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KELLY LEVISON AND MARK HENEGAN
When Mark and Jenny Henegan opened Madiba New York in 1999, the South African restaurant boasted the United States’ largest selection of that nation’s wines. Walt Disney World’s South Africa pavilion at Epcot Center usurped that title. Undaunted, Henegan brought a love of his native wines to his second location — Madiba Miami in South Beach, which opened in September 2005. Henegan’s wine consultant, Kelly Levison, of distributor The Country Vintner, joined us at Madiba Miami to introduce us to some of South Africa’s best.

Two things to know: Do not be fooled by retail prices that, according to Levison, will rarely top $150 a bottle; a comparable wine from a more established winemaking nation would cost from 30 percent to 100 percent more. Also, many of these wines are produced in limited quantities, so you may need to ask your favorite wine shop to order them for you.

We began with a 2004 Rhine Riesling from the Buitenverwachting winery ($32 per bottle on Madiba Miami’s menu). It is an off-dry white wine with a flower bouquet smell and a hint of Riesling’s characteristic kerosene scent. That may not sound appealing, but the wine tastes deliciously of lemon-lime and tart Granny Smith apples, living up to the winery’s name, which means “beyond expectations.”

This wine is an excellent aperitif, Levison says, and its “petrol nose” mellows in the mouth to an acidity that makes this Riesling less sweet than most, and easily paired with food. Levison recommends it with raw or simply prepared shellfish. As he puts it, “It’s a nice, acidic, beautiful wine.” Since Riesling is best served very, very cold, it is also a perfect complement to South Florida weather.

We found a more complex white wine in a 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from Mulderbosch vineyards ($52 on the menu). Levison calls it “probably one of the best wines from South Africa, bar none,” and says each vintage is nearly sold out before it comes to market. A soft-on-the-palate wine, the Mulderbosch tastes of kiwi and fresh peaches, and also of local vegetation. “It’s got a lot of fruit flavor wrapped around this herbal note. It’s almost grassy,” Levison says.

He recommends drinking it with poultry, seafood, paella, and even goat cheese, adding that it goes best with herbal or citrus seasonings and fresh, light cuisine (think vegetables and low-fat sauces).

Not all of South Africa’s wines are so familiar to the palate. A 2004 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir ($48 on the menu) was positively shocking, exploding like Pop Rocks in our mouth. An estate wine grown at Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Walker Bay, it has pinot noir’s familiar cherry, blackberry and tart, under-ripe currant taste, but it also has a “mushroomy, funky, forest floor kind of feel,” Levison says. “You get the bright berries, but underneath there’s a lot of minerality.” That taste of South Africa’s soil — a crisp earthiness with a faint hint of, yes, minerals — takes some getting used to, but we found our second glass warmer and softer on our palate. This wine goes well with lighter meat dishes and especially with game birds, Levison says, and was a perfect complement to Madiba’s Bobotie — curried lamb and beef covered with an egg custard.

Even less familiar to American palates was a 2003 Pinotage from the Kanonkop estate winery ($82 on the menu). Pinotage grapes originated as a cross between pinot noir and Hermitage grapes. With its harsh scent, high tannins and metallic, root-like taste, the Kanonkop makes your mouth pucker. As Madiba owner Henegan puts it, “They say it’s like drinking the color purple. … It’s a very sturdy, hearty, meaty drink.”

Levison calls it “smoky, leathery, iron-y,” with the taste of un-ripe blackberries. We found it had a delightful undertone of aged whiskey. “There are a lot of complex flavors. It’s a wine you sit down and think about,” Levison says. He suggests a pairing with “big hearty meats” such as beef, game or oxtail. Indeed, it worked well with Madiba’s hearty ostrich carpaccio and oxtail stew.

Although South Africa is considered a New World winemaking region, its soil and climate give many of its wines an earthy Old World taste. Straddling those worlds is the 2003 Fusion V from De Toren Private Cellar ($104 on the menu). The wine is a blend of the five red Bordeaux varietals: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Each vintage’s taste depends on which grapes ripened best, and the 2003 Fusion V tastes strongly of merlot’s blackberry flavor. It is a very dry and complex wine, “almost an Asian spice box,” Levison calls it. The hearty Fusion V pairs best with heavier seafood, meats or dry, sharp cheeses. “This is your steak wine,” he advises.

Just as we thought we had finished our South African wine odyssey, Levison opened a bottle of dessert wine. A heavenly, peachy, honey scent nearly overcame us. It was a 2000 Vin de Constance estate wine from Klein Constantia ($133 on the menu). The viscous, golden peach-colored wine is made from muscat de frontignan grapes allowed to raisin on the vine and dehydrate until only a sweet syrup is left. “It’s liquid gold,” Levison says. “Very high sugar, very exotic.”

The Vin de Constance seduces with tastes of dried apricots, honeysuckle and honey, sliding down smoothly and lingering warmly and sweetly. At the same time, its acidity is high, so it is never cloying. “It’s very vibrant, but it turns into caramel,” Levison says, adding that it is a wine you “just want to sip and sip and not finish.”

We agree, and although the Vin de Constance is produced in limited quantities, Levison assures us it will age for 300 years, and can continue to be savored for several months after opening. — Rochelle Broder-Singer

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