Wine Tasting: A Journey Through South Africa’s Diversity and History With Simonsig

The international wines we drink typically reflect the cuisine of our area. With so many French, Italian and Spanish restaurants in America, it’s no wonder these countries also provide so much of our foreign wines.

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Johan Malan, co-owner and chief winemaker of South Africa’s Simonsig Wine Estate.

So argued Johan Malan, co-owner and chief winemaker of South Africa’s Simonsig Wine Estate, during a recent tasting I attended at Delmonico’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Malan makes a good point. Many consumers remain in their comfort zone with foreign food and drink. And that zone is largely a product of what’s most pronounced around them.

So how does South African fare boost its profile in America? Especially with so few South African restaurants in this country?

Thankfully, today’s consumers are more willing to branch out. Millennials in particular. They crave variety and quality, and in search of both will experiment across brands and continents. For drinkers on this journey, it’s well worth taking your palate on a trip through South African wine.

Simonsig is an example of the diversity in quality found in the country’s wine — and the history. The estate traces its roots back to vineyards planted in the Cape of Good Hope in 1688.

A descendent from that original winemaking family, Frans Malan (Johan’s father), started the modern-day Simonsig estate in the now-esteemed Stellenbosch wine region of southwestern South Africa. He released the country’s first Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, and Cap Classique bottle-fermented sparkling wine.

It was fitting, then, that our tasting began with the 2014 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose (SRP: $24.99). It was made in the Cap Classique method pioneered by Johan’s father. This young, light, bright bubbly tasted of red fruit with a citrus flourish.

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A pouring of the Simonsig “Sunbird” Sauvignon Blanc.

The blend is 67% Pinot Noir, 31% Pinotage, 2% Pinot Meunier. The use of South Africa’s signature red varietal, Pinotage, with the two varietals typical of Cap Classique Chardonnay was the result of 2004 search for alternatives during a Pinot Noir shortage. This Pinotage blending was also a first for South African wine.

Next up were the 2015 vintages of the Simonsig “Sunbird” Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99) and Chenin Blanc ($13.99). Both need a few more years to fully open up. On the softer side, the Sauv Blanc went well with the oyster and lobster appetizers. The Chenin Blanc was fine in structure, ripe with fruit, and freshly acidic. Overall, Chenin Blanc is Simonsig’s best-selling wine, and dates back 47 vintages.

The 2013 Cabernet Shiraz ($13.99) that came next was perfectly balanced between Cab Sauv (60%) and Shiraz (40%). It was, as Malan said, “expressive but soft.” Which is the goal for most of Simonsig’s releases, being Malan’s idea of what consumers currently want.

“Though I don’t think there’s a fixed recipe or plan that we have to follow,” he added. “The consumer palate is constantly changing. You almost have to project into the future and think about what will be popular in a few years time.”

The Pinotages came next. Simonsig’s standard 2013 vintage ($17.99) and 2012 Redhill ($37.99). The former, tasting of cherries and sweet berries, is the type of under-$20 wine you could drink every day. The Redhill was a juicier, richer, more-complex treat — my favorite pour of the evening. Both had soft tannins, and were delightfully easy drinking.

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From left to right: The Simonsig 2011 Frans Malan Reserve, 2012 Redhill Pinotage, 2013 Pinotage, and 2013 Cabernet Shiraz.

The theme of treats continued into the final three wines. These were the 2011 Frans Malan Reserve ($37.99; 64% Pinotage, 32% Cab Sauv, 4% Merlot), Merindol Syrah ($43.99) and Simonsig’s flagship Tiara ($38.99; 66% Cab Sauv, 21% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 4% Cab Franc).

These were rich, darkly fruity pours. I especially enjoyed pitch-perfect dry finish of the Reserve, the velvet mouthfeel and herb notes of the Syrah, and the rich elegance and complexity of the Tiara.

That is what you get from Simonsig and its home country: a diverse lineup of quality products. And that is why South Africa is a must-visit destination in your worldwide exploration of fine wines.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz

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