Category Archives: South Africa

Lievland Vineyards, Coastal Region (South Africa) Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

($20, Vineyard Brands):  This Cabernet over-delivers for the price.  Perhaps it’s the inclusion of a little Cinsault (8%) and Shiraz (6%), but whatever it is, there is a fabulous combination of savory — black and green olive notes — intertwined with black fruit flavors.  Not jammy or sweet, they hit the balance of fruit/savory notes perfectly.  Polished tannins add a suppleness while still providing support and a whiff of bitterness in the finish reminds you it’s serious wine.  And a bargain to boot!
92 Michael Apstein Jul 9, 2019

Lievland Vineyards, Paarl (South Africa) Chenin Blanc Old Vines 2017

($16, Vineyard Brands):  Chenin Blanc can be one of the great white wines of the world.  Its problem, similar to Riesling, another spectacular white wine, is that the wines range from dry to sweet and that the style is often not apparent from looking at the label, confusing the consumer.  This one from Lievland Vineyards is superb, vibrant and mineral-y with the barest hint of roundness.  Beautifully balanced, it is clean and cutting, but not aggressive because of its mineral-like character.  It is good as a stand-alone sipper or even better with slightly spiced dishes or sushi.
92 Michael Apstein May 28, 2019

Meerlust’s Rubicon: A South African Icon

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” quipped Hannes Myburgh, the 8th generation of the family that owns Meerlust, in response to a potential conflict with Francis Ford Coppola over names.  Coppola and his wife own the legendary Napa Valley Winery, Inglenook, whose flagship red wine is also labeled Rubicon.  As if the allusion to Coppola’s Godfather wasn’t enough, he added with a chuckle, “Plus, I didn’t want to wake up with a horse’s head in my bed.”

Michael Franz, my friend and colleague here at WRO, convincingly explained in a recent column that, “South Africa has now clearly joined the ranks of the world’s very best wine producing countries.” While I agree with that assessment of South African wines in general, to be fair, Meerlust’s Rubicon has always been one of the world’s very best red wines.  And a fabulous value as well–the 2014, the current vintage, lists for a nationwide average of $33, according to Wine-Searcher.com.  I base my assessment of Rubicon on an almost two-decade experience with the wine: A visit to Meerlust in 2000, a meeting and tasting with Myburgh in Boston in 2009, and a recent vertical tasting of Rubicon with him in New York.

Meerlust’s Rubicon, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux blend, combines the best of both worlds:  The elegance and breeding of the Old World and the fleshy fruitiness of the New.  What’s particularly impressive is how they have maintained their style over the decades and not been seduced into believing that bigger is better.  The newer vintages have remained graceful, delivering restrained black and red fruit flavors intertwined with savory, non-fruit elements.  This stylistic consistency is all the more distinctive because it has persisted despite the new winemaker, Chris Williams, who took over for Giorgio Dalla Cia, Rubicon’s co-founder along with Nico Myburgh, Hannes’s father, and stayed for 23 years.  Similar to other world-class Cabernet-based wines, Meerlust’s Rubicon takes at least a decade to blossom and then continues to evolve for another decade or so, in my experience.

Although the Myburgh family purchased the farm, as South Africans refer to their estates, from Meerlust’s founder, German immigrant Henning Huising, in 1756, the focus on grapes for wine dates to the 1960s when Nico planted Cabernet Sauvignon.   Located just south of Stellenbosch and only 3 miles from False Bay and the Antarctica-influenced currents of the Indian Ocean beyond, Hannes Myburgh notes that their vineyards are considerably cooler than those further inland.  He attributes the alluring bouquet of Rubicon to what he calls, “this natural air conditioning” because aromatics are not, as he puts it, “boiled off.”  Certainly, I find an underlying freshness and vivacity characteristic of all the vintages I’ve tasted over the years.

A trip to France in 1967 inspired Nico to make a Bordeaux blend because he was struck by the similarities in climate, maritime influences, and soil between that region and his own.  He had already planted Cabernet Sauvignon at Meerlust, and in the 1970s, added Merlot and Cabernet Franc in 1974, making him one of the first to introduce Bordeaux varieties to South Africa in a meaningful way, according to Hannes.  Dalla Cia, a talented winemaker, joined the team in 1978 and started working on the blend.  Though 1978 was a fine vintage, Nico and Giorgio felt it was not up to snuff for their first release. The 1979 vintage was ruined by rain, which meant the 1980, which they released in 1983 and started the tradition of holding the wine back in bottle, was Rubicon’s first. Hannes emphasizes that his father, Nico, and Giorgio made the perfect team–Nico was a great farmer and Giorgio a great winemaker.  The idea of a blended wine at that time in South Africa was unheard of–“a pioneering event”–and met with great skepticism, according to Hannes and gave rise to the name, Rubicon, or no turning back.

