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Five stellar South African wines

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Wine drinkers typically skew into two categories: those who love the taste of dirt, and those who are all about big fruit flavors. Put another way, the first group consists of peeps who worship at the altar of everything old world, including wines from across the pond (read: Europe), usually in a style focused on expressing the unique terroir and classic characteristics associated with a given grape variety; vintners tend to make wine "in the vineyard," letting the weather dictate matters and basically doing as little as possible to tamper with the results that nature intended. Conversely, fans of new-world bottles crave the pronounced, juicy ripeness generally found in wines that hail from the decidedly warmer climes of regions like California and Australia.

But what if there was a place that turned out delicious, value-priced juice that featured the best of both wine-world styles -- and in so doing, positioned itself to win the hearts of wine lovers of every stripe? Say hello to the fantastic wines of South Africa.

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Robertson Winery Chenin Blanc 2010 ($10): Chenin blanc is one of "those" grapes. You know, the kind you can never remember if you've had before, or what the hell it tastes like, exactly. If you're into wines from the Loire Valley, then you might at least recognize the variety as the one that bottles labeled "Vouvray" are made from. And if somehow in your wine explorations you've stumbled upon something called "steen" (an old-school word for the grape), well, you'd be right as well.

South African winemakers are mixing things up, though -- for starters, they're all pretty much calling it chenin blanc now, and the approach taken with this particular bottling is just as fresh. The first whiff served as a delicious sneak preview of what it would taste like: fresh honeysuckle and white flowers, followed by the snap of lemon. On the palate, the citrus trend continued -- at first clean and fresh, but with a finish that went all creamy and rich. Your days as a card-carrying member of the chenin blanc fan club start now.

Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($18): People who love sauvignon blanc are perhaps the very best example of the whole old-world/new-world debate. That's because the grape's expression veers dramatically from its ancestral home in France, where it's all about gravelly, soil-based mineral notes and tangy citrus, to more modern provenances in places such as New Zealand, where adjectives like "gooseberry" and "green pepper" are used to describe the wines' flavor. Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in South Africa, brilliantly delivers the ideal mashup of both styles in this delightful offering. The nose was an ode to all things Sancerre, full of limestone and lemon curd and tingly acidity. But the taste? Solidly new world -- an assault of kiwi, freshly-cut pineapple and pear fruit flavors that lingered delectably. This was a wine so intriguing we could see ourselves sipping it throughout a meal, rather than relegating it to pre-entree (standard white wine territory) only. Reyneke Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($25): Stunning. That's the word we kept repeating to ourselves after sampling this simply gorgeous sauv blanc. If the Groot Constantia is the vinous hybrid of old- and new-world expressions of this noble grape variety, then the Reyneke can only be categorized as otherworldly -- it's that mind-blowingly unique. The Reyneke family, which has the only certified biodynamic winery in South Africa, lets the character of the forty-plus-year-old vines and nature dictate what ends up in the bottle -- and what ends up there is nothing short of amazing. A bouquet of key lime, honeydew melon and candied grapefruit zest lured us in before the palate exploded in a lush, layered mouthful of everything from marzipan to green apple. The wine was finished on the lees, lending a ridiculously sexy texture to the whole affair.

If you think all sauvignon blanc are created equal, think again.

Reyneke "Capstone" Red Bordeaux Blend 2010 ($25): Given how much we adored Reyneke's sauvignon blanc, we were fired up to sample its red blend, featuring the classic Bordelais varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Continuing the trend of old-world-meets-new-world stylings exhibited by this particular cadre of South African winemakers, this reminded us of everything we love about Washington State reds; a core of big, dark fruit (black cherry, fig and blackberry, predominantly) offset by spicy notes and a pleasing bitterness not unlike what we love about our morning Americano.

If you like the bold tannins typical of French cabernet based-blends, you won't be disappointed here -- but unlike its old-world counterparts, the Reyneke won't make you feel like you're suffering from an unbearable case of cottonmouth should you choose to enjoy it sans food.

Barista Pinotage 2010 ($16): If you're like pretty much everyone on the planet, pinotage is not exactly one of your go-to wines. Uniquely native to South Africa (it was bred there in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault), for years it's been famous -- and not in a good way -- for giving off a distinctly gamy, funky scent that often persisted on the palate. Ten years ago, Bertus Fourie was in his first year as a winemaker when he returned to his fermenting barrels of pinotage and was overwhelmed by an intense coffee aroma. Convinced he'd be fired for ruining the harvested fruit, he kept his fears to himself and soldiered on to make the wine, which was universally praised and ushered in the brand-spanking-new category of "coffee pinotage."

We've been on the pinotage bandwagon ever since sommelier school, so savored the bouquet that reminded us of smoky bacon before it morphed into the super dark-roast coffee fragrance. Delectable smells of allspice and cocoa followed, but it was the flavor of the wine that blew us away more than anything else we'd tasted all night. Juicy, bright cherry and boysenberry fruit led the way with pleasing acidity; then the wine's oak aging showed through a layer of smoothed-out spice and subtle tannins. Convinced the wine's price tag was at least $30, we knew we'd be ordering it by the case when we realized it was closer to half that.

If this is what new-school South African wine tastes like now, we can't wait to see what the future brings.

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