Monday, June 28, 2010

The Rise of South African Wines

Sports have long been a catalyst for economic development. You don’t have to look any farther than Indianapolis. Indy city leaders built the RCA Dome, Conseco Fieldhouse, and now Lucas Oil Stadium not just for the sports teams but to lure business, improve the economic climate downtown and create new business.

As the eyes of the soccer world look to South Africa, the South African wine industry is trying to capitalize on all of the attention.

Wine production dates back to at least the 1600s but the years of apartheid stymied any international expansion. Right now South African wines are one of the “hottest things” in the wine world.

The World Cup has been the necessary impetus to build the wine brand in South Africa and around the world. Project Laduma started in 2008 aiming to create 2010 wine stewards by this summer’s World Cup. The wine industry’s marketing arm, Wines of South Africa, came up with the job-creating idea to welcome World Cup guests.
WSA funded the drive by having members create specific red wines to be sold to finance the steward training. The red wines sold to the consumer at the $15-$20 price point. About half of the 2,000 workers were identified as restaurant workers but the other half came from the nation’s unemployed.

But the country hasn’t been looking inward only. South Africa exports more than 10 million gallons of wine annually. Nearly 300,000 people are employed in the wine industry. The country produces less than four percent of the world’s wine, ranking it eighth in overall volume.

The country has nine wine regions with the most recognized being Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Constantia. The country grows a lot of Cabernet, Shiraz, and Pinot Noir. Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc are also plentiful. Chenin Blanc, sometimes called Steen, is the most widely grown grape in the Cape region. It is often cited as South Africa’s best white.

South Africa’s signature grape is Pinotage. It’s one wine many people have heard of and perhaps never tried. It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The Cinsaut grape normally adds a certain softness and fragrant nose to wine. Pinotage dates back to 1925 and has had its ups and downs. It’s not the most widely planted grape but it is South African’s best known original.

The wine has smoky, earthy, tones that are usually quite smooth. As a point of reference, I’d compare the taste of Pinotage to France’s Gamay grape. Gamay is the grape behind Beaujolais wines.

Now a bit of advice before you rush off to the wine shop, ask for advice. I had not purchased much South African wine before preparing to write this column. My purchases were hit and miss. Fairview is a big and consistent producer. Other names to look for are Neil Ellis, Nederburg, Ken Forrester, Kanonkop, and De Wetshof Estate. Those are just a very few.

Howard’s Pick:

Nederburg 2007 Pinotage
: A beautiful, deep purple wine that has great dark fruit on the front of the palate, a solid mid plate that will keep you interested, and a little bit of oak on the finish for a well-balanced wine! Nederburg makes a very drinkable introduction to South African wines. You can find this bottling at many places in Indiana at $10-$14 a bottle.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hosting Your Own Wine Tasting Party

One of the great joys of wine is sharing it with others. Not only do you enjoy the companionship but you’re likely to learn something about the wine you’re drinking. You can read and even study about wine but drinking it and sharing your thoughts with friends is one of the best ways to improve your wine knowledge.

Hosting a wine tasting might sound pretentious or something you’d do in a fancy wine shop or fancy home. But all you really need for a great and unique evening is a few friends and a plan. I’m here to help with the plan.

Here is what you’ll need besides the wine: wine glasses, unflavored cocktail crackers, mild cheeses, napkins, paper plates, and a great sense of humor.

The wine obviously depends on the group. But for first-time wine tasting party, I’d suggest keeping it simple. There is no great guideline to how many wines. From experience hosting and participating in wine tastings, I would suggest that 6-7 wines are the maximum before the palate starts to go flat. Pour about a two-ounce amount into each glass and let the fun begin.

Someone has to lead your group through the tasting. If you have a friend who knows wine that’s great but anyone really can do it. Think of your leader as more of a discussion stimulator and less of a real oenophile.

Provide small notepads and pens so your guests and write down a few thoughts and ask them to rate each wine on a 1-5 scale.

Keep your wines consistent in price. A good starting point is the $12-$15 range. There are many choices of good wine at that price point. And choose some variety and new wines. There isn’t much use in hosting a tasting and doing nothing but Chardonnay, Merlot, and maybe a Cab. Try a Malbec, Shiraz, or Zinfandel. Be sure to include at least one white – A.B.C. – anything but Chardonnay!

