When Justin Anthony opened the doors to 10 Degrees South in Atlanta in 1998, he had a lot of explaining to do about South African wines.
“I’ve been fighting the fight for 18 years,” says Anthony, born and raised in South Africa. “Back then you could not get anything great. Today there are some phenomenal producers coming out of South Africa.”
As owner of one of the country’s first South African restaurants, along with three other Atlanta restaurants focused on the country’s cuisine and wine (Cape Dutch, Biltong Bar, and Yebo Beach Haus), he’s been on a mission to woo diners to South Africa’s spicy-cuisine culture, paired with wine-grape varietals like Chenin Blanc and Cinsault, plus Pinotage—a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
Poured by the glass at 10 Degrees South are 35 South African wines, from producers in Constantia Valley, Stellenbosch, Franschhock, Swartland, and Paarl.
Bin 36, in Chicago, is another restaurant keen on South African wines. Like Anthony, owner Enoch Shully grew up in South Africa and has witnessed the transformation of that country’s wine culture. “South Africa is [considered] a New World country, but it’s far from the truth. We’ve been making wine since the 17th century,” he says. “Our wine was [just] never exposed.” On a visit two years ago he noticed improved facilities at wineries: “The standard of the winemaker has improved dramatically,” Shully says.
In June, Shully hosted a class on South African wines, which sold all 20 seats, and he also recently hosted Ken Forrester, owner of an eponymous South African vineyard, for a dinner at Bin 36. After hearing through a distributor that he’d be in town, Shully notes, “I jumped at the opportunity. We created this beautiful South African dinner with my chef, who had never been to South Africa before. We sold out the tickets in two weeks, and for many, it was their first time trying the wines. Most bought three or four wines on their way out.”
Many factors have fueled the rising popularity in wines from this Southern Hemisphere region, including the shift in geopolitics. Jim Clarke, marketing manager for Wines of South Africa, and a former sommelier in New York City for six years, thinks it’s due to the fact that the country was separated from the market for many years due to embargoes and the apartheid.
“It’s the first generation that has had the confidence to make South African wines that taste like South African wines, rather than chase the market,” Clarke says. “The quality from South Africa has really never been higher.”
This includes rosé. “I have retailers calling me regularly, asking about rosés from South Africa,” he says.
That there is a wide array of varietals, appealing to many palates, makes South African wines easy to sell in a restaurant. Some are familiar—such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir—making the job of a wine director or sommelier that much easier. In fact, the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Dallas sell South African Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, proving, Clarke notes, “It’s not a category [solely] for the hipster wine bar.”
For tables with varying palates on the white-wine spectrum, Chenin Blanc is a great solution. “I see eyes light up whenever I point out the use of Chenin Blanc,” says Clarke, who travels around the U.S. to talk with restaurants about their wine programs. “This is the wine that falls in the middle [between Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay drinkers]. It lends itself to a variety of expressions … and has a lot of potential as a food-pairing wine.”
Building a by-the-glass program that’s flush with South African wines is easy given that they are good values and won’t cost the customer much to try. “If you’re looking for wine varietals by the glass, it’s a real treasure trove,” says Clarke. That glass could also be the incentive for ordering a bottle of the same wine. Shully really likes the rosé from Boschendal Wines: “This rosé is spectacular at $8 a glass.”
South Africa’s red wine darling is Pinotage, a full-bodied red wine crafted with Pinotage grapes. “The Pinotage really appeals to an American palate,” says Anthony, noting that it’s easy to drink and very fruit-forward. Among his favorite wineries is Kanonkop, which won the award for the World’s Best Winemaker of the Year in 2015 from the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
“We’re known for that grape,” says Shully, about Pinotage. Robertson Wine Valley is a small wine region that he feels offers quality Pinotage wine, as well as Shiraz.
Full-bodied reds like Shiraz are a hit with spicy food, which South Africa does well, as well as with barbecued and grilled meats. “The reds pair well with red meats, especially the gamey meats,” says Anthony. “Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are drinking really well right now.” The GSM blend from Fable Mountain Vineyard’s Night Sky, a winery owned by Charles Banks, the former owner of Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle, is one of his favorite producers.
For the warmer months, and especially to pair with barbecued meats, Clarke suggests Cinsault, which is emerging as a 100 percent varietal in South Africa, as opposed to being blended with other varietals. Served slightly chilled, it’s an ideal food match.
Affordability is one reason many are turning to South African wines, says Shully, with Pinot Noirs a great example.
White wines are of just as high quality as South Africa’s rosés and red wines. “The Sauvignon Blanc produced by Mulderbosch—another South African winery owned by Banks—is really crisp, with perfect acidity, and at a great cost,” Anthony says. One of Shully’s favorites is Beyton Winery’s Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc, named to Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines list of 2014. His diners have fallen in love with it, too, he adds, noting the wine’s lemongrass notes and that it finishes with great acidity.
He also agrees that the country’s wines are approachable, particularly the Chenin Blanc. “It’s very much Old World versus New World. It appeals to all palates. It fits right in that gap of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,” he says. “Ken Forrester Vineyards’ FMC—a Chenin Blanc—is probably one of my favorite white wines in the world.”
Another white wine that Anthony likes—and that has been a hit with his customers—is a Chardonnay from Glen Carlou. “It’s got a little bit of oak but not too much,” says Anthony. Hamilton Russell Vineyards, which makes a Burgundian style of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are other selections he often puts on his wine lists.
Compared to the late 1990s and first part of this century, Anthony says it’s much easier now to offer South African wines, thanks to increased wine imports from that country as well as more winemakers entering the arena. His only regret? That there is not space on the wine list for the dozens of gems he finds and falls in love with during weekly tastings.