This past week I had the pleasure of leading a wine tasting for alumni/ae of Vassar College, where I was fortunate enough to pursue my undergraduate studies (thanks, need-blind admissions and generous grants!). The Pittsburgh Vassar Network hosts a series of events, and I thought I'd volunteer my services to help put together a wine tasting focusing on a country that's too often overlooked in the world of wine: South Africa. With the blessing of the college and the local chapter president, the all-around amazing Patty, I set out to select wines to showcase the breadth of quality production coming out of the Cape these days.
The venue for the event was the Board Room at the distinguished Allegheny HYP Club in downtown Pittsburgh, just across from the wonderful Hotel Monaco (which, I should note, has a lovely beer garden on the roof -- check it out once winter releases Pittsburgh from its clutches). As you can imagine, a Harvard/Yale/Princeton club comes steeped in tradition, and this one certainly lives up to its lofty reputation: warm and handsome wood throughout complemented by the colors of each of the three schools (crimson, blue, and orange, respectively). As luck would have it, Vassar's colors are pewter and maroon, so the decorations in the Board Room fit perfectly for our event (note: Vassar's colors are technically pewter and rose, but apparently maroon was more readily available and cheaper, thus the switch).
We had space for 20 people at the event, and I was thrilled to discover that we'd be having a full house for this inaugural tasting for the Pittsburgh Vassar Network. I could have gone in several directions with this tasting, perhaps concentrating on a particular district like Swartland or Stellenbosch, but I instead chose a wide variety from various districts and wards throughout the Western Cape. Equally important to me was selecting wines that attendees could purchase in state stores or via avenues like wine.com; Pennsylvania's liquor laws are notoriously quirky, and it isn't always easy to find certain wines. Considering South African wines aren't widely known in Pittsburgh, I wanted guests to see quality examples demonstrating the diversity -- and relative affordability! -- of viticulture in the Cape for this introductory tasting. Down the road, sure, we can get super niche, but for now? I was throwing the kitchen sink at 'em, complete with maps and pictures of the South African winelands as supplementary learning materials. Oh, and I made sure to provide some biltong, because...well, would it really be a South African event without it?
So, what was in that kitchen sink? Here's what we tasted and the order in which we did it:
1.) Graham Beck Brut NV: It seemed like a no-brainer to start with a glass of bubbles because, hey, who doesn't like that? No one in the room, as it turned out, was even aware that South Africa produced sparkling wines, and everyone was shocked when I revealed that this wine, which offers lovely notes of bread yeast and baked apples, retails locally for under $18. A few attendees mentioned they'd consider stocking up on this with upcoming Christmas and New Year's celebrations in mind -- which is exactly what I plan on doing. Pro tip: grab some of their rosé sparkly, too, which is just as good and offers hints of strawberries and raspberries.
2.) Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 2016: These days people are quite keen on Sauvignon blanc, particularly with the abundance of affordable and high-quality examples from New Zealand lining the shelves. Not taking anything away from those, of course, I wanted to show that South Africa offers excellent takes on the grape, too. For me, Klein Constantia's Sauvignon blanc represents a textbook example of what the grape can do in the Western Cape. Vivid aromas of tropical fruits jump out of the glass while a crisp acidity keeps it all in balance, and it was no surprise that several guests found this to be their favorite white of the evening, although they'll need to wait a few months to enjoy it on a patio outside with a nice, refreshing summer salad.
3.) Tania & Vincent Carême Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2016: "I love my French Chenin blancs," one guest said aloud when we got to this wine. I could see the skepticism in her eyes as she swirled the wine in the glass, took a sniff, and then sipped. I knew how wonderful this wine was, but what would she think? Well, I'm happy to report that she, too, was won over by this wine's flavors of ripe, juicy pineapple and citrus blossoms. Guests accurately pointed out that this wine offered a more voluptuous, almost waxy texture than the Sauvignon blanc, and we had a nice discussion about Chenin's history in the Cape.
4.) Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2016: Following the sun-baked fruit of the Swartland, we moved to the cooler reaches of the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley for the next two wines, starting with this lovely Chardonnay. This wine was somewhat polarizing for the group: the folks who said they didn't like Chardonnay remained in that camp, but those who stated they enjoyed Chardonnay found this to be an excellent example of the varietal. Several guests remarked that this was far less oaky than those to which they were used and found that restraint to be a pleasant surprise. My two cents? I don't think you're going to find a better-value Chardonnay for the money anywhere else on earth.
5.) Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2015: We've now moved onto the reds for the night, and although I could have chosen a different producer, I stuck with Hamilton Russell because I think of them as the benchmark for both Chardonnay and Pinot noir in South Africa. In addition, this wine is relatively easy to track down in Pennsylvania -- no small feat, given the aforementioned liquor laws. I really enjoyed the group's reaction to this wine; the room got strangely quiet as guests tried to pinpoint what it was they were smelling and tasting in this wine. Smoke? Earth? Cherries? Orange peel?! All of the above, I think, and that's what makes it such a compelling wine in my view. The parallels between this Pinot and Burgundy were very apparent, and a few guests remarked that this wine was nowhere near as sappy or heavy as the California Pinots they were used to -- which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a very good thing.
6.) AA Badenhorst Secateurs Red Blend 2012: This wine was a hit with most of the group, and it's easy to see why. Fruity without being overripe, this juice goes down remarkably easily. Guests noted how well this red blend, which is dominated by Shiraz (with a hefty helping of Cinsault), would pair with a summer barbecue. The friendly price tag of this wine, roughly $16, was an added bonus.
7.) Mullineux Family Wines Syrah 2015: "There is a very nice warmth about this wine," remarked one guest upon tasting this Syrah. We got into a nice discussion of the stylistic differences between Shiraz and Syrah, and this example demonstrated all of the hallmarks of a good Syrah: blackberries, black pepper, savory spices, and even a little bit of cured meat. To be sure, the "funk" of Syrah that I personally love isn't for everyone, and a couple of guests remarked that they preferred the more fruit-forward offerings that a Shiraz brings to the table. Different strokes for different folks, right? Much like what we saw with the Chardonnay earlier, those who typically like the varietal truly enjoyed this wine. For me, this tied with the Hamilton Russell Pinot noir as the best red of the night.
8.) Stark-Condé Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: This was another wine that was quite well received across the board, which is understandable: it exhibits a lot of textbook Cabernet characteristics (think red fruits with cedar and tobacco notes) and isn't all that dissimilar to a solid Napa Cab that folks here drink regularly. What did surprise some people is its $25 price tag, showing that this is a wine that punches well above its price tag.
In addition to the wines themselves, it was important for me to address some of the issues and challenges facing the South African wine industry. This being a Vassar event, I especially focused on the ugly legacy of Apartheid both within the industry and South African society overall, as well as what is being done to combat it -- such as the Freedom Road project put in place by Backsberg in Paarl. In fact, the discussion was so lively that the event went on longer than anticipated, and it was wonderful to be with a group of engaged, enthusiastic guests.
All in all, the tasting was a resounding success. Perhaps my favorite quote of the evening, which makes me feel like I achieved my goal with this event, came from one guest before we all parted ways:
"We honestly would just walk right past the South African wines at the store without giving them another thought. It's safe to say I won't be doing that again."
So what are yinz waiting for? Head to your nearest wine shop and check out some South African wines! For readers in Pittsburgh, the Sewickley, Shadyside (Centre Avenue), Aspinwall/Waterworks, and Monroeville Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores typically offer the best selection. You can even search online to see where certain wines are in stock, so give it a try!
Have any other favorite South African wines? Don't be shy, share 'em in the comments below.