Working only with estate-grown grapes, Rubicon is usually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The variation of soil types on the roughly 300 acres of vineyards is ideal for a Bordeaux blend.  Merlot and Cabernet Franc are well-suited to the clay from an alluvial deposit, while Cabernet Sauvignon likes the granite gravel washed down from the nearby mountains. Starting with the 2008 vintage, Rubicon contains a little Petit Verdot.  All the grapes are grown on the estate and hand-harvested separately.  Fermentation occurs in stainless steel vats using both indigenous and commercial yeast before aging in a combination of new and older French oak barrels.

Rubicon, Meerlust’s flagship, is their focus and comprises about half of their 33,000-case total annual production.  What grapes do not make the cut for Rubicon, will be bottled as Meerlust Merlot, which also contains a bit of Cabernet Franc, or Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rubicon is not produced every year.  In some vintages, such as 1985, 1990, 2002, and 2011, it is all declassified and sold, only in South Africa, as Meerlust Red.

My recent vertical tasting of Rubicon, the 1991, 2001, 2010, 2005, 2014 and 2015 vintage, with Myburgh tells the wine’s story succinctly.

The cedar-y 1991, made by Dalla Cia was, perhaps, just a touch past its prime.  Graceful and long, with plenty of vivacity, it was still a pleasure to drink (90 points).

The 2001, also made by Dalla Cia, was spectacular (96).   Though more full-bodied and powerful that its decade-older brother, it nonetheless retained elegance and balance.  The savory, “not just fruit” character shined and became more apparent as it sat in the glass.  It confirmed for me that 10 to 20-years of age was just right for Rubicon.

The 2005, made by Williams, who had worked with Dalla Cia for years and was his protégé, was the ripest of this line up and maybe just a touch over-ripe.  Perhaps this resulted from the new winemaker trying for more extraction and power.  Even the tannins were ever so slightly more coarse than usual.  Interestingly, I had the same impression of the wine when I tasted it in 2009.  Still, it’s an exercise in counting angels on the head of a pin.  I’d be delighted to drink it with a steak tonight (90).

Williams dialed it back with the 2010.  It had Beethoven-like gusto but all the notes were clear and precise, with impeccable balance between the savory and fruity elements.  The flavors exploded on the palate without a trace of heaviness.  The tannins were, characteristically, very fine, lending beautiful structure without even a hint of aggressiveness (95).

The 2014, currently on the market, is a wonderful youthful wine (93). Balanced and fresh, it has the Rubicon hallmark of gracefulness, which makes it accessible and enjoyable now.

Williams and his team will release the majestic 2015 shortly.  It’s just a slightly larger version of the 2014, still balanced and elegant, but with a bit more of everything–fruitiness, a savory leafiness, and engaging aromatics (95).

In summary, Rubicon has a Bordeaux-like complexity and refinement.  Even in the young versions, the tannins are very fine.  The balance of the young wines–the 2014 and 2015–means they, like all great wines, are a delight to drink now, even though they have not reached their peak.  These are not the “powerhouse” kind of New World Cabernet-based wines, yet they pack plenty of oomph.  They wow you with their grace and elegance.  Oh, and let me remind you of the price–$33 for the 2014!

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E-mail me your thoughts about South African wines in general or Meerlust in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 10, 2018

Simonsig Wine Estate, Western Cape (South Africa) “Kaapse Vonkel” Brut Rosé 2015

($25, Quintessential):  Winemakers can have difficulty taming Pinotage, a grape created by a genetic crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, when transforming it into red wine.  Simonsig has done a fabulous job using the grape in this rosé sparkling wine.  A blend Pinot Noir (63%), Pinotage (35%) and Pinot Meunier, this bubbly delivers subtle red fruit notes with exotic accents — which seem attributable to Pinotage’s contributions.  Its light pink color makes it easy on the eyes and its stiff spine keeps it all in balance.  It’s a good choice for a holiday sparkler and sturdy enough to match a first course of smoked salmon.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Bellingham Estate, Western Cape (South Africa) Chenin Blanc Old Vine “The Bernard Series” 2013

($20): South Africa is home to some of the best Chenin Blanc in the world.  Indeed, aside from the Loire Valley, I can think of nowhere that produces such high quality Chenin Blanc so consistently.  It should be that country’s signature white grape.  This one from Bellingham Estate shows why.  Refreshing and clean, it has a stony mineraly that is balanced by the barest hint of green apple-like fruitiness.  It’s a wonderful combination of flavors that would be a perfect choice for roast pork or pan sautéed pork chops.
91 Michael Apstein Feb 3, 2015

