With more than three centuries of winemaking under its oh-so-rugged belt, South Africa is one of the oldest new wine regions on earth. Or should we say newest old wine regions?
A visit to the bottom of the mammoth African continent is humbling for its sense of wine history reaching back to Dutch settlers in the early 1600s – yet even more humbling for its determination to move beyond its own tortured recent past.
Surveying the hundreds of wineries showing their wares at CapeWine, a trade show held in lovely Cape Town every three years, is to gaze out over a strange hybrid of rebuilding and building for the first time. After all, most American wine lovers came of age during a period during which South African wines were embargoed by the international community, part of pressing for the end of racial apartheid. That end finally came, though the sacrifices of Nelson Mandela and others, in the early 1990s. The world was suddenly ready to taste South African wines.
In recent years, South African wineries have labored long and hard to produce wines worth tasting. Within the country itself, several regions have some tradition of winemaking, but the bulk of international distribution comes from the Western Cape – a dramatically beautiful region looking out over the meeting of Atlantic and Indian oceans. The Western Cape is divided into five producing districts, of which the so-called Coastal Region is best known. It is here that you find Stellenbosch, the wine name most likely to be familiar for lovely and classically made dry whites and reds, as well as Constantia, legendary for its sweet dessert wines.
Traditionally, people who knew South African wines seemed to speak a different language, one born of the Dutch-based Afrikaans. They spoke of steen among white wines (a local name for chenin blanc) or, even more often, of pinotage (a local cross between pinot noir and cinsaut). These days neither word is in ascendancy, falling behind more appreciated varietals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc among the whites, and among reds cabernet (both sauvignon and franc), merlot, pinot noir and a version of syrah/shiraz no doubt inspired by Australia’s game-changing success.
Stellenbosch, meaning both the region and the town, represents South African winemaking and wine tourism at its finest. The place is cultured to the point of feeling European by way of northern California, with tasting rooms, class-act hotels and significant restaurants. The recent visit also included side trips to diverse up-and-coming regions like Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth), Swartland and Slanghoek.
In that last, an overnight visit with winemaker Attie Louw and his family at Opstal Estate made us believe in South Africa’s viticultural future. The wines are great, but the people are greater. They deserve to have their wines enjoyed, whether it’s in our favorite fine-dining restaurants or at our next backyard “braai” (rhymes with cry). After all, here in the United States, we simply call that a barbecue.
SOUTH AFRICAN BOBOTIE
3/4 stick butter
1 pound ground beef, pork or lamb
½ large onion, chopped
2 large bay leaves
1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
1 tablespoon dried Italian herb blend (such as dried thyme, rosemary and oregano)
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, garlic powder and ground clove
3 tablespoons Major Grey’s Chutney
1 tablespoon golden raisons
2 slices white bread soaked in one cup of whole milk
For the Topping:
2 large eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
Optional garnishes: toasted chopped walnuts or almonds, additional chutney, chopped fresh cilantro or parsley.
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking the meat up into small pieces for 3-4 minutes or until it begins to brown. Add the bay leaves, curry, Italian spices, cinnamon, garlic and cloves and stir well to ensure all of the seasonings are distributed evenly amongst the meat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add the chutney and stir well. Continue to cook over low heat for 1-2 minutes more.
Squeeze as much of the milk as possible out of the soaked bread and tear the bread into small pieces. Stir the wet bread into the meat mixture. Cook for 2 minutes more, or until the mixture is warmed through and the bread is fully incorporated. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if needed. Remove the bay leaves and discard them. Transfer the meat mixture to a medium sized baking dish. In a separate bowl, whisk the 2 eggs with the 3/4 cup of milk. Pour the beaten eggs and milk over the meat mixture in the baking dish. Transfer the dish to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the egg mixture on top puffs up and is completely set. Serve warm and top with desired garnishes. Serves 4-6