What You Need to Know About South African Wine

Just last month, the reviewer team at The Wine Advocate grew with the appointment of Anthony Mueller. An accomplished sommelier based in the Napa Valley, Mueller will be taking over reviewer responsibility for the regions of Washington state and South Africa. 

The career of a wine reviewer is no easy feat—to meet year-end goals, an average of nearly a dozen wines must be tasted every day of the year. (That number only increases with every sick, personal or vacation day taken.) 

None of that is at all a bother to the Scottsdale, Arizona-native. “My job involves tasting lots of wine, traveling to wine regions and teaching people about wine—a dream job for anyone in the wine business,” he says, looking at his schedule, which includes traveling to his designated regions, as well as partaking in wine competitions, lectures and seminars. “There’s much to accomplish this year!” 

Here, we ask Mueller five questions about what we need to know about South African wine.

What do you love most about the wines of South Africa? 
I’m a sucker for a good story. Right now, we can witness the rebuilding of a nation’s wine culture. It had a solid run of being at the top, producing legendary wines for which many of the elite would consume. They fell out of popularity more than 100 years ago and are slowly gaining momentum back toward the top. It’s a true underdog story. If you’ve ever been to Cape Town or seen pictures of the surrounding vineyards there, it truly magnificent. (Think striking rock cliff formations, jetting out of the ground, kissing the sky, overlooking the town, the bay and the vineyards.) The vast majority of the growing regions sit in a Mediterranean climate. There is so much potential—it will be fascinating to see how the wine industry evolves over the next few decades.

What do we need to know about South African wines? 
South African wines come with a unique history—vine growing dates back before our own country’s independence. The last King and Queen of France purchased and enjoyed South African wines. Wines from Constantia were enjoyed by Prussia’s Frederick the Great, Jane Austen and Napoleon Bonaparte. Like all of Europe, phylloxera decimated much of the vineyard landscape in the late 19th century. Since then, it has been a struggle to get back on top. Add to that, the civil unrest going on in South Africa today. There are some world class wines that still exist today, and there are some wines that I flat out would never consider using in my cooking. South Africa has many factors in place, focused on raising the quality of its wine.

What are some of the trends you have been observing about this wine region? 
I see many of the same global wine trends happening in South Africa today. The diverse landscape that exists in South Africa today shows tremendous possibilities. The far north is entirely dependent on irrigation, much like that of Mendoza, Argentina. Chenin Blanc has become the workhorse of South Africa, as it is the most planted grape. I foresee experimenting with many international varietals. As they find their identity, I see them adding even more research and development, along with collaborations from outside sources. And with the globalization of wine, I see South Africa showing tremendous opportunity. I don’t know if the reputation for Pinotage can be repaired, but if more producers are able to champion what Kanonkop has done with it, I see promise for the grape. My gut feeling is that we are still quite a way from there. 

Speaking of Pinotage, hate it or do you think it's misunderstood?
There are some great Pinotage bottles in South Africa—unfortunately, I have tried many poor examples and expressions of the grape as well. I wouldn't look at it from the standpoint of whether or not I like it; I look at a wine and see if it's made well. A good wine is a good wine regardless of what grape it's made from. Due to lower quality wines hitting the American market in the 1990s and 2000s, I would say that Pinotage doesn't have a good reputation in America today. But now, with the decreased number of overall plantings in South Africa, there's a chance for the wines produced to re-enter the market with a higher quality. 

Do you foresee South African wines making a bigger splash in the United States in the near future? Why? 
That’s a great question. A few months ago, this was a future prediction in the year in review podcast for GuildSomm. Yes, I do foresee South African wines making a bigger splash in the U.S.—as to whether that will be in the near future or not, I believe it is still on the way. With the wide diversity of styles of wine that exist in South Africa, there is something out there for almost everyone. From budget to the premier, sparkling and still, fragrant white wine to bold and structured reds, fortified and sweet, there is hope that the wines are becoming better every single day. With better wines comes more opportunity for distributors to pick up more wines from South Africa and tap into the global wine market. Currently, I only see a handful of South African wines in my local wine store—and many places across America, these wines are absent from the shelf. The only way to change that is to raise the overall quality of South African wine.

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