Paul Cluver, Elgin (South Africa) Sauvignon Blanc 2012

($14, Carolina Wine Company): Paul Cluver, a family owned and run vineyard and winery, lies about 40 miles southeast of Cape Town in the cool Elgin Valley.  They specialize in varietals that thrive in cooler climates, such as this Sauvignon Blanc, which has a seamless mixture of fruit and pungency.  Cluver’s 2012 Sauvignon Blanc is an imaginary cross, similar to South Africa’s location, between New Zealand and California.   It has the ripe fruitiness of a California Sauvignon balanced by a touch of the electricity found in the New Zealand Sauvignon renditions.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 30, 2014

Paul Cluver, Elgin (South Africa) Riesling 2012

($22, Carolina Wine Company): The location of Paul Cluver winery in the cool Elgin Valley southeast of Cape Town explains why they excel with Riesling, a variety that thrives in cooler climes.  This dry one has a touch of minerality to accompany the bracing lime-like acidity.  Plenty of substance balances its overall invigorating nature, making it a lively choice for spicy Asian fare of a meaty fish dish, such as grilled swordfish.
91 Michael Apstein Dec 30, 2014

Boschendal, Elgin (South Africa) Chardonnay 2011

($40, Pacific Highway Wines and Spirits): Elgin, a region about 60 miles south east of Cape Town, is known for its cool climate because of its proximity to the ocean.   Chardonnay does well in cool climate because the lower temperatures at night allow the grapes to hold on to their acidity, which translates into freshness in the wine.  Additionally, the slower ripening allows for more flavor development.  Boschendal’s 2011 Chardonnay shows both — a lovely richness and power without heaviness balanced by vibrancy.  It’s both lively and rich.  The mouth-watering acidity cuts through food, expands the finish and amplifies your enjoyment.   This is a wine to enjoy with chicken breast in a creamy mushroom sauce.  If it carried a Napa Valley appellation, this wine would cost twice as much.
94 Michael Apstein Sep 9, 2014

Mulderbosch, Stellenbosch (Western Cape, South Africa) Sauvignon Blanc 2011

($17, Cape Classics): Cutting and piercing in an attractive way, Mulderbosch’s Sauvignon Blanc is the ideal foil for spicy Asian fare.  It will cut through anything on the plate, without being overshadowed, and reawaken any palate.  Its laser-like cut is startling without being aggressive or sharp and actually reinforces the wine’s flavors — an unusual combination to say the least.
92 Michael Apstein Mar 11, 2014

Glen Carlou, Paarl (South Africa) “Grand Classique” 2008

($20, The Hess Collection):  A plush Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (52%), Malbec (16%), Merlot (14%), Petit Verdot (13%) and Cabernet Franc, Glen Carlou’s Grand Classique is rich without being overdone.  Bright cherry-like acidity keeps it fresh and lively.  Smoky, herbal nuances complement the ripe flavors.  Overall, it has beautiful balance of ripe fruit and savory elements.  Supple tannins allow immediate enjoyment. 90 Michael Apstein Jul 5, 2011

Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Walker Bay (South Africa) Pinot Noir 2008

($39, Vineyard Brands):  Practically abutting the Atlantic Ocean and feeling its cooling effect, Walker Bay is the capital of Pinot Noir in South Africa.  And there’s no doubt that Hamilton Russell Vineyards is one of the area’s leading producers (they also make stunningly good Chardonnay).  The style of their Pinot Noir lies somewhere between California and Burgundy with a lovely combination of earthy notes intertwined with dried and fresh red fruit nuances.  The subtle influence of seductive toasty oak enhances without dominating.  Walker Bay in general, and Hamilton Russell in particular, are names to remember for Pinot Noir–and Chardonnay. 90 Michael Apstein Apr 19, 2011

Backsberg, Paarl (South Africa) Merlot 2008

($14, Frederick Wildman):  Merlot has taken its fair share of bashing, often deserved.  But there are plenty of distinctive ones, such as this wine, that are easy to recommend because they deliver an appealing combination of ripe fruit notes and leafy, savory elements.  Backsberg’s 2008 Merlot has ripe and plumy notes offset by earthy nuance.  Not overdone, it’s nicely balanced with polished tannins. 89 Michael Apstein Mar 8, 2011

Man Vintners, Coastal Region (South Africa) Chenin Blanc 2010

($9, Vineyard Brands):  Since it’s never too early to think about warmer weather, put this one on your list for summertime sipping.  South Africa has more Chenin Blanc planted than any other country in the world.  Producers there make a wonderful array of styles from bone dry to lusciously sweet.  This one is crisp, bright and fruity with sufficient lemony acidity for balance.  A subtle sweetness in the finish amplifies the enjoyment.  While waiting for summer, try it now the next time you have chili-laden take-out Chinese fare. 86 Michael Apstein Feb 22, 2011

Renaissance in South Africa

“We had to leapfrog the sanctions,” explained Simon Barlow, the affable owner of Rustenberg Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa, as he described the dramatic transformation of his family’s estate following the democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 that marked the official end of apartheid.  Since that point, the renaissance at Rusterberg has been emblematic of the advance of the entire South African wine industry.

