South Africa has produced wines in the area of Cape Town since the 17th century, but the country's significant place in the U.S. market is far more recent. During the era of apartheid, trade sanctions imposed on imports from South Africa kept these wines out of the U.S. and many other markets, with the effect that local South African winemakers had little incentive to produce wines that could compete in a global setting, and had limited experience with new developments in the world of wine. In fact, during apartheid most of the country's grape growers sold their fruit to co-ops, who turned it into distilled alcohol on the one hand, and sherry and port on the other. With the end of sanctions in 1991, the U.S. market was suddenly flooded with mostly low-end, mediocre wine from South Africa.
Little more than a decade later, the quality of South African wine has soared, thanks in large part to widespread replanting of virused vines and grafting over new vines onto virus-free rootstock. Replacing virus-weakened vines has enabled grape growers to producer riper fruit that is less likely to show the green or tea-like flavors that plagued South Africa's wines in the past. Then, too, a new generation of winemakers has benefited from more extensive contact with the outside world, and the country's producers now know what they must do to compete in an international arena. Today, South Africa is the world's number eight producer of wine, supplying everything from crisp, vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs to structured, serious Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends. The best of these are satisfying and characterful wines that are midway between Old and New World in style.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.