Despite the premise of this column, finding a white wine under $10 isn’t all that difficult. Honestly. Plenty of regions make cheap wines: Mass-produced bottles from California line the bottom shelves, there’s enough Italian pinot grigio and Australian chardonnay to last generations of ladies’ nights, and cheap sauvignon blanc is as plentiful as lemonade.
Yes, friends, most of the world’s white wine is inexpensive. Finding interesting white wines on the bargain shelves, however, is another story. It’s a struggle to find the combination together in any aisle, but nowhere is the dilemma more prevalent than in the South African wine section.
Hold on a minute. Did you even know you had a South African section in your wine store? If you didn’t, you’re in good company. For years, it didn’t exist and still remains an obscure and mysterious part of the store for most Americans.
South African wines fell off Americans’ radar in the 1980s and 1990s due to the boycotts and trade embargos against the country’s apartheid government. After political turmoil subsided, when the wines returned, they were cheap and unpleasant to drink.
Well, I’m young enough not to have the lingering bad taste of those times or those wines. And the South African wines I’ve tried just might deserve a second chance.
I’ve heard wine geeks scoff at reds like pinotage (with its “bacon and tar” qualities), but South Africa is really a white wine kind of place. Grapes such as chenin blanc, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc make up the wines I’ve tasted lately.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find as many good-value South African white wines as I can. It was clear, at least at my neighborhood stores, that South African wines still suffer from an image problem—and the issue can’t just be explained away by political boycotts from two decades ago.
There were plenty of bargains priced under $10, but few actually had takers. I found a cluster of vintages, with lots of 2008 next to the 2012–never a good sign with cheap white wine. Clearly, they’d not sold well since they first arrived in the shop.
South African wines still suffer from an image problem—and the issue can’t just be explained away by political boycotts from two decades ago.
The oldest I tasted was a chardonnay from 2006, decorated with a cheetah on its label and a matching animal-print synthetic cork. At the very least, I expected the wine to be wild and adventurous, as I imagine an African safari would be. But it had suffered from old age and oxidation, with a color that resembled a glass of apple juice more than wine.
The cheetah wasn’t the only critter label I found. In fact, many of the labels I came across had porcupines or horses or giraffes that looked too tacky and outdated next to the modern designs on other bottles.
In all, I tasted 15 whites from across South Africa’s major wine regions – Robertson, the Western Cape, Coastal Region, as well as the more foreign sounding Stellenbosch and Groenekloof. To get a better idea of what the wines in a higher price range had to offer, I began with what most bargain seekers consider splurges. They were priced at $15 – a 2006 Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc – but tasted more like they cost $25.
After what seemed like a promising start, I had high expectations for the rest of the whites – six sauvignon blancs, five chenin blancs, three chardonnays and a couple of blends, which are both recommended below.
All of the chardonnays I tasted were unimpressive. None embraced a specific style that made me want to explore them any further. Most were too oaky, others too syrupy, and they all left the taste of artificial sugar in my mouth.
The best bargain bottles were made with sauvignon blanc, and epitomized everything desirable about the grape. With herbal, green aromas and striking acidity, they make great alternatives to the wines of New Zealand that boast a much higher price tag.
You should also make friends with the chenin blanc grape. It goes by the name “steen” in South Africa, and produces wines that are juicy and tropical with a small trace of honey in each glass.
It’s a shame South African white wines don’t get more attention. Not all of them are so appealing, but when you happen to find a well-crafted one, it can help you forget the other boring white wines of the world.
Western Cape, South Africa, $8.99
A sauvignon blanc that stays true to the grape with green pepper and fresh asparagus leaping out of the glass. It has great complexity not easily found in wines in this price range, with a zesty lemon finish.
Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2009, 13.5%
Stellenbosch, South Africa, $8.99
Golden in color and smells like an apple orchard in the fall. Hints of honey and layers of fresh fruit in the mouth. Backed by crisp acidity, this wine is enjoyable alone but also easy to drink with many foods.
Goats Do Roam White 2010, 14.0%
Western Cape, South Africa, $7.99
A blend of viognier, roussane and grenache blanc that is brightly perfumed with aromas of honeysuckle and Asian pears. Rich in ripe fruit in the mouth, lush and creamy and an absolute crowd pleaser.
Stellenbosch, South Africa, $11.99
Though its name may elicit thoughts of a giant jar of thick honey, this blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc and viognier is refreshing with hints of white peach on the nose and juicy tropical fruit flavors.