A Long but Checkered History

The South African wine industry has had its ups and downs since its beginning, documented over 350 years ago, on February 2, 1659, when Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch Commander of Cape Town noted in his diary:

“Fine warm weather….Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes, namely from the new must, fresh from the vat. The grapes were mostly Muscadel, and other white round grapes, very fragrant and tasty.” 

“We were making wine when the Médoc (the most famous area in of Bordeaux) was still a stinking swamp,” quipped Lars Maack, owner of Buitenverwachting, a highly regarded estate in Constantia, just outside of Cape Town.  In the 19th century, the famed sweet wines of Constantia sold for more than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.  But the industry entered a new dark age when South Africa became the world’s pariah and economic sanctions were imposed.

In the mid-1990s “We were 10 to 12 years behind the rest of the world, stuck because of the sanctions,” noted Barlow.  Sanctions prevented winemakers from traveling to or from South Africa, leaving South African winemakers unaware of advances and innovations.  Barlow decided that for Rustenberg to move into the modern era, he needed a new winemaker from outside of South Africa to replace the current winemaker who had been there for over 20 years.  Barlow recruited Rod Easthope, a New Zealander and currently the winemaker at the highly regarded Craggy Range winery in New Zealand, to Rustenberg in 1995.  The plan was for him to stay for one harvest, but as often is the case, he stayed for four, until 1999.  Barlow also recruited another Kiwi, Steven Smith, also currently at Craggy Range, as viticulturalist.

Caustic and Citric

When Easthope arrived he wanted “to clean the cellar with ‘caustic and citric’ (caustic soda and citric acid) in the New Zealand, scrub-it-down way,” bemused Barlow. The focus on cleanliness extended even to rental equipment.  At the time, they rented mobile bottling equipment because Rustenberg lacked a bottling line.  Before Easthope would use it, according to Barlow, he disassembled and basically sterilized the whole thing.  The owner of the mobile bottling apparatus wandered by during the cleaning process and was furious–likely to disguise his embarrassment–but that did not deter Easthope and Barlow.  It was as though they were washing away the vestiges of apartheid and the sanctions.

Easthope and Barlow designed a new winery–complete with a permanent and sterile bottling line–to replace the one from the 1800s. The new bottling line ensured consistency replacing multiple bottlings of the same wine with just one.   In addition to modernizing the winery, Easthope took a more modern–and natural–approach to winemaking, introducing fermentation with natural yeast.

Unexpected Help from an Aussie

As sanctions ended, winemakers from the rest of the world poured into South Africa.  Barlow recounts how Len Evans, a leader of the Australian wine industry, serendipitously helped them create their flagship red wine.  Evans paid Barlow a visit as part of his South African tour in 1996.  After Evans left, but while he was still in South Africa, Evans’s Australian winery, Rothbury Estate, was sold out from under him.  Having no pressing need to return to Australia, Evans called Barlow and asked if he might return for a longer visit.  During that visit, Evans emphasized the importance of keeping wines from different parcels of the same vineyard separate every year to evaluate the subtle variations a vineyard delivers.  After tasting batches in the cellar, Evans suggested a separate bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown in just 17 rows of a vineyard, instead of including it in the overall blend.   As a result, Rustenberg’s “Peter Barlow” bottling, named to honor Simon’s father, was born.  And now Rustenberg has 40 to 50 smaller fermentation tanks that allow them to track different parts of their vineyards.

Evans also advised changes in winemaking widely known and implemented outside of South Africa, but less commonly employed in the country because sanctions had limited the inflow of ideas.  For example, Evans suggested they do a gentler pump-over at the end of fermentation to minimize extraction of bitter tannins.  He explained that the extraction needed to be done differently at the beginning of fermentation when the must was basically water than toward the end when it contained more alcohol.

The Wines Are Better Now

Just as the winery and approach to winemaking have been transformed, so have the wines.  Before my just completed visit to South Africa, I last visited Rustenberg in 2000.  At that time, the wines showed potential, but were clunky and slightly aggressive, lacking polish and refinement.  Their 1999 Five Soldiers Chardonnay, Rustenberg’s flagship white named after five stone pine trees overlooking the 5 ½-acre vineyard, was overly fruity, oaky and buttery.  In dramatic contrast, the 2008 Five Soldiers ($35, imported by Cape Classics) still has ripe, pineapple-like flavors, but has vibrancy and a subtle use of oak aging that conveys a creamy classiness and elegance.  Rustenberg’s 2006 Peter Barlow ($50) delivers a marvelous combination of black and red fruit flavors, herbs and graphite-like nuances surrounded by polished tannins.  It, like the Five Soldiers, has grace.