Start by introducing the wine. What is it? Who made it? Where was it made? What is the alcohol percentage? The notes on the back of most bottles can be very helpful. Encourage your guests to swirl the wine in their glass and look and think about the color. The next step is one of the most pleasurable for me – really get your nose into the glass and enjoy the smell. Can you identify certain smells in the wine? Start with something easy. Get a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and ask if they can smell the grass. (They’ll think you’re a genius!)

When tasting the wine suggest your guests think about the wine as it hits their mouth, travels mid-palate, and then the finish when they swallow the wine. Do they taste fruit up front? Do they get something different as the wine lingers? Is it acidic or do they feel a bit of heat (alcohol) as they swallow the wine? Get everyone involved in the discussion. There are no wrong answers. If the bottle says the taste has dark cherry and currant, and someone tastes melon just encourage them!

Then it’s time to evaluate the wine. What did the group like or dislike about the wine? Have everyone make some notes and move on.

Having some plain crackers, bread, and cheese to cleanse the palate. Most supermarkets have Swiss Gruyere which works well with most wines.

The evening ends with a final discussion. Which wines did they like the best or least? You’ll find it fascinating to see the differing opinions.

Leading a group of friends through some new wines is one of my favorite activities. If you give it a try, I think you’ll agree.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, In., is a former career journalist who writes about wine. Read his blog at:

Young People Moving to Wine

As anyone even mildly interested knows, wine sales have been on a steady climb since the early 1990s. One trend which has been well documented by the sales people and through ever-increasing anecdotal evidence is younger people are drinking more wine.

The Nielsen Company recently issued reports on the drinking preferences for “millennials.” Millennials are generally described as the generation born in the late 1970s and into the 90s.

The first thing to keep in mind is that generation grew up with choices the Baby Boomer generation never thought possible. While Boomers were thrilled to choose from Pepsi, Coke, 7-Up or Dr. Pepper, the millennials have enjoyed convenience stores with a wall full of coolers with many choices of beverage.

For decades the adult beverage of choice has been beer within this age group. That’s still true but the numbers are changing. The beer numbers have decreased for more than a decade – though a frosty cold one still comes out on top. Millennial consumers spend 47 percent of their alcohol dollars on beer, 27 percent on spirits, and 26 percent on wine.

Growing up with all those choices mean the young adult consumer isn’t afraid to try Micro-Brew beers or wine from New World producers.

The younger consumer also likes the better-known and more expensive brands while Boomers are more likely to buy the value labels – at least when it comes to spirits.
The Millennials are red wine drinkers by a 51-44 percent margin. It’s not difficult to figure the favorites would be Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Chardonnay remains the favorite white. But the younger age group does buy more Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling than the older consumer.

Here is the opening for wine retailers and educators. One of the interesting facts I read in the story about the Nielsen report was many young consumers believe they know something about wine but more than one-third wanted to learn more!

Here are a couple of other interesting things in the wine news world:

- A recent report by the Wine Market Council reports women have surpassed men as once-a-week wine drinkers. The report said 53 percent of the wine drinkers in the U.S. are women.

- Guess who is buying up all those Bordeaux wine futures? If you guessed the Chinese, then you’d be right! The San Jose Mercury-News recently reported that California is gaining ground, though. China wine consumption has doubled since 2004.

The Chinese don’t bat at an eye spending big money for French Bordeaux and are a major players in Bordeaux wine futures. But California wine exporters are trying to target the middle class with California wines.

Still, the staggering numbers belong to the French. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, China imports 46 percent of its wine from France, 20 percent from Australia, 8 percent from Italy, and then comes the U.S. at 5 percent.

- I wrote a column in early March about all of the great values available, particularly through the internet, due to worldwide wine supplies and the economy. And, that’s still true. But the U.S. market seems to be recovering. Wines & Vines, a wine industry news site, reported U.S. sales of off-premise table wine increased 6.8 percent compared to the same period a year ago. That followed a four-week period of increases just over 5 percent.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, is a wine enthusiast and former journalist. Read his wine blog, updated throughout each week, at: