I've never been a fan of soccer, but seeing everyone get all fired up for the start of the World Cup this past weekend gave me a great excuse to revisit the other cool thing you've probably never realized about South Africa, and that's the fact that some rockin' good juice is produced there.
Much like the jersey worn by Team Croatia, the history of winemaking in South Africa is admittedly a bit checkered. Although they first made wine waaaaay back in 1659 (to help sailors on the Spice Route ward off scurvy), it took them about fifty years to produce the high-quality wines which would ultimately represent an astounding export of one million gallons per year to Britain alone. By the mid-1800s things had gotten pretty sketchy (prohibitive tariffs, phylloxera devastation, you name it). Add to those challenges the stigma of apartheid, and South African wines had all but fallen off the map.
Bu over the past 15 or so years, the region has made major strides to embrace modern winemaking techniques and experiment with new varietals, resulting in a unique old world-meets new world style of fruit-forward wines that show excellent restraint - all which can be had for some of the lowest prices around. The rise of quality Cape Town-situated producers of chenin blanc (South Africa's most widely planted grape), cabernet sauvignon, pinotage (a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault), and sauvignon blanc has should definitely give the estimated 375,000 World Cup attendees somewhere to visit between matches.
Check out these five World Cup-worthy wines:
Fairvalley Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($10): If you're a fan of New Zealand (sauvignon blanc, not the soccer team), you will absolutely adore this wine. Super-crisp flavors of lime zest, ruby red grapefruit, and various other citrus notes make for one juicy, mouthwatering glass of loveliness. Just because everyone else watching the matches is likely to be guzzling beer, there's no reason you can't choose to sip this refreshing wine with your grilled chicken sandwich (and if you can manage to get some goat cheese on that, all the better).
Vinum Cellars Africa Chenin Blanc 2008 ($10): It's sad, but it's true: not very many people love chenin blanc. Although it's typically famous for being the grape made into the lovely Vouvray wines of France's Loire Valley, chenin blanc is actually one of the only varietals that can be made into everything from sparkling to dessert wines. Maybe those multi-tasking skills are what made it one of the first wines to be planted in South Africa, where it's commonly referred to as "steen." Vinum Cellars' chenin blanc is a lusty, full-throttled white wine worthy of your attention. Rich and round, you'll get a kick out of the ripe nectarine and toasty pear flavors wrapped in a cloak of refreshing acidity. The ideal food match up for this? I'm thinking grilled lobster tail, brushed with melted butter and then topped with a tropical fruit salsa. Goal!
Fleur du Cap Pinotage 2006 ($12): Say you were watching the World Cup with a group of friends and someone bet that you couldn't name even one grape varietal indigenous to South Africa?Chances are if you had guessed, you'd have said pinotage. That's because it's probably the most well-known grape in the region, where back in 1925 a crafty South African enologist decided to cross South Africa's abundant cinsault crop with the notoriously-difficult-to-grow pinot noir vines. This particular expression of pinotage is an earthy, smoky, medium-bodied red wine that tastes of bing cherries and all kinds of dark, mysterious spices. Killer World Cup food pairing: Lamb gyro sandwich with tzatziki sauce.
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Man Vintners Shiraz 2008 ($19): Like the Australians, South African winemakers are known for making their shiraz into jammy, juicy wines. MAN Vintners' (MAN is an acronym of the three winemakers' wives first names) made this wine from un-irrigated vines north of Cape Town and their version is no exception. Featuring loads of chewy, ripe blackberry, blueberry, and spicy oak flavors that'll make you want to keep it out of reach of your friends, this is a manly wine for sure. Pair it with a nice, fat, burger -- bonus points if it's a burger topped with peppered bacon -- and you may forget about watching the match entirely.
Vinum Cellars Africa Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($15): If you were somehow inspired to host a World Cup-themed wine tasting (do you really need an excuse?), then this wine would likely be the winner -- a big wine perfect for watching that big game. This one's got everything you ever wanted from a cab (or maybe a heated match-up between USA and England): hearty flavor, masculine tannins and a long finish. Full of yummy dark cherry, dried prune, and subtle cocoa flavors, about the only thing you'll like more than the taste of this wine is the ridiculously low price - no matter who wins the Cup.
P.S. Not exactly sure where to scoop up these South African gems? Argonaut has one of the most extensive selections of South African wine in the city. Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 East Colfax Avenue, www.argonautliquor.com.