What to Plant and Where to Plant It

The next step and current focus, according to Barlow, is “what to plant where,” a refrain I heard all over South Africa.  Experimentation abounds, and the experimenting winemakers are like kids in a candy store.  Schalk-Willem Joubert, cellar master at Rupert & Rothschild, a superb estate in the nearby Franschhoek Valley, explained that within a distance of only a few miles the rainfall varies by 30%, creating vastly different microclimates.  “Unlike Napa Valley, in which at least the valley floor has quite uniform climate, the hills and the mountain ranges and the exposures make the local climate [in South Africa] very different in very short areas.”

A clear benefit from the experimentation has been the emergence of Shiraz/Syrah as a very promising wine.  When I visited South Africa in 2000, I tasted hundreds of wines, but only an occasional Syrah.  Now, Syrah is everywhere.  And for good reason.  The grape has the potential to make a unique wine in South Africa, combining the plumy, dark fruit nature of warm weather Syrah with the gamey and peppery notes associated with cool climate Syrah.

Stellenbosch, generally a warm area, is, like Napa Valley, highly regarded for its Cabernet Sauvignon.  Rustenberg, best known for their terrific Cabernets, took a risk when they planted Syrah in 2000.  Barlow’s team took advantage of elevation and a seemingly persistent cooling breeze and planted Syrah on a ridge between 650 and 1,000 feet.  It paid off.  Their 2008 Shiraz ($30) is marvelous, fulfilling the potential of the varietal in South Africa precisely because it delivers a balanced combination of ripe fruit and savory nuances.

The renaissance in South African wine is far from complete, which isn’t surprising since it has been less than two decades since the country rejoined the world wine community.  There’s much more to come, including distinctive renditions of Chenin Blanc made from old vines, Viognier and other Rhône varieties from Swartland, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from cool Walker Bay.

It’s exciting to watch new shoots grow from old roots.

February 8, 2011

Neil Ellis, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Chardonnay 2009

($17, Vineyard Brands): Bright and stony, this invigorating Chardonnay offers far more complexity and sophistication than most at this price.  An alluring flinty–almost smoky–quality is reminiscent of Chablis.  Consumers looking for more richness and a fatter style of Chardonnay will be disappointed.  But those wanting a zesty, racy style will embrace it, especially at the price.  90 Michael Apstein Nov 30, 2010

Neil Ellis, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Chardonnay 2009

($17, Vineyard Brands):  Bright and stony, this invigorating Chardonnay offers far more complexity and sophistication than most at this price.  An alluring flinty, almost smoky quality is reminiscent of Chablis.  Consumers looking for more richness and a fatter style of Chardonnay will be disappointed.  But those wanting a zesty, racy style will embrace it, especially at the price. 90 Michael Apstein Nov 23, 2010

Porcupine Ridge, Western Cape (South Africa) Sauvignon Blanc 2009

($10, Vineyard Brands):  Porcupine Ridge is one of four labels produced by Boekenhoutskloof, one of South Africa’s finest producers.  (As a point of trivia, Boekenhoutskloof means ravine of the boekenhout [pronounced book-n-howed], a tree unique to the area, the wood of which is prized for furniture).  This label always delivers solid well-priced wine that is easy to recommend.  Their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc is no exception.  Grassy, herbal notes meld with vibrant acidity.  Is it a fabulously complex Sauvignon Blanc?  No.  But a wonderful $10 wine perfect with simple seafood or take-out rotisserie chicken? You bet. 87 Michael Apstein Mar 16, 2010

Stark-Condé, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

($27):  A blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (92%) with a little Merlot (6%), and Cabernet Franc, it’s riper and more fruit forward than the usually more restrained Cabernet from South Africa.   Hints of non-fruit flavors peek through and add complexity.  Firm tannins and lively acidity help keep it from going over-the-top, but I can’t help wondering if some South African winemakers are catching the international high alcohol and slightly overripe virus. 87 Michael Apstein Dec 1, 2009

Neil Ellis, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot 2005

($20, Vineyard Brands):  A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (49%), Merlot (42%), Cabernet Franc (6%) and Shiraz, this is surprisingly more fruit-forward than many of Ellis’s past offerings.  Nonetheless, it delivers herbal, earthy notes that give it complexity and prevent it from being a fruit bomb.  It’s an intense wine, but thankfully, not over-the-top.  Polished tannins provide balancing structure and allow you to enjoy it without further cellaring. 88 Michael Apstein Oct 13, 2009

