Confessions of a wine geek: South Africa rocks

BlackBeard’s wine specialist Jeremy Corday has a secret he wants to share with everyone; at least he wanted to share it with the guests who attended the West Indies Wine Company’s recent Sommelier Series event. His secret is that not only do South African wines offer great diversity and value, but they’re darn good, too.

When Jeremy Corday took a job at an African-themed restaurant called Jiko in Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, he was a bit apprehensive because the restaurant served only South African wines. He had tried just a few wines from that country, and he hadn’t liked them very much.

The first wine he was given to taste after he took the job at Jiko was a Bordeaux varietal blend called De Toren Fusion V.

“I tasted it and it was really, really good,” he said.

Thus began his love affair with South African wines.

“I had already taken my sommelier’s certification, so I was already a wine guy, but then I had to make South Africa my number-one thing. I was blown away, not just by the quality of the wines, but also by the diversity and value.”

Corday, who is now a wine specialist with Blackbeard’s Fine Wines, Beers and Spirits, immersed himself in learning all he could about South Africa’s wines, a quest that eventually led him to visit the country in 2008. During a tasting of six South African wines that he hosted at the West Indies Wine Company in October, Corday shared some of his vast knowledge on one of his favorite subjects.

Diverse terrior

The wine regions of South Africa spread out over a large area with a variety of topography. As a result, South Africa offers a wide variety of climate conditions and soils, which allows for many different grapes to grow well there. Many of South Africa’s microclimates are similar to some of the best-known wine areas in the world, including Napa Valley and Burgundy.

“With very few exceptions, almost every grape that is made into wines that have some commercial success is grown in South Africa,” said Corday.

When he worked at Jiko, many of the diners didn’t know much about South African wines, Corday said. He would ask them what kind of wines they did like and because of the diversity in South African wines, and the large wine list at the restaurant, he’d almost always find one that had similar characteristics. More often than not, the diners liked the wines he suggested.

“In the 150 wines we had at the time, there was something for everyone,” he said, adding that the customers were usually pleased with the value of the South African wines as well.

White wines

For the Sommelier Series event, guests got to see how diverse South African wines can be, starting with Raats Family Vineyards Chenin Blanc [Retail price: $17.99].

“Chenin is nothing new,” Corday said. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with it, but it’s been in the Loire Valley [in France] for a very long time.”

In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape, used to make single varietal wines, white wine blends, sparkling wines and even dessert wines.

When Corday first tasted the Raats Family Chenin Blanc a couple of years ago, he predicted it would become a favorite in the Cayman Islands because of its refreshing acidity and tropical fruit notes, as well as its similarities to Cayman’s two best-selling white wines, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

“I like to say ‘if Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio got married and had a child, this would be their child,’” he said, noting that Raats Family Chenin pairs superbly with simple seafood dishes.

Guests then got a preview taste of a wine that won’t be available for retail sale in Cayman until next year: Bayton Sauvignon Blanc. Corday noted that South Africa lies at a similar latitude as New Zealand, which gives the Sauvignon Blanc produced in both countries similar characteristics. However, instead of the pronounced grassy/grapefruit aromas that are generally found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, the Bayton displayed an inviting aroma with sweet candy notes to go with a refreshing, New World Sauvignon taste.

“Here’s a way people can have something that is a little different and something new, but still familiar,” he said.

Red wines

Moving on to the red wines, Spice Route’s Chakalaka [Retail: $27.19] is a Syrah-driven blend of six different grapes. Chakalaka showed a spicy smokiness to go with flavors of red fruits. It paired very well with the lamb meatball that was part of the nibbles plate provided by Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink for the event.

Spice Route’s Pinotage [Retail: $23.59] is made in a similar, easy-drinking style. The Pinotage grape was created from a cross-pollination of the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut grapes. The wine gets its lightness from Pinot Noir and its earthy rustic character from the Cinsaut. The result is an extremely food-friendly, medium bodied wine with soft tannins.

Corday said that in its early years, much of the Pinotage produced was of very low quality.

“Because of that, it’s gotten a bad rap,” he said. “Pinotage today is much better.”

The wine is good with a variety of foods, and especially barbecued foods, Corday said, explaining that he once had a transcendental taste experience in his mouth when he paired a cheeseburger from the Brasserie with Spice Route’s Pinotage.

When it comes to red wines, South Africa is probably best known for its Bordeaux varietal blends.

“I think it’s a strength there,” said Corday. “Especially in my time at Jiko, I drank so many Bordeaux blends that impressed me. Blends are something they do well in South Africa.”

One of the best of those blends is the first South African wine Corday tasted at Jiko – De Toren’s Fusion V [Retail: $52.59]. Named because it is a fusion of all five of the allowed grapes in Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec – Fusion V is consistently one of the most highly rated of South Africa’s wines.

The wine is produced meticulously by De Toren, using techniques such as a gravity transfer from the fermentation tanks to the barrels so as not to agitate the wine too much. Fusion V is a perfect example of a wine that shows the “New World fruit and Old World charm” – typical of South African wines.

“If I smelled this in a blind tasting, the first thing I’d notice is the earthiness on the nose and I’d think Old World,” said Corday. “But then I’d taste it and get the fruit, and I’d [think New World].”

The final wine of the evening came from one of South Africa’s oldest wine estates, Rustenberg, which dates back to 1682. Its Peter Barlow wine [Retail: $55.49] is considered one of South Africa’s iconic single varietal Cabernet Sauvignons. It’s a rich, full-bodied wine with good structure and ageing potential of 10-15 years, something for which South African wines aren’t usually known.

Peter Barlow displays aromas of eucalyptus, mint and herbs and has flavors of dark fruits. It’s a good example of a South African Cabernet Sauvignon that is fruity, but not as much as a California Cab, and earthy, but not as much as a French Bordeaux, and is therefore a nice midway point between the Old World and the New World.