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Tale of the tasting: South African bargains hold their own

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If there’s a single takeaway from the blind tastings we conducted through the summer and fall, it’s that today there’s an abundance of enjoyable wine at all price points, but particularly in the $8- to $12-a-bottle range that is the sweet spot for this column.

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We’re woefully behind in reporting the results of those tastings (due to numerous day-job commitments—for which we are seasonably thankful—that kept the wine writing on the back burner for weeks). So since we’re not reporting in real time, there’s no reason we can’t skip ahead to the 10th in our series of tastings, for no other reason than to explore a winemaking region that produces some great values but has been grossly under-represented here. (We promise to pick up with tastings six through nine shortly.)

We’ve only occasionally featured South African wines here. Most recently in “Tale of the tasting: a pair of $7 white wines shine,” in which the most expensive wine in the tasting was a $15 to $22 South African that shared top score among whites with a Chilean sauvignon blanc costing as little as $7 a bottle. More representative of the values being imported from South Africa is Ken Forrester “Petit” Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot from the country’s Western Cape region, featured in “This red wine bargain didn't last, it got better!” and widely available for less than $10 a bottle.

The 2012 vintage of “Petit” Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot was included in our 10th tasting back in August (supplied as a sample by the distributor), and scored a respectable average of 2.56 stars on the Wine for the Rest of Us five-star scale (see below), earning four or more stars from two of the 10 tasters (and a “best of the reds” note from one taster who neglected to award star ratings). Yet it was outscored by a somewhat more expensive South African blend, Kanonkop Kadette Stellenbosch 2011 (3.28 stars), and an inexpensive California cabernet, HandCraft Cabernet Sauvignon California 2011 (3.31). All three of the reds are reasonably priced—the Kanonkop Kadette (distributor sample) has been on sale for $11.99 a bottle at Calvert Woodley but more typically sells for $13 to $15 a bottle at shops like Rodman’s and Cairo Wine & Liquor.

“Hardy without being overpowering,” is how one of our tasters described the Kanonkop, noting its “full mouth feel.”

“Offers notes of plum cake, raspberry, bitter cherry and tobacco, with a hint of briar showing on the finish,” according to Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth.

Kanonkop Kadette from Stellenbosch, South Africa’s largest winemaking region, is a blend made predominantly from the native pinotage grape, with the Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot and just a splash of cabernet franc playing supporting roles.

“So-called Cape red blends are controversial, largely because of the inclusion of Pinotage, which can dominate other varieties to a remarkable degree,” writes Tim Atkin, a Master of Wine, on his eponymous website. “But that's not the case here. … This is a classy, nuanced red, with well judged oak, fine tannins and leafy, grassy Cabernet combined with sweeter, raspberry notes from the Pinotage.”

Molesworth also liked the Ken Forrester Petit, describing the 2012 vintage as “Forward, offering berry, grilled herb, vanilla and grapy notes, with a soft, slightly jammy edge on the finish.”

The one non-South African wine in our tasting was the crowd favorite—albeit by the slightest fraction of a star. And HandCraft Cabernet Sauvignon (winery sample) is also a favorite of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Steve Heimoff, as well as a rare bargain this month for Montgomery County wine drinkers.

“What a wonderful Cabernet this is for the price,” Heimoff writes in the December 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast. He loves it at $13 a bottle, but it’s available at Total Wine in Virginia and Maryland for $10.99 a bottle and is on sale at Montgomery County Liquor stores for just $9.99.

“It’s softly gentle in black cherries, cola, mocha and dusty tannins, finishing with a long, sweet spiciness,” according to Heimoff.

“Wonderful!” is how two of our tasters started their notes. “Silky mouth feel; almost no burn,” wrote one. “Would love this with some smoky sausage or steak.”

The Wine for the Rest of Us Tasting Panel is made up of casual wine drinkers, not necessarily enthusiasts (though we include a token food and wine professional in most tastings for balance). The tastings are double blind—meaning the tasters not only don't know the producer or price (single blind), but also don't know the type of grapes used or place of origin. And the wines are scored on this five-star rating scale:

* Yuk, where’s the spit bucket?
** Drinkable, but I don’t need another taste, thanks. …
*** I like this, please fill my glass.
**** I love it; I’d buy a bottle if it’s less than $20.
***** This one’s a ringer; what’s this $35 bottle doing at this two-bit tasting?

In this August tasting, the Panel was not quite as enthusiastic about the whites they sampled—a pair of wines made from the chenin blanc grape. Raats Original Chenin Blanc Unwooded South Africa 2012 (distributor sample) earned a solid average of 2.61 stars from the Tasting Panel members, who cited its balance and some pleasant fruit flavors but were otherwise stingy with their praise. Raats Chenin Blanc averages $13 a bottle nationally ($15.99 at Finewine.com and $16.99 at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits), while De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2012 (distributor sample) averages $31 a bottle nationally and costs $32.99 at MacArthur Beverages. Yet it earned just a fraction of a star on average more from our tasters (2.78).

Most tasters were pretty close on their price guesstimate on the Raats, putting it in the $10 to $12 price range. But six of the 10 tasters thought the expensive De Morgenzon cost $10 or less, and only two pegged it for a $12 to $20 wine. (No one correctly identified it in the > $20 class.)

“Full bodied, very round and heavy in mouth feel,” wrote one who thought it cost $12 to $20. “Velvety and lush, but couldn’t drink it all night.”

And that’s probably a good thing, because that would be an expensive proposition. Why spend more than $30 on a bottle of wine, when a $13 bottle tastes just about as good?

Cheers!

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