After decades as an afterthought for most consumers, the South African wine industry - dating to the 1600s - is poised to take its place on the world stage. In the Western Cape especially, growers and winemakers are converting the ideal climate and diverse growing conditions to world-class wines at good value.
Over the past decade or so, the industry has emerged from the dark age of apartheid. Signature South African wines are all quite tasty.
Among reds, some tout pinotage as South Africa's signature variety. The cross of cinsault and pinot noir created in 1925 long was made into rather innocuous wine. But producers who treat the grape with care now make appealing wines with the perfume of pinot noir and the beef of cinsault.
Two everyday wines - 2015 Simonsig ($18) and 2016 Stonecross ($15) - are fresh, light and quaffable. Two serious ones offer admirable complexity with pure fruit accented with forest, anise and spice: the plush but structured 2015 Kanonkop Estate ($38) and 2015 Simonsig Redhill ($39) with distinctive boysenberry and soft texture.
Among red grapes, Rhone varieties and blends also have become contenders for consumers' palates. For an everyday wine, the 2015 Lubanzi Shiraz Cinsault Grenache ($15) is a juicy, easy-drinking wine. The 2015 Pickenierskloof Grenache ($23) shows its old vine origins with more intensity and pleasant earthiness.
Bordeaux varieties also do well. The 2016 Rainbow's End Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) is a fine example offering clean fruit and herbal notes. The 2014 Mulderbosch The Faithful Hound ($38) is a Bordeaux-style blend (primarily cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon) I have recommended before, and this one also delivers a lot of wine for the money.
But I nominate chenin blanc as the nation's most successful wine. It is my favorite choice for most distinctive South African white, and the country's best compare favorably with the grape's origin, Loire Valley. The 2015 Indaba ($12), 2017 Simonsig ($14) and 2016 Protea ($18) each displays varietal characteristics of apple and citrus, making them delightful choices for warm weather sipping. The 2014 Longridge Chenin Blanc ($21) added a dimension of richness with oak aging. The 2015 Mullineux Old Vines White ($28), while three-fourths chenin blanc, tasted surprisingly like a rich chardonnay.
I also was impressed with the overall quality of other white wines I tasted: the 2017 Simonsig Sunbird Sauvignon Blanc was refreshing and flavorful; the 2017 Longridge The Emily ($17), a chardonnay-pinot noir blush, was enticing.
Many wine regions tout their social and environmental responsibility. But South Africa arguably can do this more than most. With investments in socio-economic development, programs for black economic empowerment, mentorship and ownership, and environmental sustainability projects, South Africa is not only a dynamic wine region, but also a model in breaking down political barriers and redressing historical wrongs.