If you’ve had a South African wine in the Twin Cities lately, there’s a good chance it was selected by Roy Goslin and Dianne Ferrandi of Z Wines. But there’s also a very good chance that you haven’t had a South African wine lately. It’s a country with a storied winemaking tradition that’s been buried under a troubled history. There’s a good opportunity to get introduced to, or reacquainted with, these wines at the Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience at Target Field this weekend. The pair has won best wine presentation at the show for the last two years (look for the safari tent). With very popular and informative seminars every half-hour and a slate of delicious and unique wines to taste, they’ll be in the running for three in a row.
“The 100-odd wine stores in this market know us as the South African wines people,” says Goslin. Goslin and Ferrandi, South Africans themselves, were introduced to wine early. Ferrandi’s family farmed and grew grapes, and they both were cultured to think of wine as an integral part of a meal. “We grew up with wine as a food product and not a beverage,” says Ferrandi. “We will very rarely sit and drink a glass of wine without something to eat.” After they moved to America, they had trouble finding any South African brands that they felt were representative of the quality they knew existed back home. They took it upon themselves to import the wines that they knew were their country’s best. The Minnesota Monthly judges apparently agree; this year’s Best Imported White and Best Value Imported White at the show are from their portfolio.
So, if South African wines are so good, why aren’t they more popular? “Because of apartheid,” explains Ferrandi, “there was no support whatsoever for any product in South Africa.”
When the oppressive racial policy ended and more wine started making it to America, an entire generation of wine-drinking Americans had missed out on South African wines. When their introduction to it was a “critter label” (poorer-quality wine, bought in bulk, bottled in America, and branded with cute animals to make them sell), they largely chose not to explore further. “They were rubbish,” Goslin says. “Let’s not beat about the bush; it was incredibly bad wine. It didn’t represent what our industry was capable of.” In the same way that McDonald’s is mistaken abroad for American cuisine, these critter labels tarnished the reputation of South African wine for years.
So what are South African wines actually like? “They’re incredibly good food wines,” says Goslin. “At the price points that the average drinker is buying, I think, drop for drop, they are better food wines than California or Australia. They are also lighter in style, as a generalization, and they don’t like over-oaking.” “Also, a huge thing,” Ferrandi adds, “South Africa is the world leader in sustainable wine production.” South African wines are markedly diverse, due to varying climates and soil and also to a general sense that no one winemaker wants to be exactly like the guy next door. While you can get a dozen Shiraz from Australia at $15 and not be able to tell a difference, there’s always something unique in South African wines.
But how are South African wines able to deliver such quality at 10 to 15 dollars a bottle? “Part of it is exchange rates, but part of it is that some of these wineries we work with have been making wines since the 1600s,” says Goslin. “They don’t have a mortgage. Their infrastructure is built over centuries. And proportionally labor costs are lower in South Africa. The vast majority are not new investments. They’re not looking to recover investment on an operation in 20 years. It’s going to be a family legacy.”
Another issue of contention among consumers who have experienced South African wines is Pinotage — a grape that inspires a serious love / hate relationship among drinkers. It’s a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Some versions are said to be redolent of bubble gum, banana peel, rubber boot, and nail polish remover. “You’ll hear people say the acetone aroma is Pinotage showing the terroir,” says Goslin. “It’s absolutely not. Those aromas are a result of bad winemaking and overcropping.” So, what are its flavors supposed to be? “It should smell and taste predominantly of blackberry or mulberry, a little coffee note, and some earthiness.” Ferrandi adds that there isn’t a poor Pinotage in the Z Wines portfolio.
How do you know if a South African wine will be any good? In layman’s terms, look for the “bus ticket” (above). It’s a seal from the South African Wine & Spirit Board that certifies a wine is up to industry standards. To get it, winery must go through an extensive audit over 7 years. They must grow as close to organically as is practical, recycle their water and use a certain amount of recyclable packaging, and engage in programs that give back to the community. Every South African winery in the Goslin and Ferrandi’s book is either certified or is working towards it. We spoke about all of the above and more at the couple’s Plymouth home while enjoying two tastes from their portfolio.
The White: 2009 Jean Daneel Signature Chenin Blanc — Retails in the mid $20s.
ROY GOSLIN: Jean Daneel is a top Chenin Blanc maker. The fruit from this wine is sourced from 12 to 15 different vineyards. He consults about 100 producers and finds vineyards with old vine Chenin Blanc and then contracts a portion of the vineyard. And he harvests at different times, so now he’s got 12 different batches of wine. He puts the blend together; it goes into barrel for 12 months and it is stunning stuff.
HEAVY TABLE: Oh yeah, this is great. It’s a smooth wine. Very complex-tasting, soft fruit, good acidity.
RG: This wine will age. The wood is very judiciously used — he’s a wood expert.
HT: Is it American oak?
RG: French oak. [South Africans] do like to age Shiraz in American oak. That wine [the Landskroon Shiraz] is partially aged in American oak. But they just like the more subtle characteristics that they get out of French and Hungarian oak.
The Red: 2008 Landskroon Paul de Villiers Shiraz, Paarl — Around $16 on sale.
HT: This is really nice, though it would be quite a different Shiraz for those used to drinking Australian Shiraz. Can you compare the two in general?
RG: I think our fruit presentation is better, it’s cleaner. I think Australians have fallen into a tendency of over-oaking and making them too big, over 14%. They’re big mouthfuls, whereas I think our wines have better structure. With this one, you get a nice sweetness from the fruit, on the mid-palate you get a nice tannic structure, it’s not overly oaked, and it goes away very refreshing. And it’s developing very nicely in the bottle — I’d buy six and drink one a year over the next six years.
HT: There’s definitely some campfire in this glass.
DIANNE FERRANDI: That’s exactly it. Characteristic of a good South African Shiraz, it must be smoky.
HT: I definitely get what you’re saying about a cleaner expression of the grape flavor. Especially this Shiraz, it’s a lighter style, kind of unassuming, but just clean and smooth.
RG: Yep, and this guy’s wines are rated among the best-value South African wines, over and over. That Landskroon name is one you can absolutely trust.