Saturday, April 28, 2018

Out of Africa

I knew very little about South African wines besides the occasional bottles of Pinotage that I received as a gift or from my wine club. However, a recent safari trip in Namibia has greatly expanded my appreciation for the wines from the southern hemisphere.

Wait! Namibia? 

Let me back up and talk about the prevalence of South African wine in Namibia. Namibia borders the northwestern part of South Africa and has a complex history rich in European and South African influence. Take a look at the brief timeline below:
  • 1880's - As a result of the European colonization and the subsequent Scramble for Africa, Namibia
    Namibia and South Africa
     became a German colony, then known as German South West Africa. Neighboring South Africa was then under British rule.
  • 1915 - During World War I, however, the German colony came under South African administration. 
  • 1960's - South West Africa began its fight for independence and was recognized as Namibia by the UN. 
  • 1990 - The territory became known as the Republic of Namibia and was truly independent of South African control.
As a result of the proximity and intertwining history, it is hardly surprising that Namibians are fans of South African wines. Every credible wine bar, restaurant, and hotel in Namibia has an extensive lineup of South African wines and sometimes exclusively so. In fact, when we go on our afternoon safari game drives, they always end with a sundowner (African happy hour) that includes South African wines.

Getting ready for African sundowner

Lineup of South African wines at the safari camp
So yes, I enjoyed several glasses of South African wines on our trip, many of which were made from French grape varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Even Pinotage, the trademark grape of South Africa, is a cross between two French varietals - Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

My general impression of South African wines is their earthiness and herbaceousness, especially among the dry reds. Many are approachable young and relatively inexpensive. However, I want to share with you the one wine that stood out from the rest on the trip.

2015 Rust en Vrede Estate Vineyards Syrah
Rust en Vrede Syrah

Rust en Vrede boasts of a long wine tradition that goes back to the late 1600's. The winery was founded by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Governor of the Cape Colony, which was then a way station for the Dutch East Indies Company. Located in Stellenbosch, Rust en Vrede was the first private winery that produces red wines exclusively. Many of these reds have received accolades and were featured in Wine Spectator.

For my last night in Namibia, I ordered a glass of 2015 Rust en Vrede Estate Vineyards Syrah at The Stellenbosch Wine Bar and Bistro, a hip upscale wine bar and restaurant in the capital city of Windhoek. The generous pour cost 92 NAD, which was approximately 7.50 USD, a steal considering the quality! If you can find it, you could probably get a bottle for the equivalent of 20-30 USD.

My tasting note - On the nose, there were cherry, spices, and leather, which carried through to the palate. It was full-bodied with a rich luxurious mouthfeel. Acidity was medium to high, and the tannins were velvety smooth. The wine has a lovely cocoa finish.

My Verdict: I have really enjoyed South African wines during this trip to Namibia. Many are delicious young, making them the perfect sundowner drink after a safari game drive. However, there are others that are fit for fine dining without breaking the bank. So if you have not tried South African wines, I would encourage you to keep an open mind, embrace them and try something different. Use Wine Spectator or other professional ratings as a guide. Be delighted!
Enjoying wine and view of Windhoek from Heinitzburg Castle