John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Thank You Nelson Mandela !

Nelson Mandela’s achievements have been widely and deservedly heralded, but his ability to exhibit magnanimity to people who kept him incarcerated for decades, and to the government he inherited is truly remarkable. In choosing to rise above the inclination to seek revenge on his oppressors, he also demonstrated his wisdom and practicality.

So what does any of this have to do with wine? Well, one of the beneficiaries of Mandella’s benevolence during his tenure as the first democratically elected president of South Africa was the wine industry. Like most other businesses in the country back then, wineries were part of the white power establishment and, like other enterprises, saw their exports drop significantly during the years of Apartheid.

With the defeat of Apartheid and the ascension of Mandela, the ban on South African wines was lifted, and the product began to appear ever so slowly on American wine store shelves. Here in West Virginia, we’re just beginning to enjoy the wide variety and surprising quality of South African wines.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at the Bluegrass Kitchen which featured about 20 South African wines and a variety of small plate dishes created by chef Gary Needham. The wines were from importer Cape Classics and ran the gamut from lighter- styled whites to full bodied reds. The common thread among the wines was their uniform quality and incredible value.

However, my first sip of South African wine – more than 30 years ago – was not an experience I remember fondly. In fact, the red wine made from the pinotage grape (a cross between pinot noir and cinsault) tasted like something that had been aged in oil barrels. To be fair, the quality of pinotage has been improved substantially over the years, but this native South African wine is certainly not among my favorites nor was it featured at the Bluegrass Kitchen event.

There are nine principal wine regions in South Africa, and most surround Cape Town where the influence of cool ocean breezes and diverse soils combine to create ideal grape growing appellations. The most well regarded region is Stellenbosch just a short distance east of Cape Town where the best reds and whites are produced.

The other exemplary note about these wines is that they are made to be enjoyed with food with none of the overblown, high extract and stratospheric alcohol levels so popular with some new world wine makers.

While I was particularly impressed with the cabernet sauvignon blends, the 2009 Indaba Merlot ($10) is a delicious bargain with ripe plum and cola flavors and excellent balance. It would be wonderful with grilled flank steak stuffed with roasted red peppers and provolone cheese.

Dessert wine fans absolutely must try the 2005 Kanu Kia Oro Late Harvest Chenin Blanc ($20 half bottle). This wine is chock full of apricot, pineapple and honey flavors that would love to be “peared” with poached pears topped with a dollop of whipped crème.

Another wine from South Africa that is exceptional is chenin blanc. Made in a variety of styles from light and slightly sweet to round, rich and chardonnay-like, wine makers in the country know how to squeeze the best from what many consider a humble grape. Of course, the chardonnay is superb, and the riesling and sauvignon blanc are distinctive too.

The wines listed below were my favorites at the tasting and should be available at a wine shop near you. If not, ask your wine purveyor to order them. I think you’ll like them and I hope you’ll raise a glass in thanks to Nelson Mandela!

Under $15 - 2009 Excelsior Chardonnay; 2008 Buitenverwachting Riesling; 2008 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc; 2008 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc; 2009 Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose; and 2009 Indaba Merlot.

2009 Rustenberg Chardonnay ($22); 2005 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound (a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and merlot $32); and 2006 Rustenberg John X Merriman (another Bordeaux blend $40).
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