When COVID-19 hit, my husband and I found ourselves stuck indefinitely in the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa.
He was working in the harvests there, and I had gone to visit him, when a 21-day lockdown was announced. Among the list of restrictions, we could not go out on walks, and restaurants could not offer take-out or delivery. The most frightening mandate of all: no alcohol would be sold.
So, in the days leading up to the lockdown’s beginning, we, along with most of South Africa, rushed to stock up on enough alcohol to last three weeks of isolation, possibly longer. We were hopeful that we’d get a repatriation flight before then, but we weren’t about to take any chances.
I was supremely bummed that I wouldn’t get to visit any of the local wineries. Exactly 10 years earlier, I was in South Africa for the World Cup and jumped on a wine tour from Cape Town with new friends I met at my hostel.
My interest in wine was zero at the time, and I had no idea that I would be moving cross country to Napa of all places just three months later, officially starting my journey into wine-nerdom. Our tour that day was exactly what you’d expect from a large group of 20-somethings looking for something to do in between World Cup soccer matches. There was a bus and I recall a stop to visit some cheetahs, but I can’t tell you anything about the wine we drank or the wineries we visited.
A decade later, this trip was supposed to be a redemptive journey into South African wine. My plans fell victim to COVID-19, but in an attempt to make the best of the situation, my husband and I rounded up roughly 20 bottles of local wine for the lockdown, enabling me to get some sort of an education.
If you think this sounds expensive, it wasn’t! These wines are insanely affordable and offer incredible value for the quality. My husband estimated it was like double the value of what you pay here. A lot of the bottles we drank cost less than $20 and we had some really good bottles for $35-$40.
There are two fabulous wine shops I must mention, in case you ever get there: Vineyard Connection in Stellenbosch and La Cotte in Franschhoek, which has a musty underground cellar where they keep the good stuff and a French cheese shop.
We’re back home now, slowly working through our California-heavy cellar while we shelter in place, but South African wines remain on my mind (luckily, we fit nine bottles in our suitcases). These are four of the best bottles we drank while watching the sunset over Stellenbosch Mountain.
Boekenhoutskloof 2017 SemillonI dare you to even try to pronounce this winery’s name, especially after a glass or two. Boekenhoutskloof is best known for its Chocolate Block red blend and after coming highly recommended, this was one of the best Semillons we’ve ever had, so of course, we bought an extra to bring home. This wine from Franschhoek was like biting into a pear that’s been sitting on your counter for a few days. It’s not overly juicy but has a nice acidity, is medium-bodied with a pleasant richness, and given that one-third of it was aged for 14 months in concrete egg, two-thirds in a new barrel, it’s clear it will age well (our bottle will be sitting in our cellar for a while).
Semillon was once an extremely popular grape variety in the Cape Winelands during the 19th century, accounting for 90 percent of plantings, but today, less than 3,000 acres remain. Boekenhoutskloof’s Semillon is from three different vineyards, including one of the oldest vineyards in South Africa planted in 1902. Still considered old vines, the others were planted in 1936 and 1942.
Meerlust Estate 2015 RubiconMeerlust Estate has been producing wine for eight generations, dating back to 1756. Rubicon, which has its own tab of their website, is obviously their crown jewel. I’m told 2015 is considered an exceptional vintage in Stellenbosch and this Cab-based blend certainly upholds that theory. With bright flavors of dried cranberry, this wine is super silky and completely envelopes the palate; it’s approachable now, but the tannins are still pretty strong five years in, suggesting it has several decades of life in it. The oak (66% new) is very well integrated and reveals itself through notes of char and cedar as opposed to vanilla. Dark purple in color with a light orange gradation in the glass, this Rubicon was an excellent pairing with our “braai,” a traditional African barbecue that’s a popular social custom.
Vilafonte 2017 Seriously Old DirtThis review might be slightly biased, for Vilafonte is where my husband worked his South African harvest. The winery is a partnership between California legends Phil Freese and Zelma Long and South Africa’s Matt Ratcliffe. This is Vilafonte’s secondary label, but my mouth dropped open upon learning it retails at less than $20. A true red blend of Malbec (37%), Merlot (36%), Cabernet Sauvignon (26%) and a splash of Cabernet Franc, it’s a juicy, fruit-forward wine that’s touted as an everyday bottle, but that many would be pleased to have with their Friday night meal.
I would be remiss not to mention the story behind the name. During a visit to Vilafonte’s vineyard, Robert Parker once asked Freese what makes the wine unique, to which Freese replied something along the lines of, “It’s just seriously old dirt.” That old dirt is traceable on the palate with notes of tobacco and a slight char, balancing out flavors of red plum, blackberry, cherry, and baking spice.
Bartinney 2017 ChardonnayBartinney is the one winery I got to visit in person (sort of). I passed by their downtown Stellenbosch tasting room just a few days before everything shut down and enjoyed a glass of bubbly on the patio. It left a nice impression, so I was compelled to try another bottling. This Chardonnay is the best of both worlds: it’s fresh, crisp, tart, and bright, and at the same time rich, soft, and round with a creamy mouthfeel that drapes your tongue. It has notes of lemon-lime and vanilla, and we paired it with a curry butternut squash soup from the famous Babylonstoren wine farm. The wine really helped to cut the spice of the dish and I’d recommend enjoying it with Indian food.
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