Goats do Roam, Western Cape (South Africa) ‘White’ 2008

($10, Vineyard Brands): Although it’s Charles Back’s pun-laden labels that catch your attention, the wine in the bottle is what holds it.  Hints—just hints—of apricot and peach-like flavors buttressed by good acidity makes this southern Rhone lookalike easy to recommend.  Clean and fresh, without a trace of heaviness, it has surprising length, especially at the price. 88 Michael Apstein Aug 18, 2009

Bouchard Finlayson, Walker Bay (South Africa) Chardonnay ‘Mission Vale’ 2006

($25, Leucadia Cellars and Estate): This Chardonnay is just another example of how South Africa is likely the most under appreciated country for fine wine.  It walks the fine line between overt fruitiness and flavors characteristic of the New World and the restraint and tautness of white Burgundy.  It has a hint of smoke and Meursault-like flavors coupled with just the right amount of toastiness.  Beautifully bright acidity keeps it fresh and brings you back for another sip.
91 Michael Apstein Aug 18, 2009

Fairview, Costal Region (South Africa) Sauvignon Blanc 2008

($13, Vineyard Brands): This South African rendition of Sauvignon Blanc falls somewhere in the middle of spectrum of styles that this grape can produce, falling between the laser-like edginess of one from New Zealand and the riper notes common to California.  Pleasantly pungent and refreshing, it’s a good choice this summer for simply grilled fish or steamed mussels. 87 Michael Apstein Jul 28, 2009

Spice Route Winery, Coastal Region (South Africa) Viognier 2008

($23, Vineyard Brands): The team at Spice Route got it right with this Viognier, a grape that can be difficult to transform into a balanced wine.  Floral notes reminiscent of honeysuckle grab your attention.  On the palate, its fleshy texture and hints of peaches are balanced by solid acidity.  It would make a pleasing before dinner drink that will then work well with flavor-filled first course. 86 Michael Apstein Jul 28, 2009

Meerlust, Stellenbosch (South Africa) “Rubicon” 2005

($28, Maisons Marques and Domaines): As good as Meerlust’s other wines are–and they are quite good–this one, their flagship, is delectable.  The blend of the Bordeaux-style wine varies from vintage to vintage.  The 2005 is roughly 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder split equally between Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Plumper than their very good Merlot (previously reviewed), it retains a firm spine for support.  It strikes a balance between the New World and the Old, with the rich, lush fruit of the former balanced by the structure of the latter.  Smoky, savory qualities appear with time in the glass and complement the plum and black cherry notes.  The tannins and oak are well integrated, which allows for current enjoyment, but the overall balance and structure suggests it will evolve beautifully over the next decade. 93 Michael Apstein Jul 7, 2009

Meinert, Devon Valley (Stellenbosch, South Africa) “Synchronicity” 2004

($44, Boutique Wine Collection): Meinert puts Pinotage, the unique South African cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir, to good use by adding a small–10%–of it in the this blend of equal parts Cabernet and Merlot.  Pinotage by itself can be off-putting with its aroma that can sometimes smell like adhesive tape, but in this wine it adds a wonderfully exotic spice-like and component that supplements earthy notes and balances the lush fruitiness of the other varietals.  Quite polished and supple, it’s a good choice for uncorking for the summer grill season. 90 Michael Apstein Jul 7, 2009

Meerlust, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Chardonnay 2007

($23, Maison Marques and Domaines): Meerlust, a family owned winery best known for their red wines, walks the line between the flamboyance of New World wine and the austerity and minerality of Burgundy with this captivating Chardonnay, the only white wine they produce.  Rich and intense, but not oily or over-done, it has a Burgundian sensibility.  It maintains freshness with a citric acidity that carries into the finish and amplifies the flavors.  And all of this at a reasonable price. 93 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2009

Meerlust, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Merlot 2005

($27, Maison Marques and Domaines): While many California wineries are releasing their 2006 and 2007 Merlot, this 2005 is Meerlust’s current offering.  As a family owned winery, Meerlust can avoid the bean counters’ focus on quarterly returns and hold the wine until they think its ready for release.  Hannes Myburgh, the current head of Meerlust, says his father started the practice in the 1970s because he wanted a wine to be more integrated and enjoyable to drink upon release.  Judging by this wine, it was a sound decision.  This Merlot is not a massive wine or a fruit bomb.  Rather, alluring herbal nuances complement the black fruit flavors.  Earthy, savory notes speak loudly.  Fine tannins give it a backbone and requisite acidity keeps it lively.  The bottle age has allowed it to come together beautifully.  Its complexity is best appreciated at the dinner table, not as an aperitif type of Merlot.  Another fine value from South Africa. 93 Michael Apstein Jun 23, 2009

Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Chenin Blanc “Petit Chenin” 2008

