A cheetah is not an improvement on a kangaroo, which is to say that a bottle of wine with a cartoon critter on the label is a transparent attempt to appeal to our love of cute. South Africa has three centuries of winemaking history, but you never would have known that in Oklahoma because we did not get the best that South Africa has to offer. We did get a cool cheetah, though.
Vance Gregory, owner of Edmond Wine Shop, has been selling wine since 1973, and in that time he has seen South African vintages come and go. Sometimes it was an issue of quality, sometimes one of steady supply.
“In the past, we would get a shipment, sell through some, and then wait months to receive a restock,” Gregory says. “You can’t build the category that way.”
However, in the past three years, Oklahoma has seen a steady trickle of quality South African wine turn to a steady flow. The category still is not large, but the wines are now regularly featured on lists around town, especially rosé from Secateurs, Mulderbosch and Ken Forrester.
Rosé is an easy category to like because it’s rare to find the wines above $20 a bottle. Most live in that sweet spot between $12 and $18, inexpensive enough to take a chance on, and the labels aren’t scary for wine novices as some imports can be. Rococo and Packard’s have both had great success with these wines.
Selling the reds is a bit trickier, both because of higher price points and more confusing label information. Ian Bennett, a certified sommelier who works for Premium Brands in Oklahoma City, said he has a difficult time finding a good Pinotage below $60, and how many people know the term refers to a cross between red grapes Pinot Noir and Cinsault?
“Every wine I’ve had from there (South Africa) has a distinctive ‘raw steak’ quality, which I can only attribute to terroir,” Bennett says. “Still, the meaty wines have flavor components like raspberry compote, lavender, flint, barbecued short rib and brambles.” In other words, they are complex, layered wines that show sophistication.
As of last year, Mulderbosch Faithful Hound is available in Oklahoma. The importance of this wine is in the name of its consulting winemaker, Andy Erickson – best known for his work with Screaming Eagle, but also familiar to Oklahoma wine lovers via Favia, Leviathan and Ovid. He’s involved with Faithful Hound especially at harvest and blending, but the day-to-day operations are the responsibility of Adam Mason, who worked for Erickson at Screaming Eagle.
Having a wine with a strong, familiar pedigree attached should make the chances of South African wines finally earning the shelf space they deserve a little easier. Nederburg Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most interesting whites from South Africa available in the state. On the red side, Sadie Family produces outstanding Rhone varietals, most especially the Soldaat Grenache and Columella Shiraz Blend. As for the Pinotage under $60, Simonsig is well under that price, and probably as good a place as any to try South African wine. For adventurous wine drinkers, tasting familiar varietals from unfamiliar regions means flavor profiles that are most often pleasant surprises.