Food & dining

By the Glass

South African turnaround: quality over quantity

Ellen Bhang for The Boston Globe

In the mid-1990s, the quality of South African wines was highly variable. The industry was just emerging from the quantity-over-quality apartheid years, and isolation from the world market showed. More than a few of the country’s signature pinotage reds — pinotage is a cross of pinot noir and cinsaut — were flawed, offering up aromas reminiscent of nail polish. White wines tasted manipulated and over-acidified.

Industry reforms in South Africa changed all that. Vines planted after apartheid are hitting their stride and many people are taking notice. The next time you visit your local wine shop, don’t be surprised if you find plenty of company in the South African aisle. New enthusiasts seem genuinely excited about these bottles, and longtime wine drinkers will tell you these pours have come a long way in 20 years.

Jim Clarke, New York-based marketing manager of Wines of South Africa, says, “In the past five years, there’s been an uptick in quality.” Before, he says, he had to seek out the better bottles. “I don’t have to cherry pick to show good wines,” he says. Consumers are curious about pinotage, and familiar varietals like sauvignon blanc, grown in Stellenbosch or Paarl.


After apartheid, producers jump-started planting in new areas, with more attention paid to matching varietals to growing sites. Virus-stressed vines were replaced with healthy ones and a new generation of winemakers set about applying modern techniques to make wines for a competitive global market. Today’s producers love talking up their wines’ merits.

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The back label of a bottle of 2012 Six Hats Pinotage, from the Citrusdal Cooperative in the Western Cape, highlights six guiding principles for its winemaking — partnership, change, potential, equity, dignity, and sustainability. This bottle sports a Fairtrade International designation and an “Integrity and Sustainability Certified” seal, guaranteeing that the cooperative has met guidelines regarding environmental stewardship and worker safety. All of the bottles we tasted carry this seal.

If all this sounds too earnest, skip the label-gazing and get right to what’s in the glass.

The wines we recommend — $11 to $16, all with screw-cap closures — are lively and fresh, with nary a whiff of nail polish aroma or manipulated acidity. Whites offer about 13 percent alcohol by volume, reds around 14 percent, and a rose clocks in right in between.

In this new chapter on the history of South Africa, we like how the wine story is unfolding.


Bradgate Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc 2012 Fans of New World sauvignon blanc will recognize this varietal’s grapefruit-and-grass signature, softened with chenin blanc. Refreshing acid and a touch of residual sugar translates to fruitiness rather than sweetness in this dry white, sporting a lime skin finish. Around $12. At Red, White & Brew Market, Acton, 978-429-8360; Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, 617-623-9500.

Graham Beck “The Game Reserve” Chenin Blanc 2011 A lovely New World style of chenin blanc, offering aromas of white flowers, citrus, and minerality. This dry white provides tart citrus, edged with leafy green herbal notes. Around $16. Pamplemousse, Reading, 781-872-1125; Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors, Waltham, 781-893-1900.

Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose 2013 Clean and fruity aromas in a salmon pink quaff offer berry and rose petal scent, with tart wild strawberries and wet stones on the palate. Saline builds attractively mid-palate and finishes clean. Around $12. Golden Goose Market, North End, 617-367-8134; Cambridge Wine & Spirits, Cambridge, 617-864-7171.

Six Hats Pinotage 2012 You can’t miss the pungency of this red varietal. Aromas point to ripe red fruit and sweet wood smoke, enveloped by savory, meaty notes that have almost ferrous qualities on the palate. Exuberant, with attractive bitterness and rustic tannins that integrate with time in the glass. Around $11. Ball Square Fine Wines; Bacco’s Wine & Cheese, Boston, 617-574-1751.

False Bay Pinotage 2012 This elegant pour offers savory wood smoke notes undergirding ripe red fruit. Well modulated acidity and smooth-grained tannins lead to a soft, refined finish. Around $14. Needham Center Fine Wines, Needham, 781-400-1769; Foodie’s Urban Market, South Boston, 617-269-4700.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at