WineInk: Southern Styles
“Why is this guy — who has a column about wines from the Southern Hemisphere — not writing about wines from South Africa and Chile?”
It was a fair question, especially since it came from someone who is my current editor. She was responding to last week’s column in which I wrote rather extensively about wines from both Australia and Argentina, as I noted my hankering for wines from the southern half of the planet. But, while I mentioned both Chile and South Africa, I neglected to take a deeper dive into the wines from those countries.
My response? I write about what I know, and, in this case, I am more in tune with Southern Hemisphere wines from, say, Australia and New Zealand — places I have visited — than those of Chile and South Africa — places I have not. But, as the question was posed, I felt that maybe it was a time to show some love for wines from some of the other Southern Hemisphere regions, as well.
South Africa lies about as far away from Aspen as one can get when traveling the world of wine. A trip to Stellenbosch, perhaps the most well-known wine region in South Africa, will require a journey of around 10,000 miles. Take a Delta one-stop connection from Aspen through Atlanta and you can be in Cape Town in 19 and a half hours. A short drive of a half hour or so will put you in the heart of a wine region noted not just for the quality of their wines, but also the sheer beauty of the locale. Once there, you will discover one of the most interesting wine regions on earth.
South Africa is considered a New World region, as it is not part of Europe or the Old World, and, yet, its roots run deep, back to the 1650s, when the Dutch planted vines with the first recorded vintage released in 1659. Today, the most widely-planted grape variety is Chenin Blanc, and it may be the defining wine from South Africa. But, the nation is also known for a hybrid grape, Pinotage, which was created in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault in an effort to find a defining characteristic for the wine industry. And, there has been a surge in the production of quality Bordeaux and Rhone style wines in the last couple of decades.
The first South African wines to create a buzz were sweet dessert wines called Constantia, which were shipped back to Europe in the 18th century and quickly became sought after by royals, notably Queen Victoria and Napoleon Bonaparte. Charles Dickens and Jane Austin both wrote of these wines in their works. Today, Klein Constantia Vin de Constance — an unfortified, naturally-sweet wine — is considered one of the world’s most unique wines and is prized by collectors.
But, for many in Aspen, the closest connection to the wines of South Africa resides in the imposing form of winemaker Ken Forrester, who, over the years, has been a regular visitor to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. He not only pours his own eponymous wines while here, but is also an ambassador for his nation’s wine industry.
“It’s the most beautiful wine region in the world,” he told me one past summer as he poured a sample of the Chenin Blanc for which he is famed. He was describing Stellenbosch, the South African wine region he calls home, and the place where his wine estate is located. “We’re the Napa Valley of South Africa.”
As I had never been to South Africa, I wouldn’t argue the point. In part because Forrester stands somewhere near 6’4” and has the frame of a Springbok (a reference to the world class South African rugby squad, not the fleet and photogenic gazelle, which is the national animal). But also, since I have been told much the same thing by my friend Andy Katz, the pre-eminent vineyard photographer who has visited most of the world’s most picturesque wine regions.
But, there are other beautiful regions included in what the South Africans designate as “Wines of Origin,” or WOs, similar to the AOC regulated system used in France. Franschhoek, known as the “Valley of Dreams,” is a French-influenced gem of a wine region that is home to a number of innovative winemakers producing Cabernet Sauvignon, red blends, and Syrah-based wines in a scenic and sophisticated wine district. Walker Bay, along the coast southeast of Cape Town, is influenced by its proximity to the cooling winds from the nearby Atlantic. Here, the focus is on cool climate wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Wines from Hamilton-Russell, one of the iconic producers in South Africa, continue to receive accolades.
When Aspenites think of Chile, the ski resort of Portillo may come to mind first. But, as the snow melts in the high Andes, the water flows to the Pacific through the valleys that make up the many wine regions of Chile. Most of the Chilean wine industry is located between the mountains and the sea in a series of valleys that run through the heart of the country. From north to south, iconic Chilean wine-growing regions include the Aconcagua Valley, the Casablanca Valley and the well-known Maipo Valley, which is close to the city of Santiago.
As is the case with South Africa, Chile has a history of wine that goes back to the 1600s, when Spanish explorers first cultivated vines. But, in more recent years, the focus has been on French varieties, including the Carménère grape (Yes, with competing accents in French, though the Chileans often eschew the accents entirely), which is perhaps the nation’s defining variety. Another identity is that the wines of Chile provide outstanding value, and producers — such as Los Vascos, Casa Lapostolle, and Concho y Toro — all make wines in the region that are imported to the United States.
The 2019 Viña Montes Syrah Colchagua Valley Alpha ($20) and the 2019 Casas del Bosque Carménère Cachapoal Valley Gran Reserva ($17) both made this year’s list of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines. It is an example that great wines do not have to be expensive. Especially those from Chile.
As we sit here in Aspen, with the short days and the intermittent snowstorms punctuating our days, maybe it’s time to taste a little sunshine in your wine glass. Try some wines from the Southern Hemisphere producers.
They’ll warm your soul.
Other than skiing powder, there are few things more enjoyable than sipping Champagne. And, this winter, the Viewline Resort Snowmass, hard by the slopes, will provide a soft landing for the end of your ski day. Beginning this Thursday, Dec. 22, the deck of Stark’s Alpine Grill, the resort’s signature restaurant, will host Moët on the Mountain weekly events on Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The après ski parties will feature a live DJ and specials from the classic French Champagne producer Moët & Chandon.
A toast on the slopes means more.
Koyle Gran Reserva Carmenere 2019 Alto Colchagua
On a post ski stop at Snowmass Liquor and Gifts in The Snowmass Center I was looking for something special for around $20. This bottle of Koyle (pronounced koy-LAY) Carmenere fit the bill perfectly. Rustic and racy, the wine was medium bodied and easy to drink. It could have been a young Merlot. New to me, Koyle, is a family-owned biodynamic concern in the Colchagua Valley at the foot of the Andes Mountains. It is imported Natural Merchants the fine natural wine supplier from Grants Pass, Oregon.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.