Wine pedagogues like to draw a line in the soil between the Old World and the New. There's Europe, the cradle of fine wine. Then there's most of the rest of the planet, which owes its success to quality European vine varieties imported over the past century or two. One nation, though, lies figuratively in the middle, South Africa. Usually lumped in with the New World, it has been cultivating European vines in the region around Cape Town for about 350 years, a legacy of Dutch settlers preoccupied with curbing scurvy among thirsty sailors.
History isn't the only factor, though. There's a gastronomically germane purpose to the Old-New distinction. To grossly oversimplify, European wines veer more toward the earthy, savoury end of the spectrum, while those produced in the generally sunnier climates of New World regions tend to be unapologetically fruity. Here, too, South Africa tends to fall somewhere in between. In the grape debate over which aesthetic reigns supreme, South Africa is the land of wine détente.
Or is it? In one exciting respect Cape producers seem to be veering toward the European model more than ever, through blends. Rather than producing wines entirely, or almost entirely, from a single variety and declaring it on the bottle – the norm in the New World, where so-called varietal wines such as "chardonnay" and "merlot" dominate – they're crafting more and more multi-grape cuvées. Proponents of the mix-it-up approach argue it offers more latitude to craft a perfectly balanced beverage every year. The idea is to add a pinch more of this and dollop more of that based on the relative flavour of each grape, the way a chef fine-tunes a soup.
In some cases the grape mix isn't even listed on the label. That's an implicit nod to such regions as Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, where commune and village names such as Pauillac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape reign supreme.
Unlike in Europe, though, most blends from South Africa carry fanciful proprietary names specific to each producer, such as Bellingham Fair Maiden and Ernie Els Big Easy, rather than generic village or commune signifiers. There would be little sense in labelling a wine Jonkershoek, for example, because grape combinations and regional styles strongly associated with each district, or "ward," have yet to emerge in South Africa the way they did over centuries in Europe. A consumer wouldn't know what to expect from a Jonkershoek.
It may take a few more decades of post-apartheid investment and collective planning before South Africa comes up with classic styles based on geography – its own Châteauneuf-du-Capes, so to speak.
Bellingham Merlot Malbec 2007 (South Africa)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
Juicy red berries get support from herbs and a trademark South African whiff of Band-Aid in this full-bodied red. It's as though a cherry got its knee scraped on a rosemary bush and Mommy had to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Try it with leg of lamb. The price is $14.99 in British Columbia – still a good value.
Black Rock Red Blend 2007
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
The grapes come from the Rhône Valley playbook – shiraz, carignan, grenache, mourvèdre and viognier. Made by the Winery of Good Hope, this excellent, full-bodied red is smooth in the middle but delivers tight acidity and spice on the finish. Flavours of plum, leather and spice make it fit for braised red meats, such as lamb shank.
Vilafonté Series M 2006
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
A Bordeaux-style red blend crafted in the Medoc style, containing cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. Full-bodied, it's creamy yet elegant, with perfectly balanced nuances of currant, plum, tobacco and spice. It would befriend a medium-rare steak.
Ernie Els Big Easy 2008
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
You'll recognize the name if you follow pro golf. The South African champion with the powerful swing comes up with tasty 19th-hole action here. Shiraz joins a foursome of cabernet sauvignon, grenache, mourvèdre and viognier to yield a red with flavours of plum and Italian panettone, the dried-fruit-and-vanilla-spiked holiday cake. Pair this big, easy-drinking wine with roast beef.
Bellingham Fair Maiden 2008 (South Africa)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
A minestrone of a white, made from chenin blanc, roussanne, verdelho, grenache blanc, chardonnay and viognier. But as with good soup, the whole flatters the parts. Medium full-bodied, round and silky, it mingles peach with flowers and honey. Try it with roast chicken.
Ataraxia Serenity 2007
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
There are no grapes listed on the label, and winemaker Kevin Grant makes a point of keeping the blend a secret, preferring us to dwell on the overall flavour rather than guessing at components. Safe to say it would please fans of Australian shiraz. There's a scent of herb-roasted poultry in this full-bodied, succulent red. I like the tension between smoothness and juiciness. Serve it with seared duck breast or lamb.
The Oak Valley Blend 2005 (South Africa)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon deliver a full-bodied red with sweet cherry and tobacco flavours and solid acidity. Medium-rare steak would be a nice match. The price is $31.25 in Quebec – ouch.
Bellingham Dragon's Lair 2006 (South Africa)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $19.95
Here's another Rhône-style red combining shiraz with mourvèdre and viognier. Full-bodied, it offers up a polished texture, penetrating warmth and a whisper of menthol. It would make a fine accompaniment to grilled lamb chops.