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Good Wine Goes South (Africa)

by Jonathon Alsop
January 2002

South Africa's wines have been with us for centuries already: according to legend, Napoleon's favorite was a sweet dessert wine from Klein Constantia that saw him through his unhappy years in exile on Elba.

Thanks unfortunately to its governmental pursuit of racial and political apartheid, South African wines were banned for years in the US and highly restricted in Europe as well. Granted, we bought and wore their diamonds, but apparently we had other wine options, and today, these wines are just starting to penetrate the US market.

Pinotage is the main red grape of South African wine, and itís a cross between Pinot Noir -- which we know and love -- and Cinsault, a relatively unknown French grape that's hardy and high yielding. Between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, you have a grape that grows around the world and produces plenty of juice for winemakers to work with.

The only problem -- for me personally, at any rate -- is that I'd never tasted a Pinotage I liked until I stumbled upon the wines of Charles Back at the Boston Wine Expo a couple of weeks ago. Till then, every Pinotage Iíd tasted was strangely rubbery with a hint of burnt plastic in the background. Suddenly, the Charles Back wines -- under the Fairview and Andrew's Hope labels -- tasted like realistic, natural wines with flavors we can all recognize.

Surely there are more: just send them on over.

2000 Fairview Pinotage (about $13) What an eye-opener: the tannins are huge and soft and everywhere in this wine, and there is a hint of menthol as well. Its fruit flavors are like baked apple or roasted pear with a little bit of pumpkin pie spice. The "buy" flag is up next time I spot this wine in the shop, because itís a bargain at under $15.

2000 Andrew's Hope Pinotage (about $11) Stunning for about $2 a glass, this Pinotage tastes rich and buttery in every way. The tannins are soft and subtle, which makes the wine very drinkable. It's similar in emotional quality to an Aussie Shiraz, which is probably the wine market South Africa is trying to inhabit.

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