The World Cup, arguably THE most important sporting event in the world, starts tomorrow in South Africa. And while, admittedly, this writer knows next to nothing about the sport except for that I enjoy watching it and think the theatrical flopping and flailing of its players is even more comedic than basketball, I think it's a great opportunity to talk about booze.
In the early aughts writer Franklin Foer explained how he thought soccer could explain the world. (His book, How Soccer Explains the World, is a fascinating take on globalization.) And I think it offers a great lens to look a the world of wine and spirits through. At least half of the teams playing in the World Cup come from wine-producing nations. And the countries that don't make wine often make beer or spirits, or both. So over the next few weeks I'm going to be taking advantage of the World Cup to delve into the libations of many of the participating countries.
To kick off our World Cup "coverage" let's start off with a look at this year's host country, South Africa.
South Africa's viticultural history dates back to the mid-1600s, when Dutch settlers first planted French vines with the goal of making wines to help stave off scurvy among sailors traveling between Europe and the Indies. But nothing of note was produced until the late-1700s, when the Constantia estate was bought by Hendrik Cloete. Under his leadership, Constantia produced dessert wines that were beloved by Europeans and rivaled only by Hungarian Tokaji.
Constantia's reign ended in the mid-1860s and South African viticulture was plunged into a long period of high yields and low quality that lasted more than 100 years. But the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, along with improved access to quality clonal selections and better grapegrowing and winemaking techniques, has helped pull South African wine out of this dark period and into the international spotlight.
Most of the wineries in South Africa are located in Wine of Origin Production Areas (WOs) along the western and northern edges of the Cape of Good Hope. Regions like Walker Bay, Stellenbosch and Paarl have made some of the biggest strides over the past couple of decades, reducing yields and focusing on making quality wines, and are today the source of some of the best examples of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage that come from this country.
Easily one of the best examples of how far South African wine has come in the past 20 years is the Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine ($13.99), made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A direct challenge to French Cremant de Loire and Italian Prosecco in this price-point, the Graham Beck is the bubbly you should have on hand to celebrate this World Cup. Dry and crisp, with hints of clove-spiked citrus and passion fruit, it has a yeasty, medium-bodied palate and a nicely persistent finish.
If you're planning on throwing a braai (Afrikaans for barbecue) during the World Cup you'll want to have a bottle or two of the 2008 DMZ Syrah ($14.99) from Stellenbosch on hand. The perfect match for spicy sausages, steaks, ribs or pork, the DMZ has tons of dark fruit and spicy black pepper character, with subtler hints of cocoa powder and espresso bean, but is still remarkably balanced for its size. DMZ also makes a Chardonnay ($14.99) that is bright and spicy, with notes of stone fruit and Adriatic fig.
The Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc ($13.99) could easily give your Kiwi SB a run for its money and place on your wine rack as go-to summertime tipple. Gooseberry, fennel frond and white pepper make this juicy Sauv Blanc incredibly inviting, as does its completely brisk, lemony palate. If you're looking for a little more complexity without having to fork over a lot more money, try the 2008 Neil Ellis "Groenkloof" Sauvignon Blanc ($14.99), which is a pretty serious wine despite its price tag. Mineral-driven with lemon and tropical fruit, white nectarine and a hint of salinity, you'll want to have this around long after the games are over.
K&L San Francisco's John Majeski, who was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle's article on South African values really likes the 2005 Raka "Quinary" Bordeaux Blend ($19.99) - it's also recommended by our own Chiara Shannon and Steve Bearden - and describes the Raka as the "bottled embodiment of loving care." The Quinary spent 12 months in French oak and is one of the best old school-style Bordeaux blends available for the money, from South Africa or anywhere else. Smoky, with black currant, savory herbs, black cherry, spice and well-integrated, fine-grained tannins. Decant it for a half an hour and pit it up against your favorite Bordeaux Superiur in a blind tasting and see if you or your buddies can tell the difference.
And, of course, no round-up of South African wines would be complete without mentioning Chenin Blanc, still the most widely planted grape varietal in the country. The 2009 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc ($12.99) is delicious and decidedly South African. Sour apple, peach and white flowers sing on the wine's aromatic bouquet, while the palate is juicy and tart, with more green apple fruit, tangy lime, flowers and a kiss of spice. A fantastic bargain.
This is only a smattering of K&L's South African wine selection. For our complete inventory of South African wine click here. Visit our Staff Review page for more of our team's recommendations, and for questions email Jim Chanteloup, K&L's South African wine buyer.