I’ve always been proud to be an equal opportunity lover of wine. Sure, I’m not wild about anything too buttery or beastly, but as long as it’s a well-made, balanced wine, there’s a happy home for it in my glass. So imagine my surprise, amidst all this open-mindedness, when years of field research revealed a verifiable dislike of the wines from an entire wine-producing region. Time and time again, if it was from South Africa, I no likey.
The fact that I didn’t seem to be alone assuaged my guilt in part (Pinotage, South Africa’s signature red that’s a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, is known for splitting a crowd as quickly as Norton), yet my dislike wasn’t limited to that particular divisive wine. Even my favorite white grape, Chenin Blanc, turned me off when it bore South Africa’s name of Steen. The wines always had a redeemable quality or two, mind you, but I couldn’t get past the taste of acetone (or was it latex?) in every sample I tried.
I was so embarrassed by my own prejudice that when I noticed that Bill Curtis was devoting one of his Wine Club evenings to the wines from Groote Post in Darling, South Africa, I signed up immediately. I predicted that Bill would seat me next to the estate owner, Nicholas Pentz, and that I would be forced to hold my tongue, keep an open mind, and learn something. And, if all the wines tasted like a cheap balloon? Well, I could spit in the name of professionalism.
Groote Post, 44 miles north of Cape Town, is one of the estates Curtis visited on his trip two years ago. He returned charmed by the Pentz family’s wines and within one sniff, so was I. It didn’t hurt that Pentz, burly and tanned from the 95 degree South African summer, warmed our arctic air and frosty hearts with a presentation that was as entertaining as it was informative.
Though wine in South Africa dates back to 1659 (the first vintage grown by Dutch East Indian Company as a scurvy preventative for sailors stopping at Cape Town), slow growth followed by an 1866 phylloxera wipeout necessitated a complete do-over. In the early 1900s, more than 80 million vines were planted and a wine glut was born. In 1918, a growers’ cooperative formed, imposing a strict price-fixing quota system. Quantity became valued over quality. Overcropping meant underripe grapes and underripe grapes meant latex wine. Add in the illegal exportation as a result of the Apartheid regime, and South Africa didn’t have much incentive to make great wine.
Winemaking improvements came fast and furious when Apartheid ended in 1994 and five years later, the four-generation, dairy-farming Pentz family started bottling a new beverage. Now, they grow 10 different varietals on 250 acres of their 7,400 acres (where Angus cattle and antelopes still roam), producing 30,000 cases a year. Exporting still isn’t a huge business (80 percent of Groote Post’s sales are domestic), which explains why Pentz would leave the winery three weeks prior to harvest to come to the U.S. in the dead of winter.
With 600 wineries countrywide, tourism generates a lot of revenue. Groote Post sells about 18 percent of its wine to the 9,000 visitors they attract each year. Pentz doesn’t take these sales at face value though. “Every bottle sold from the winery is like a TV show that plays back memories of the visit,” said Pentz. And with a four-mile approach, Dutch-inspired buildings dating back to 1708, and slopes rising 4,600 meters above sea level, it’s bound to be a memorable one. There’s even a school on the property where Groote Post laborers (many of which were retained from the dairy farming days of Apartheid) can take evening classes.
Sauvignon Blanc is Darling’s darling, with a terroir so perfectly suited to growing ideal grapes that the wine is usually bottled within two months of harvest, maintaining all the same fig, gooseberry, and kiwi qualities it exhibits in the vineyard. Amongst the reds, the Pinot Noir won my heart with its assertive black currant fruit tempered with a centering acidity. Curtis aptly called it a Côtes de Nuit on steroids.
By the end of the evening, not only had I licked my plate and drained the majority of my glasses without reaching for the spittoon once, but I also had added traveling to South Africa to my (wine) bucket list.
Seven reasons to love South African wines
Available at Tastings of Charlottesville
Groote Post Old Man Sparkle NV. $27.95
Groote Post Sauvignon Blanc 2011. $25.95
Groote Post Riesling 2010. $22.95
Groote Post Reserve Chardonnay 2009. $31.95
Groote Post Reserve Pinot Noir 2009. $41.95
Groote Post Merlot 2010. $30.95
Groote Post Shiraz. $25.95
Len Thompson, an independent grape grower in Central Virginia, received the 2012 Grower of the Year award presented by Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore at the Virginia Vineyards Association’s (VVA) Annual Technical Meeting and Trade Show at the Omni on February 1. Thompson, who also works at Rockbridge Vineyards, grows Chardonnay and Chambourcin grapes on six acres in Amherst County.