Try South Africa.
In 1993, the year trade sanctions on the country were lifted, a wine agent gave me a bottle of Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, from the heart of South African wine country, not far north of the Cape of Good Hope. Mulderbosch was—and is—a great ambassador of the grape and the country, rivaling New Zealand's best: intense, grassy, fruity, spritzy on the tongue, absolutely delicious. But even in 1993 Mulderbosch wasn't particularly cheap, and when the inexpensive South African wines arrived, I didn't pay much attention. I tried a few pinotages—made from the country's trademark red grape, a hybrid of cinsault and pinot noir—but those wines couldn't match, say, the roasted-fruit richness of a bargain like Salice Salentino from the Italian boot.
South Africa had a 300-year-old winemaking tradition, though it had leaned toward sherries and ports and, under the tight screws of sanctions, wines for local tastes. Why didn't it pull off a Chile-style coup in the low end of the U.S. market?The problem, according to John Gorman, an expat South African who runs the Southern Hemisphere Wine Center in Huntington Beach, California, was the wine itself.
"Sanctions had struck a fairly punishing blow," he recalls. "When you're stuck making wine for a domestic client, you become pretty complacent." A lousy bottle, he says, could taste "much akin to a dirty barbecue lid. The extraction levels were minimal, the wood treatment was often abusive, [leaving] aggressive fruit and wood tannins with unsavory characteristics."
Abusive wood treatment sounds like something you'd do after bungling the eighth at Arikikapakapa, but what Gorman means is that thin, dirty wines were being stretched, propped up and amplified—all while the Italians were raising their own standards at every point of the price spectrum and Spain had charged into the market as well.
Dial forward to the present, where things are looking up, way up. The best of the reds—now cabernets, shirazes and blends, with only a little pinotage—are an interesting combination of zingy, mouth-filling fruit and solid-but-not-punishing tannins. The best I tasted had the berry exuberance Americans like in Californian and Australian reds, but without the teeth-stripping astringency and huge, sweet wood that can sometimes tarnish young cabs and other reds from those regions—an impressive feat, given that South African wines are released when very young.
"All of a sudden," Gorman says, "with the '98 and '99 vintages, we started seeing some incredibly exciting stuff, albeit from blokes who don't make more than a thousand cases of wine." The 2000 cabs proved even better, and today there are 2001s and even 2002s on the market.
Some of the best new South Africans, though, being from small blokes or the more prestigious older wineries, are neither cheap nor easy to find. The superstar of the pack—the rare Ernie Els Stellenbosch 2000—runs $60 if you can find a bottle. Many good reds from Rudera, Meerlust, De Toren and Rustenberg cost $25, $30, even $45.
Skeptical first-time buyers may not want to drop California-level coin on a red blend from the Polkadraai Hills. If so, there are less-expensive wines to try. On the red side, the punny Goats Do Roam blend from Fairview winery (the name riffs off the Côtes du Rhône wines of France and blends pinotage with Rhône grape varieties) can be had for as little as $8. The Goat is a middleweight, intensely fruity-smelling, nicely acidic red that is prime for pastas, ribs, burgers and the like.
In the whites, chenin blancs are worth trying because they can be lively and interesting compared with the flabby versions often turned out by American wineries. The sauvignon blancs reign supreme, however—in the $20 range from Mulderbosch and around $15 from Neil Ellis; Helderberg and Morgenhof even offer excellent buys at less than $10.
All of this could add up to a sweet spot in the market for South Africa. With so many wine stores and restaurants offering only young vintages, their drink-now style, without the puckery tannins and vanilla oak endemic to the madding crowd, is a very good thing indeed.
Tasting Notes: New South Africa
Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2002 ($20) A marvelous example of the grape at its absolute best. Dances on the tongue, almost fizzy. Bursting with lemon-melon flavors, with a grassy essence. You may never drink chardonnay again.
Morgenhof 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (Under $10) Not as intensely fruity, but a very good example of the style: tart, lively, clear.
Rudera 2001 Chenin Blanc ($20) Pale, honey-colored, dry-though-fruity white wine smelling of green apples and tasting of ripe apples and apricots.
Rudera 2001 Syrah ($26) Pricey, but a solid, intense syrah with raspberry, almost-chocolate fruit, some vanilla from the oak barrels. Drinkable now.
Malan Pinotage 1999 ($9) You can briefly taste the funky, smoky character of a Côtes Rotie, though this wine fades fairly quickly in the glass: Drink up. Great with sausage pizza. I liked it better than the Steytler Pinotage 2000 ($28), which had the unmistakable smell and taste of artificial bacon bits.
De Toren Fusion V 2000 ($30) A Bordeaux-style blend of cab, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot that carries the lovely smell of cherry jam. A balanced, not overly oaked wine that can be drunk now.
KWV Roodeberg ($10) A great everyday-drinking introduction to South African reds: balanced, intensely fruity, with moderate tannins and oak.
Bilton 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) A beautifully made, balanced example of cabernet: Both the wood and tannins are modest, meaning you can drink it now, but there's enough fruit so that after five years in the cellar it'll be even better. Stands up well against California cabs of similar or higher price.
Overgaauw 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($19) Another good cab from this vintage. Green peppers in the bouquet, along with a hard core of blackberries and, yes, violets. Very well made but not in the drink-now style; interesting in five or even ten years.