The Cape of South Africa has emerged as one of our most thrilling and consistent sources of fine wine. Hardly an overnight success, the region has been in continuous production since 1659, but only recently has a quality revolution within its industry begun to impact the US palate. Driven primarily by family-owned artisan growers, the finest South African wines have garnered considerable critical buzz while remaining largely “insider’s secrets.” They offer us mineral driven, earthy, dry and less directly fruity flavor profiles. Great partners, in other words, for our seafood.
South Africa’s wine styles directly reflect the Cape terroir: sunny but very windy with cold Atlantic breezes that moderate the climate; soils amongst the most weathered, rocky and diverse of any region on earth; and a series of dramatic mountain ranges which create several distinct microclimates. We have chosen May 15th through June 11th to spotlight a number of the terroir-driven, site-expressive, and nuanced wines that won our most recent blind tastings by the glass, in flights and by the bottle. What follows is a brief description of the individual selections you will find at most Legal restaurants, and why we chose them.
There is more Chenin Blanc planted in South Africa than the entire rest of the world combined. We have been preaching the gospel of Chenin for years, as its crisp, stony fruit, tart acidity and lively flavor profile offer ideal accompaniment to lighter fish dishes. Our choice is the MAN Family “Free Run” Steen, 2016, from the Coastal Region, Steen being the traditional Afrikaans name for Chenin. This one is dry and gentle, like most South African examples, with melon and nectarine pit flavors. It does duty as a palate-opening aperitif, while the long tart finish plays beautifully with lighter fish. The most popular South African white import here has been Sauvignon Blanc, which takes on a drier, less tropical personality than New Zealand typically offers. The Bayten 2016, from Constantia, has a vibrant grapefruit and lime zest character, its uncompromising citric flavors lingering into the finish. It’s an “any fish” wine, complementary to fried, baked or broiled preparations, as well as raw shellfish. There are two contrasting Chardonnays about which we’re excited: the Topiary 2016, from Franschhoek, and the 2015 DeMorgenzon “Reserve” from Stellenbosch. The first is more subtle, with melt-in-your-mouth notes of toast, butter, smoke and lemon peel, which is fitting as the winemaker is Philippe Colin of Chassagne-Montrachet fame. The second, made by the brilliant Carl van der Merwe, is an intensely concentrated mélange of lemony, hazelnut and mineral flavors, full-bodied and rich on the palate. DeMorgenzon means “the morning sun,” reflecting the due north facing slope where the estate is situated, and this is one of South Africa’s iconic wineries. Enjoy with grilled swordfish or a whole lobster.
Mulderbosch makes our Rose selection, a 2016 from Coastal Region grapes, but created from Cabernet Sauvignon, South Africa’s most widely planted red. Ripe in flavor, with wild strawberry, rose petal, juicy red fruit notes, this is a deliciously herb-accented bone dry wine that will complement fish beautifully, from one of South Africa’s finest pedigreed wineries.
The country’s signature red is Pinotage, a varietal bred by a South African grape scientist in 1925 who crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault. While its flavors may have formerly come across as earthy, green and rustic to an extreme, contemporary Pinotage is a charming medium textured tart red that is ideally suited for fish. Our selection, the Tormentoso “Bush Vine” 2014 from Paarl, is brimming with fragrant cherry, violet, and blueberry aromas. Low in tannin, smooth, and lighter-bodied, its savory finish leaves the palate craving smoked salmon or trout. From a majority of the same grape, but with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blended in to contribute structure and backbone, the 2015 Kanonkop “Kadette” from Stellenbosch, is medium bodied, with tobacco-like, round ripe black cherry fruit, leathery notes and a lively spice finish. The name “Kanonkop” references the hill near Cape Town upon which the winery is situated, from whose heights cannons were fired historically to alert farmers to the arrival of trading ships. We’re also very excited to offer a straight Pinot Noir, without question the nation’s finest: the 2016 Hamilton Russell Estate from vines located less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean in the coastal Hemel-en-Aarde (“heaven and earth”) Valley. With small average yields at the Grand Cru Burgundy level of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, the wine has mouthwatering red cherry, mushroom and spice notes, and is aged for 10 months in French oak, 40% of which is new each year. Elegant, with a round lush texture but also beautifully structured, it’s ideal with grilled salmon.
For fuller bodied reds there are four choices. Wherever I travel, among the most interesting wines are reds created to balance the complementary characteristics of multiple grapes, and South Africa is no different. The Wolftrap, Western Cape, 2015 is a remarkably delicious “Rhone style” blend combining Syrah, Mourvedre, and small proportions of the aromatic white grape, Viognier. Scented with herbal, red berry nuances, it has a mellow flavor and hints of licorice accenting the juicy fruit flavors. The name refers to the plentiful wildlife in the surrounding mountains. In a much richer mode, The Chocolate Block, 2015, from Swartland, is an opaque fuller bodied blend based mostly on Syrah, with lesser percentages of Grenache, Cabernet and Cinsault. Mocha-like in aroma, with dark roasted plummy fruit, and a plush texture, this is a great choice for our meaty grilled tuna steak. Finally, there are two Cabernet Sauvignons, the Braai 2015 from the Western Cape, and the Stark Condé 2014 from Stellenbosch. A “Braai” is a South African barbecue; this nicely balanced Cab is floral and vanilla-like, with dusty jammy black fruit accented by a touch of olive and bell pepper. Somewhat earthy and mellow with a well-balanced soft finish. The Stark-Condé is from a small, family-owned estate winery that has developed a reputation as one of South Africa’s finest Cabernet producers. It is supple yet very robust, with brilliantly concentrated layers of cassis, cocoa, cedar and mineral.
With this diversity of offerings we believe that there is a South African wine everyone can discover to fit their own preferences. Please come in and see us this month, explore the bounty of The Cape and find out what the buzz is about.
Sandy Block, Master of Wine