Sebeka South African Wines
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Sebeka South African Wines Tasting Notes

I usually assess wine at my quiet table in the quiet country town I quietly call home. It was hence a big change to find myself sitting at a table in a busy Manhattan restaurant with Andries Blake and George Neveling, winemaker and general manager respectively of South Africa's Swartland Winery, producers of the Sebeka range of wines.

Andries and George had been in New York City for all of ten minutes. They spoke excitedly about their region; they spoke excitedly about their wines; they spoke excitedly about their partnership in the United States with Gallo; they spoke—how can I put this?—excitedly. The center of the excitement? Pinotage.

In 1925, Professor A.I. Perold of Stellenbosch University took two very dissimilar French grapes, Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, and crossed them to create Pinotage. As happens with humans, the child took on characteristics of its own, becoming South Africa's proud red grape. Pinotage is easier to grow and ripen than its Pinot Noir parent, but therein lies the problem; high yields produce a thick fruity wine with notes that many tasters liken to paint, an acquired taste to be sure.

Of course that was then and this is now. “Pinotage can be hard,” George tells me, referring to its sensory impact. “It can be too aromatic. The key is selecting the fruit from the best producers.” Andries tells me the winery rejects 80% of the grapes it is offered by area growers. “There's plenty of fruit out there,” he adds, “but a lot of it can be harsh. You've got to get out in the fields and judge for yourself.” George points out: “The real key is putting in care and attention, and with an eye on the tastes of the American consumer. The new Pinotage is friendlier to the American palate than the wine most South Africans are used to, and yet it still represents a unique South African product.”

Sebeka—the name refers to an orphaned cheetah cub that has for many years been the symbol of wildlife conservation in South Africa—produces a compact line of five wines, all under $10 in our market. The two whites, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, are extremely well made and deserve their own place in the sun, as does the varietal Shiraz. The flagship wines, however, are the two blends. The Cabernet-Pinotage is 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and 36% Pinotage. The “Cape Blend” is 60% Shiraz and 40% Pinotage.

The 2007 Sauvignon Blanc brings in an enjoyable roundness, with nice mineral, peach and orange blossom aromas. The crisp acidity is well complemented by a bit of residual sugar. “We're trying to develop our own style of Sauvignon Blanc,” George explains. “Our climate is hot and dry, while Marlborough in New Zealand is cool and dry.” The result in my book is a crisp and yet fruity wine, with less of that green and grassy punch I associate with the better-known New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I enjoyed a dance of concentrated, almost candied fruit on my palate. The refreshing finish brought a touch of dried apricot with some warm minerality.

I tasted the Sebeka 2006 Chardonnay on my own the next day, sharing it with my guests at a pot luck dinner I was hosting. The light straw wine has a good mineral nose, with peach, apricot and stone fruit and a slight floral edge. The pointed acidity is nicely focused to bring out the fruit. The wine is dry, unoaked, with a restrained creaminess. On the palate I enjoyed green apple, peach, grapefruit and lime, leading to a finish that gave me some mineral kick laced with orange and apple blossom. The wine has clear focus and real structural integrity.

As to the 2006 Cabernet/Pinotage, these winemakers are particularly proud of producing what they consider a South African Bordeaux-style blend by adding Pinotage to the Cabernet instead of the usual Merlot or Cabernet Franc. “Our aim is to over-deliver on quality.” George told me, “all the while attempting to develop and promote a distinct South African style by using Pinotage.” The dry wine has got the grip I associate with Cabernet but with distinctly soft and supple tannins. Blackberry and cassis lead the way, but the Pinotage adds its own thick fruitiness. The finish is long on extract, yet the wine is not too big in the mouth; it has a friendly feel, just the thing you want to pair with barbeque or burgers. If Pinotage is an acquired taste then this wine is the vehicle.

South African winemakers have never promulgated set rules on the components of a “Cape Blend”. Most contain between 30% and 70% Pinotage in a blend with other red wines. The 2006 Sebeka Cape Blend leads with Shiraz. While I enjoyed both blends, it is interesting to compare this Cape Blend to the Sebeka Cabernet/Pinotage; by leading with Shiraz, the winemakers create an entirely different mouthfeel. The wine is deep purple. The first aromas were violet, dried fruit, blackberry jam, and smoky dried herb. Though dry, the Cape Blend brings in a touch of residual sugar. The palate mirrors the nose and adds some deeply extracted red fruit, black cherry, with spicy back notes of black pepper and clove, a slight, earthy minerality, and a long, ripe finish. The key to this wine is its acidity, which brings extracted fruit to the entire mouth, resulting in an admirable depth of flavor.

The Pinotage experience in these two blends was instructive and successful for me. My previous forays into the world of this grape hammered home the notion of “acquired taste” without adding that acquisition to my savory balance sheet. But now I understand both the pitfalls and the promise of Pinotage done right. Its key feature is naturally dense fruit (we cannot ascribe the usual fruit analogues so easily but, yes, it's fruit all right). When the grapes are sourced and vinified with skill, Pinotage shows its potential as a major regional grape.


Verdict: An African original
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South Africa keeps bring exciting wines to our shores. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, their vintages are actually six months earlier that our own; they harvest in January and February.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

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Andries Blake, Elliot Essman, George Neveling
The author enjoys the Cape Blend with winemaker Andries Blake (l) and George Neveling, General Manager of South Africa's Swartland Winery.

Sebeka wines point of sale display
Sebeka's point of sale displays are rather colorful...

Sebeka wines synthetic closures
...and so are the Sebeka synthetic closures.

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