People often ask me what my favorite wine is. For me, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child; on most days, that would be impossible. So much of what I drink depends on the weather, or what I’m eating, or my mood in general.
I do, however, have a favorite wine-producing country, and it might not be what you’d expect.
My love affair with South Africa began about 16 years ago. I was sitting in a ballroom in Monterey, Calif., surrounded by other would-be sommeliers preparing for our exam. I knew very little about South Africa as a wine-producing nation—and this was going to be an introduction I would never forget. As I stuck my nose in that glass and inhaled deeply, I remember immediately … gagging. The putrid smell of rotten raspberries wrapped in bandages, with a slight animal-fur note, is something that still makes me shudder all these years later. Little did I know that I would grow to love that stinky little grape, called Pinotage, and everything else grown in that wild and wonderful country.
As my wine career progressed, I discovered that the wines from South Africa are not putrid or vile or gag-inducing at all. The reds are powerful and complex with a unique set of aromas that are savory and rich. They have aromas of blackberries and plums, sweet tobacco and black tea. Yes, they can be a little gamey and earthy, but not in an offensive way—instead, they are intriguing and mysterious. The whites are crisp and confident with bright fruit and a subtle herbaceous element. They were unlike anything I had ever tasted, but not in a pejorative way. I wanted more and began drinking everything from South Africa I could get my hands on.
That said … even with all the advancements in wine-making, marketing and distribution coming from South Africa, getting my hands on a good bottle is easier said than done. So when a friend of mine told me about a South African wine-tasting in Palm Springs, I immediately bought my tickets and circled the date. I had never heard of the “place” in Palm Springs hosting the tasting, which I thought was strange, but the address was on the invite, and I figured maybe this was a new place. How exciting!
It took me and my friends circling the block twice, walking up and down the street while staring at our GPS, and finally wandering into an alley before we noticed a small group of people congregating by a door. Eureka! This must be the place!
As we opened the solid industrial door, we were faced with a narrow staircase. There was no signage, and there were no people, but there were three bottles of wine sitting on the bottom stair. We figured that was a good indication we were in the right place. Not knowing any better, we ventured up the flight of stairs … and right into someone’s living room. Oh, shit. There we were, the three of us, now standing in some unknown person’s flat. Gulp. This is where the music abruptly stops in a screeching tone, and everyone turns and stares at the obvious outsiders.
I sheepishly walked over to a couple and explained that I was looking for Mood Wine. “Don’t be silly! This is Mood Wine! Grab a glass!” they exclaimed while getting a good chuckle out of my mortification. Phew. Within seconds, we were greeted warmly by Patrick and Jake, who graciously welcomed us into their home and quickly filled our glasses.
Our first wine of the night was Bloem from the Cape of Good Hope—a chenin blanc, known as steen in South Africa, blended with viognier. Named after the Dutch word for flower, this aromatic white combines the bright stone fruit and creaminess of chenin blanc with the floral, citrus blossom notes and perfumed honeysuckle of viognier. It was a delightful way to start our evening!
We moved on to try the Remhoogte “Honeybunch” chenin blanc from the Stellenbosch region. The estate was founded in 1812 on the slopes of the famous Simonsberg Mountain; this property was not noted for its grapes at first, but rather the discovery of one of the largest diamonds ever found on Earth. The diamond was purchased by the Queen of England and sits proudly among the royal jewels. Because of this discovery, the Remhoogte family acquired the capital to plant vineyards and create one of the finest estates in Stellenbosch. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!) The wine is rich and golden with flavors of preserved lemon, pear and chamomile tea.
After a little nosh of salmon canapes and mini meatballs, we were poured the De Grendel rosé. There is nothing more beautiful than a glass of coppery pink rosé, and the aromatics wafting out of my glass were already making my mouth water. It’s a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and the country’s signature red grape, Pinotage. There was not a whiff of animal fur or bandages to be found; this rosé is all juicy strawberries, bubblegum and zippy grapefruit deliciousness.
The last wine of the night was a 100 percent Pinotage called Vantage by Remhoogte. What exactly is Pinotage, you ask? There is a very good chance you’ve never had this obscure little grape—and a pretty good chance you’ve never even heard of it. I know a great many somms and wine enthusiasts who would say “lucky you,” because Pinotage is considered an acquired taste. It was created in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault—the latter otherwise known as hermitage. Combine those two words, and you get Pinotage (like Bennifer or Brangelina). But unlike its parents, it isn’t soft and silky and feminine; it’s hearty and bold and meaty. It’s ripe and textured with a dense mouthfeel. This is the signature grape of South Africa, and aside from a little being grown on the Sonoma Coast, you typically won’t see it anywhere else. People tend to have a very strong reaction to the wine and will either love it hate it. But the best examples, like the Vantage Pinotage we had this night, show that South Africa is capable of producing some of the most exciting wines in the world.
I’ve come to realize that what I love most about South African wine is the unique and distinct flavors that put off other people. The world of wine is becoming more and more homogenized, where every country is making cookie-cutter wines to appeal to a global palate—but South Africa is unapologetically eccentric, and I have learned to embrace those aromas that simply can’t be re-created anywhere else.
South Africa is a country of unmeasurable persistence. Every time they took a step forward to advance their wine industry, they were dealt a crushing blow that forced them to take two steps back. They overcame devastating phylloxera (aphids that kill grapevines), wars, economic destruction and the most crippling act of Apartheid. What this wine region has accomplished in the last 20 years, most countries couldn’t achieve in 100.
South Africa truly embodies passion and perseverance—and that’s something to which we can all raise a glass.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.