The Walmart Factor

South Africa’s competitively priced, high-quality wines find way back into U.S. market thanks to mega-retailer as well as Whole Foods


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South Africa is often overlooked, yet it produces some extremely fine whites and reds that are very competitive with wines from the same grapes as grown in Europe and North America.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. A U.S. ban on South African wines was soon lifted, and Americans began buying them out of curiosity. The consensus then was that the wines were amazingly good. But the novelty faded, and Chile, Argentina, Australia, and Spain took over the “value” spots among American wine purchases.

A few years ago, South Africa found a way back into the American market by hooking up with two big outlets. In 2012, Walmart began to sell South African wines. Whole Foods Market did, too.

In its 2015 report on the wine industry, Silicon Valley Bank reported that as far as exported wines go, Italy leads the world in volume, while France still holds the edge over Italy and Spain in the value of their exports. Countries heading upward include Chile, which passed Australia and is now the fourth largest, and South Africa, which leapfrogged into the sixth spot, about a five-fold increase from where they were in 2000. 

South Africa’s inland areas are dusty, hot, and quite arid. But the farther south you go, the cooler it gets, until you reach the southern tip where its vineyards thrive in a verdant, milder climate.

Chenin blanc, the Loire Valley white, is a staple grape for white African wines. But unlike many fruity and slightly sweet chenins made in France and North America, the South Africans produce lovely, mineral-dry chenin blancs that resemble Burgundy whites made of chardonnay. Try a 2014 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc ($22).

For those fond of the New Zealand sauvignon blanc style (which used to be inexpensive and are now out of sight), South Africa offers the same firm, zesty, crisp, grassy character at much less cost. Try the 2014 Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc ($14), which is fresh with tangy citrus flavor and has a nice finish. 

Likewise, South Africa produces a fair amount of cool-climate style chardonnay. The first one I ever tasted was hand carried here in the apartheid era: The 2014 Hamilton Russell Vineyards ($30) is ripe and luscious.

South African reds tend to be spicy and unique, especially wines made from pinotage, a local cross of the French varieties cinsaut and pinot noir. It’s not for everybody, and comes across smoky and almost char-like. But it is extraordinarily good with barbecued meats.

The best-known South African red is 2014 Goats do Roam ($10). The name is a spoof on the Cotes du Rhone, and it comes across as ripe plums with clove and cinnamon notes.

Another is 2014 The Wolftrap from Boekenhoutskloof ($12), notable for a cooler syrah character, blackberries, black pepper, and a nice long finish. 

A personal favorite is 2011 Glen Carou ($18), which is made in the Bordeaux style: a blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. It has soft tannins, and a mellow, round character with a lingering finish. h

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