($9, Boutique Wine Collection): This wine is part of Ken Forrester’s Petit tier, the lowest of his three tiers of wine.  By that ‘lowly’ stature shouldn’t deter you from buying it.  Fruity without being sweet, it is lively and fresh and has surprising length, especially given its price.  It’s an excellent choice from spicy cuisine or pool-side sipping this summer.   A superb value. 87 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2009

Cape Point Vineyards, Cape Point (South Africa) Sauvignon Blanc “Stonehaven” 2007

($23, Boutique Wine Collection): This is the only winery located in the Cape Point, a district south of Cape Town on a peninsula that separates the Atlantic Ocean from False Bay. But after sampling this wine, I expect to see more.  The extraordinary maritime influence of the peninsula probably contributes to the striking quality of this wine.  Engaging mineral-like nuances complement the inherent pungency of Sauvignon Blanc.  And most strikingly, those immediate-impact flavors spread across the palate and continue into a lengthy finish. 92 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2009

Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Shiraz Grenache 2005

($20, Boutique Wine Collection): Forrester says his Grenache vineyard, almost 50 years old, is the only one in Stellenbosch because the remaining ones were pulled up during apartheid by the government-run wine monopoly.  That seems very unfortunate, judging from this wine, which manages to combine fresh fruit with slightly spiced gamey elements into a harmonious package.  This lively wine, with its mild tannins, would be a good choice for barbequed chicken on the grill. 89 Michael Apstein Jun 9, 2009

Neil Ellis, Elgin (South Africa) Chardonnay 2007

($17, Vineyard Brands): Ellis, one of South Africa’s leading producers, makes two Chardonnays, one from grapes grown in Stellenbosch and this one, from Elgin, South Africa’s coolest viticultural area. The cool climate is expressed by a dazzling freshness and vigor that enhances and amplifies its underlying toasty creaminess.  Despite winemaking techniques such as barrel fermentation, lees stirring and barrel aging that can be overdone and that have the potential to overpower the fruit, this Chardonnay has impeccable balance and finesse.  And those who say they need very ripe grapes to make excellent wine need to look at the modest 13% alcohol of this one.  A bargain at the price. 91 Michael Apstein May 19, 2009

Raats, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Cabernet Franc 2006

($30, Cape Classics): Bruwer Raats and his brother, Jasper, founded the winery only in 2001 and have already made themselves a fine reputation.  They specialize in only two wines, Chenin Blanc and this Cabernet Franc, a varietal that is not planted widely in South Africa.  Judging from this wine, maybe it should be.  This exotic wine will appeal to those who prefer herbal elements and restraint rather than a full-blown, fruit forward style.  It delivers the classic leafy–but not vegetal–character of Cabernet Franc to complement the reds fruit flavors.  Its ripeness is perfectly balanced by fine tannins and uplifting freshness. 89 Michael Apstein May 5, 2009

Rudi Schultz, Stellenbosch (South Africa) Syrah 2004

($30, Cape Classics): Rudi Schultz is best known as the talented winemaker at Thelema, a producer known for their stellar Cabernet Sauvignon.  He also makes a small amount of wine–this excellent Syrah–under his own name.  It’s a marvelous combination of both the ripe, plummy side of Syrah as well as the peppery notes that it can show.  Hints of bacon fat add to its overall appeal.  It has great intensity without being overblown or over-the-top.  A delight to drink now, its balance suggests it will evolve nicely with bottle age. 91 Michael Apstein May 5, 2009

Spice Route, Swartland (South Africa) Viognier 2007

($18, Vineyard Brands): Viognier can be a tough grape to vinify because its characteristic aromatics and flavors don’t emerge unless the grape is quite ripe, which can translate into a high and intrusive level of alcohol.  This Spice Route rendition pulls it off nicely, with alluring hints of peaches and honeysuckle without heaviness or the burn of alcohol.  It has a pleasing softness without being overdone or overripe, which means it’s a good wine to sip before or while preparing dinner and then to carry to the table. 88 Michael Apstein Feb 3, 2009

Bellingham, Coastal Region (South Africa) ‘Fair Maiden’ 2007

($18, Cape Wine Ventures): Whether the blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Verdelho (what, no kitchen sink?) is intentional or they just used what was left over, it works.  Great floral aromatics and honeysuckle notes suggest it will be sweet, but it’s not.  The lively acidity keeps it fresh on the palate.  Just when you think there are no more surprises, an attractive peach-like component comes through in the finish. 87 Michael Apstein Jan 20, 2009

Bellingham, Coastal Region (South Africa) ‘Dragon’s Lair’ 2005

($26, Cape Wine Ventures): A typical Mediterranean blend of Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Viognier crushed together and co-fermented, this wine has impressive power without going over the top.  The decision to age half the wine in one-year-old oak barrels (and the rest in new oak) helps keep the wine in balance.  The oak flavors and tannins are nicely integrated and do not overwhelm the spicy ripe fruit elements.  The lovely mixture of berries and spice lingers in the finish. 88 Michael Apstein Jan 20, 2009

