Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. HayesAspen Times Weekly

Perhaps because I caught World Cup fever, I was keen to learn something about wines from South Africa at this year’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. So, one of my first stops under the tent was the South Africa table, where I was treated to both interesting wines and hugely flavorful regional dishes prepared by Marcus Samuelsson, the recently crowned Top Chef Masters champion, who is a native of Ethiopia. It was a very good start.”It’s the most beautiful wine region in the world,” vintner Ken Forrester said as he poured me a sample of his Pinotage. He was describing Stellenbosch, the South African wine region he calls home and the place where his eponymous wine estate is located. “We’re the Napa Valley of South Africa.”While I have never been to Stellenbosch (or South Africa for that matter), I would hardly argue the point – in part because Ken stands somewhere near 6 feet, 4 inches and has the frame of a Springbok (a reference to the current World Cup champion South African rugby squad, not the fleet and photogenic gazelle, which is the national animal). But also because I have been told much the same thing by my friend Andy Katz, the preeminent vineyard photographer who has visited many of the world’s most picturesque wine regions.Forrester’s wine story began in 1993 when and he and his wife purchased what was then a ramshackle property that had roots dating to the 1600s, when the region was settled by the Dutch. Forrester, who previously had a successful career as a restaurateur, was convinced that the soils and the slopeside vineyards held the promise of producing world-class wines. While his wife remodeled the Dutch Cape homestead, he set about turning the vineyards around. Now, 17 years later, he has proven his hunch to be accurate.I tasted through a number of Ken’s wines, both reds and whites, including the previously mentioned Pinotage, which is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes and is unique to South Africa. While I enjoyed the Ken Forrester 2008 Petite Pinotage and a Grenache-based red called “The Gypsy,” the highlights were his white wines, especially Chenin Blanc.Chenin Blanc has its origins in the Loire Valley of France but travels well and stars in the Stellenbosch, where it is the region’s most widely planted grape. Forrester loves Chenin and is known as “Mr. Chenin Blanc” for his ability to coax the refreshing melon and citrus flavors from the grapes into the bottle. The 2009 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch is a great introduction to the beauty of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc and, at around $15 a bottle, is a bargain to boot. If you have the yen and the dollars (or the rand), Forrester produces a high-end Chenin he calls “The FMC” (Forrester, Meinert Chenin) which is grown on a prized vineyard with old bush vines. This wine, which sells for $65, is rich, lush and delicious with exotic flavors of peaches and a sweet, honey note. While the coastal influence for the region comes from the South Atlantic, the wine made me dream of a sultry day on the Mediterranean.My next South African wine was poured at a terrific Syrah seminar which also featured Richard Betts’ 2007 Betts & Scholl Black Betty Shiraz from Australia’s Barossa Valley and a 2007 St. Joseph “Offerus” Syrah from JL Chave. Pretty heady company for the deTrafford Shiraz Stellenbosch Blueprint 2007. But the South African more than held its own. The deTrafford was big and dark with blackberries, dried cherries and a touch of earth in the glass. It showed me that the Stellenbosch can produce distinctive red wines of power and regionality using grapes that, though not indigenous, respond to the temperate climate and the ancient soils of South Africa.A few days after the Classic, I had dinner at Syzygy where I met Sommelier Gerald Theron, who hails from Durban, South Africa. He confirmed my opinion of his native land’s Chenin Blanc. “I think they are starting to make huge inroads with Chenin,” He said. “While they may lack some of that minerality you find in the great wines of the Loire Valley, they have a distinctive flavor and are tremendous wines.” Theron also echoed Ken Forrester’s comments about the beauty of the place. “For anybody who has ever been to the Cape Region there is that ‘wow’ factor,” he said. “Mountains that rise thousands of feet straight from the sea, beautiful vineyards. It’s like the Rockies, – you have to see it.”I won’t argue with Gerald either.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@wineink.com.