Response to “ending our South African sanctions”

By Jesse on January 20, 2009

We wanted to love the South African wines. We really did. We hadn’t tasted them exclusively since 2006, and we thought the intervening two years might have some positive effect. We were buoyed by Eric Asimov’s recent glowing endorsement of South African Cabernets, and we couldn’t wait to dig in.

Perhaps, though, we should’ve waited. Or at least bought different bottles.

First up was the 2008 Warwick “Professor Black” Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch). Notes on the nose included cat pee, grass, and vanilla cake. I got some “lanolin-ish lemon.”

On the palate, I picked up some of that New Zealand / Argentina / general positive Southern Hemisphere feel, but a little too sour. Jason observed that it “starts out ok, like fruit punch.” Nick, however, claimed that “by the time it slides up your tongue and into your throat, it starts burning.” Jenn got Warheads, and Emily called it “a NZSB gone bad.” At $15, this was a pass.

Next in line was the 2007 Tukulu “Papkuilsfontein” Chenin Blanc (Darling), featuring the best proprietary name ever. An early antiseptic smell breezed off quickly. Jason got “vanilla funk” on the nose, while Brian got the slightly less discouraging “coffee creamer.” I thought I smelled some Brett, but then when I couldn’t remember the whole word Brettanomyces, everyone assumed I was just trying to make things up.

Nick called the palate “extremely inoffensive.” Acidity and cream, it was noted, were “battling on the palate,” with the acid winning out in the end. Andrew called it “a bit over-made” and picked up some residual sugar. Granny Smith apple was cited, and Jason called it “inoffensive and drinkable.” The consensus was that at $14, this was a wine you’d only buy “if you had to bring a Chenin Blanc.”

We moved on to the reds, which meant that it was Pinotime. The 2006 Spice Route Pinotage (South Africa) offered up a nose of Port, coconut, butter, cinnamon, blackberry jam, charcoal, and campfire. “Intriguing” was the general observation — and quite an understatement at that. Jason thought it smelled like “a really big Pinot” (Daniella, cutely, responded with “a really big what?”). I got some baked raisin loaf on the bouquet. Pretty decent!

The palate, however, tasted like all of the myriad flavors on the nose had been finger-painted together by an overzealous six-year-old. “No structure,” “total jammy charcoal,” and “unripe blackberries” were the prevailing evaluations. Some “meaty gaminess” also made an appearance. I called it “the bastard child of a full-bodied Pinot Noir and a little Rhone Valley spice-bomb.” Wine Spectator had given it a 90, but no one present was eager to give it a second chance at $17.

Batting clean-up with the bases empty was the 2006 Delheim Pinotage (Stellenbosch), the nose of which prompted a nice pair of observations from our token married couple. “Smells like a musty closet,” offered Jenn. “Smells like poo,” retorted her husband Brian. Other observations were equally unimpressed: I got some distinct soy sauce character, while Rebecca picked up some burnt marshmallow. Emily got fertilizer, and Jason observed moldy cheese.

The jury was no more forgiving when the palate had its day in court. Jason called it “sour and nasty.” I picked up soy sauce and coffee — not uninteresting, but not pleasant, either. Rebecca liked the palate, but called the finish “metallic.” Daniella agreed, calling the finish “terrible” and claiming it was too tart. Andrew stood up for the Delheim, observing that “at least it tastes like a real wine, instead of a super-produced fruit punch.” Rebecca agreed, stating that it wasn’t too bad until the finish hit. At $17, several people liked it more than the previous bottle, and wanted to re-taste it with some food.

We changed gears and went Rhone-style with the 2002 Fairview “JakkalsFontein” Shiraz (Swartland). Mounds of earth cropped up on the nose, which otherwise was quite restrained. “Spice” and “chocolate” occasionally appeared in fleeting flutters, but otherwise the bouquet was muted.

The palate, though, had no such reservations. Extremely spicy, it offered up notes of game and meat. “This tastes like a Syrah that’s been mixed with fruit juice,” said Jason. “Also, it’s too peppery.” Breaking ranks, I stated that this palate was a winner — great body, decent balance and good integration. The spice was big, sure, but at least it was on point. “Too big,” complained Jason, who also noted an off-putting vein of cranberry. For $25, no one present thought this plucky bottle deserved a second pour… not even yours truly.

We wrapped things up with the 2006 Sebeka “Cape Blend” Shiraz/Pinotage (Western Cape), an inspired mash-up if I’ve ever seen one. The nose offered up notes of pepper and minerals, along with some berries. Daniella picked up some “purple fruit and paint.” Fair enough, I guess.

The palate was pretty respectable. Jason called it “sour,” “weirdly spicy,” and “offensive,” but others were much more positive. “Decent dark fruit” and “a fair amount of pepper” were tossed around. I found it a big hot, with an off-putting combination of light body and big tannins. That said, at $9, it was no rip-off. Nick summarized the prevailing opinion when he observed that “this is the only one that makes sense for the price.”

In Eric Asimov’s defense, we didn’t have any of his vaulted Cabernets present at our tasting. That said, those bottles we did try were largely disappointing. South Africa, we tried to love you, but you made it difficult. We’ll taste you again in another two years.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

1 Comment

  1. Well done Young Winos! It’s refreshing to see completely honest wine writing and that some reviewers actually have a good palate. -Maybe smoking wine rather drinking them is the new thing and Mr. Asimov and the WS folks are trying to start this year’s new wine craze…

    Comment by Mark — June 9, 2009 @ 6:41 am

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