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.”