The Chocolate Block, Western Cape (South Africa) 2007

($59, Vineyard Brands): Normally I don’t care for wines with these kinds of fanciful names, but given the unpronounceable name of the producer–Boekenhoutskloof–the rationale is clear and above reproach.  It’s kind of a Rhône blend–Syrah (55%), Grenache (20%), Cinsault (5%) and Viognier (4%)–but then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon to round it out.  In this big, bold wine, the unconventional blend actually works.  Perhaps it’s suggestion from the name, but there are hints of chocolate and cocoa–maybe the Cabernet speaking–as well as lively peppery nuances, especially in the finish.  This robust wine is not for the faint of heart, but a surprising degree of elegance gives it more class than is usually apparent with this style of wine. 90 Michael Apstein Jan 13, 2009

The Goat Father, Western Cape (South Africa) 2006

($13, Vineyard Brands): This hodge-podge blend of Italian and French varieties (Barbera, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Primitivo and Nebbiolo) produces what I like to call a ‘pizza wine;’ a simple, but lively, everyday kind of beverage.  This one delivers fresh red fruit flavors and mild tannins.  You can have a glass or two, close the bottle and pour it again the following night. 86 Michael Apstein Dec 30, 2008

Fairview, Paarl (South Africa) Shiraz “The Beacon” 2005

($36): Long before Charles Back created his Goats do Roam label, he was making stellar wines at his Fairview property in Paarl, near Capetown.  This Shiraz, named for a nearby surveyor’s beacon, is a big, ripe but well-balanced wine whose herbal aromas capture your immediate attention.  Its appealing combination of black-cherry-like flavors and black peppery notes shows that grape’s great potential in South Africa.  Polished tannins allow you to enjoy it this winter. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 30, 2008

The Goats do Roam Wine Company, Coastal Region (South Africa) Shiraz – Pinotage “Goats in Villages” 2006

($14, Vineyard Brands): Charles Back’s whimsical labeling should not hide the fact that he puts serious wine in his bottles.  This blend of roughly three-quarters Shiraz and one-quarter Pinotage, a grape virtually exclusive to South Africa, works very nicely.  Bright spiciness offsets succulent black fruit in his supple wine.  It’s another good choice for bold wintertime fare. 87 Michael Apstein Dec 30, 2008

Neil Ellis Wines, Western Cape (South Africa) “The Left Bank” 2007

($15, Vineyard Brands): The name, The Left Bank, presumably alludes to Bordeaux, but the blend there never includes Shiraz, which comprises a third of this wine–the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon (57%) and Merlot.  (Chateau Palmer started producing a wine in 2004–called Historical XIX Century–that includes Shiraz in the blend, but can not be labeled Bordeaux, only Vin de Table).  Ellis’ Left Bank is packed with fresh fruit, but does not come across as grapey and simple because there’s a bit of spice and mild supporting tannins.  Forward and easy to drink, the juicy black fruit flavors do not, thankfully, become jammy. 87 Michael Apstein Oct 21, 2008

Juno Wine Co., Western Cape (South Africa) Shiraz “Cape Maidens” 2008

($10, Confluence Wine Importers): This is the showiest of Juno’s ‘Cape Maidens’ line of wines, which feature label art by well known South African artist Tertia du Toit.  In the case of this wine, her rendering of a voluptuous maiden is matched by a pretty voluptuous wine, as this shows fleshy, ripe berry fruit.  There’s also a note of fresh meat and a spicy undertone as well, along with enough tannin to support the fruit and provide grip and definition in the finish. 87 Michael Apstein Oct 1, 2008

Porcupine Ridge, Coastal Region (South Africa) Syrah 2007

($13, Vineyard Brands): The Porcupine Ridge label from Boekenhoutskloof, one of South Africa’s leading producers, is a consistent source of good wine at an excellent price.  This Syrah has a dollop of gamey flavors and a touch of bacon fat as counterweight to its overall ripeness.  It carries the 14.5% alcohol well, so it doesn’t seem hot or heavy.  With more complexity than I would expect at this price, it is easy to recommend. 87 Michael Apstein Sep 16, 2008

Wolf Trap, Western Cape (South Africa) Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier 2007

($10): Boekenhoutskloof, one of South Africa’s star producers, acts as a négociant–they buy young wine from others and then blend and age it–for this bargain-priced delight.  Aromatic from Viognier, it conveys fresh fruit, a hint of bacon fat and gamey flavors–Syrah and Mourvédre speaking–that give it remarkable complexity for the price. 86 Michael Apstein Aug 26, 2008