blanc.

To tie past to present, consider that in 1800 the dessert wine of Constantia was a cult wine for Napoleon and Jane Austen.

It’s being revived.


c.2008 St. Petersburg Times