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.
Cabernet Franc Facts
Less weight and more aromatic intensity than Cabernet Sauvignon
Stews and braised meats
The Loire Valley's most renowned red wines, Bourgueil and Chinon, are made from Cabernet Franc, as are the mostly lighter, friendlier wines of Anjou and the somewhat more serious wines of Saumur-Champigny. Until recently, the aroma and flavor profile of Cabernet Franc had been decidedly out of step with the tastes of modern wine drinkers: herbal and peppery, with notes of tobacco leaf, menthol, and licorice, and often rather dry-edged tannins. But thanks to a recent string of favorable growing seasons , and to considerable work in the vineyards to reduce vine yields and promote greater ripeness of the grapes, today's Loire Valley Cabernet Francs possess more flesh and sweetness of fruit than ever before. These Cabernet Francs are also wonderfully flexible at the table. (Incidentally, when it was discovered that a compound called resveratrol, which is found in the skins of many red grapes, offers cardiovascular and anticarcinogenic benefits, the Cabernet Franc variety was found to be particularly high in this substance.)
There are also ample plantings of Cabernet Franc in the New World where the grape is used as it is in Bordeaux, in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In the Napa Valley, there are excellent examples, particularly in the cooler mountain settings where Cabernet Sauvignon struggles to reach optimum ripeness. Some worthwhile single varietal bottlings are being produced by Pride Mountain, Chappellet, and La Jota, among other producers.
Surprisingly, Cabernet Franc is also showing some success elsewhere in North America, including in Virginia, near Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson first attempted to produce fine wine. Pay attention to current efforts, as these are proving more successful than Jefferson's early endeavors.