There were many inspiring anecdotes shared and revelations had as I travelled through South African wine country a few weeks back. Although it’s not the same as the 30-plus hours of travel to set foot on the continent, much of the quality and deliciousness of the country’s finest offerings can be found by enjoying them at some of Vancouver’s best restaurants, where local sommeliers are increasingly waving the South African flag.
The first winery I visited was BLANKbottle in the Western Cape, where proprietor and winemaker Pieter Walser crafts 47 unique wines from 60 different vineyards. Part mad scientist, with a punk mindset and full of passion, Walser has a lengthy roster of wines that offer colourful, charismatic expressions of local terroir.
When sharing his red blend dubbed The Life of a Black Valentine, he spoke to a past era of South African wine a few decades back, when there were issues with making bolder wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. The small berries’ thick skin made for headaches in the winery, as having less juice to keep things moving in the pumps would cause the skins to block them up. The remedy at the time was to add another variety to ease the flow. Cinsault is a grape with thinner skin and plenty of juice, so it was often added to the mix but rarely mentioned on the label. The resulting wines were generally fresher and livelier than your average Cabernet Sauvignon, with the fruitiness of Cinsault making things a little more buoyant.
Although this workaround became largely unnecessary as winery technology and winemaking methods evolved, many of the current generation of South African winemakers are fond of that profile and increasingly turning to Cinsault to lift up their red blends.
Walser’s Black Valentine harks back to this secret addition of something quite lovely, and it’s a multivintage blend that also incorporates Syrah and Mourvèdre, making for a berry-and-plum-laden wine spiked with pepper and herbes de Provence.
Local sommelier Van Doren Chan has an affinity for the wine, proudly pouring it by the glass ($15) at Ugly Dumpling (1590 Commercial Drive), her Asian-street-food-inspired hot spot. Do stop by for a pour; I’m thinking their crispy-skin aged duck breast with yuzu kosho and baby lettuce—or pork and duck rillette with five spice, garlic scapes, and Livia sourdough—will come up a treat.
For those who find themselves captivated by the wine, Liberty Wine Merchants (1622 Commercial Drive) has a small handful of BLANKbottle selections.
Over at Hawksworth Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (801 West Georgia Street), wine director Bryant Mao is pouring a dynamite Chenin Blanc, which is South Africa’s most planted variety. Bellingham “Bernard Series” Chenin Blanc 2017 ($17 per glass) is composed of old-vine fruit from Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Darling and is aged in just enough French oak to bring a light, toasty character to vibrant tropical fruit like mango, pineapple, and papaya. The wine’s bright acidity will be a lovely accompaniment to chef David Hawksworth’s foie gras parfait with pineapple and pickled mushrooms, or his smoked-cod ravioli with fennel, buttermilk, and tarragon oil.
Brand-spanking-new in Strathcona is VV Tapas Lounge (957 East Hastings Street), brought to us by Chase McLeod and Rachelle Goudreau, formerly of (now shuttered) Mission in Kitsilano and Provence Marinaside, respectively. Fun small plates include fodder like devilled duck egg with white beans, crispy andouille and croutons, and lamb scrapple with Brussels sprouts and dehydrated tomato. There are a couple South African gems on the list here. Protea Chenin Blanc 2018 ($10 per glass) is an easy sipper with elevated aromatics of jasmine and lemon blossom, then waves of mineral citrus fruit on the palate. Those who are wanting to go big can opt for Anthonij Rupert Optima 2013 ($22 per glass), from Franschhoek. The wine is a blend of 50 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 percent Merlot, 17 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and three percent Malbec, and winemaker Dawie Botha oversaw double sorting of the grapes before a cold soak, a 20-day fermentation, and a couple years’ aging in both oak and steel tanks. This wine is just hitting its stride with dark berry flavours, dusty cocoa, and well-integrated tannins.
Finally, for a dead-simple South African wine experience on the cheap, pick up a bottle of Protea Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (Western Cape; $14.99, B.C. Liquor Stores), and then swing by African Breese Specialty Foods (3654 West 4th Avenue) and nab some authentic biltong. The South African take on beef jerky, often incorporating coriander and mustard seed, is quite addictive and will be very enjoyable with your feet up while sipping on that currant- and spice-driven bargain of a wine.