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The white wines of South Africa
Question: why is it that South African wines aren't more popular outside their homeland? As someone who has drunk quite a few South African red wines over the last few years, it is a question I've often asked myself. The high-end reds are often superb, and most of them are relatively affordable, yet for some reason they still haven't received the same high profile that Australian and other new world wines have been enjoying in the UK. There are potentially two reasons for this: either the quality of the wines isn't good enough, or the marketing has been poor. Let's face it, Apartheid was extremely bad PR for the Cape wine industry, and perhaps they have never really recovered from this. With regard to the quality of the wines, I'm convinced of the quality of the more upmarket reds, although the rather patchy quality of the cheaper wines may be a problem, tainting the consumer image of South African wines in general and putting people off experimenting with the more expensive offerings. What about the whites? Like many UK wine lovers, I've tended to pass these by, so I thought it would be worth taking a deeper look at some of the currently available South African whites, focusing particularly on the quality end of the spectrum, to get a feel for whether these wines deserve wider attention.

What did I find? Generally, the more expensive estate-bottled were of a very good quality, while the less expensive wines were disappointing. It seems that while quality-minded producers are forging ahead, making interesting wines, the South African wine industry hasn't really cracked the art of making good cheap wine. The good news for consumers is that South Africa isn't just turning out clone-like, international-styled Chardonnays and Sauvignons: instead, the high-end wines seem to have their own, uniquely South African character. In the most general terms, these wines stylistically fall somewhere between the archetypal new world and old world styles. The most successful Chardonnays have some of the power and fruit intensity of the new world, yet combine this with old world complexity and minerality. The Sauvignons have richness of texture, yet with restraint -- they are quite different to the upfront gooseberry and elderflower New Zealand-style expressions of this grape, but you wouldn't place them in the Loire, either. The one Riesling tried here shows that this variety is just as underrated in South Africa as elsewhere in the new world. As for Chenin Blanc, the workhorse variety of the Cape, the example here from Ken Forrester shows what this variety can do in the right hands. Regional differences are hard to generalize about from such a small sample, but Stellenbosch, Constantia and the cool-climate Walker Bay seem to be out in front with regards to white wines. 

Tasting notes 

Thelema Chardonnay 1998, Stellenbosch
One of South Africa's most famed Chardonnays, the 1998 vintage is a big but refined wine that carries its 15% alcohol well. It has a rich nose of toasty oak with a creamy, ripe character. It's savoury and rich on the palate, with nutty and lemon notes and great concentration and balance. Overall it is quite soft, with good balancing oak. Very good +

Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 1998, Walker Bay
Sensational! Rich, mineral-laden Chardonnay with smoky oak. A lovely, complex wine with nicely handled oak. Although I've had this wine before on a couple of occasions, I've never really understood why people have described it as 'Burgundian'. Now I do: this concentrated yet nicely poised effort really impresses. Excellent. (11, Oddbins Fine Wine, Bentalls, Berry Bros)

Danie De Wet Bataleur Chardonnay 1998, Robertson
Remarkably expressive high-end South African Chardonnay, with a full nose of toasty, nutty barrel-ferment character and a concentrated palate of lemony fruit, minerals and high acidity. Despite the new oak, this wine is not at all fat: I suspect it was not allowed to undergo full malolactic fermentation, and the resulting bright acidity really brings this complex wine to life. Very good/excellent (12, Fortnum and Mason)

Warwick Estate Chardonnay 1999, Stellenbosch
Rich, intense, nutty and toasty Chardonnay with a dense, mineral-laced palate and high acidity. This is a huge savoury wine that represents excellent value for money. Really interesting, perhaps a little rough round the edges for some. Very good + (6.99, Waitrose)

Graham Beck 'Lonehill' Chardonnay 1998, Robertson
100% barrel fermented in a mix of new and second fill French oak. A rich, concentrated wine with brisk acidity, well-judged oak and smoky, mineral-laced, nutty complexity. Very good + (6.99, Thresher)

Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay 1997, Paarl
A very modern South African Chardonnay that almost gets it right. Light textured, subtle, but with noticeable toasty oak, this is a fresh Chardonnay with some bottle age. Lean and balanced in character, but a bit light in texture and fruit to carry the oak. Good. (8.99 Tesco)

De Wetshof Estate Lesca Chardonnay 1998, Robertson
A crisp, fresh and full flavoured Chardonnay, with attractive nutty and toasty character. There is firm acidity, and a slight bitterness on the palate. This is a nice, savoury dry white with well judged but noticeable oak, which represents good value for money. Good/very good. (5.99 Sainsbury)

Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 1999, Stellenbosch
Chenin Blanc is South Africa's most common white variety, and most often goes to make simple, inexpensive and rather plonkish wines. But this is a serious effort, made from 24 year old bush vines and barrel fermented. Gold in colour, this has a lovely toasty, smoky and honeyed nose, with a creamy, wet wool edge. On the palate it is richly textured and toasty, the spicy oak combining well with the concentrated, ripe fruit. Overall, nice varietal character is combined well with careful oaking, to make a complex, attractive wine. Very good/excellent. (5.69 Oddbins)

Buitenverwatching Sauvignon Blanc 1998, Constantia
A ripe, fat-textured, full flavoured Sauvignon with crisp acidity to keep it fresh. Cut grass elements predominate on the nose, which are followed up with a rich, lively, spicy palate. Very different to the Marlborough NZ style, but just as interesting. Very good. (Oddbins 7.69) 

Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 1998, Constantia
From an estate with a good reputation for Sauvignon, I was a little bit disappointed by this alcoholic monster (it weighs in at 14.5%). Full-bodied and richly textured, with a distinctive grassy edge. Quite intense, but lacking a real cutting edge. OK/Good. (6.99, Oddbins)

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc 1998, Western Cape
From Anthony Hamilton Russell’s new Walker Bay venture comes this attractive but full bodied Sauvignon. It’s quite alcoholic (13.5%), with a cut grass nose and a rounded, full-textured palate. There are smoky, mineralic notes, followed up with an acidic kick. Attractive and refined, very much in the South African style. It’s a cute gimmick to donate some of the proceeds from each sale to saving the Southern Right whale. Good/very good. (5.99, Oddbins)

Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 1998, Constantia
Light coloured wine with a slight petillance. Attractive, taut, crisp white wine with good concentration and a pleasant citrus edge. On the palate there is complex, lemony fruit. There is probably potential for evolution here; overall it is a bargain. Very good. (4.99 Oddbins)

Deetlefs Estate Semillon 1999, WO Breede River Valley
Fresh and tart with cut grass, asparagus and green herbaceous favours. The excessive green character suggests that the grapes failed to attain full ripeness. If you don't mind this, it would make a useful food wine. OK. (Tesco 5.49)

Rooiberg Winery Chardonnay 1999, Robertson
Neutral, lean and acidic Chardonnay without much character. Dull. (Safeway 3.99)

Winds of Change Chardonnay 1998, Western Cape
Made by a 'communal property association' at Sonop wine farm, this is an import by the innovative Western Wines. It shows lemony fruit with a bitter finish. Lean and a little bit dirty on the nose. Crisp acidity. Disappointing. (4.99 Tesco)

Kumala Chardonnay 2000, Western Cape
A fresh, lemony Chardonnay with a touch of buttery, oaky fatness on the palate. Nicely made, inexpensive Chardonnay that could have come from just about anywhere. Modern but good. (3.99 Sainsbury)