Casual Fridays, South African Style
is it 1 p.m. yet? kick back and pop open a good pinotage
temping is a hellish job with few rewards and little pay. it's definitely worse than working in the food service industry, because at least there you get a free meal. back in the early 2000s, i took a "long-term" job running the reception desk at the standard bank of south africa. it was your typical phone-answering position for the majority of the first week. until friday afternoon.
that friday after 1 p.m., everyone suddenly disappeared. i assumed the staff had gone home early until i heard a noise from the kitchen. i popped my head in and saw the entire office sitting around getting wasted on south african wine.
aside from my shock at a ritual that was, what i soon learned, the norm in south africa, i had no idea that there was such a thing as a south african wine. my world was about to be rocked.
wines have been made in south africa since the 1600s, but it wasn't until the late 20th century that south african wines came into their own and began being exported in any significant amount. the two most popular growing areas of the modern era in south africa are stellenbosch, which is slightly east of cape town, and paarl, which is north of stellenbosch and farther inland.
if there is one grape that is more famous (and infamous) than any other in south africa, it is pinotage. this grape was invented in 1925 by a south african viticulture professor by crossing the cinsault and pinot noir grapes. pinot noir, being too fragile to grow in south africa's hot climate, was bolstered by cinsault's hearty character in a plant that should have been a supergrape. instead, it became the laughing stock of south african wine for decades to follow. pinotage was almost always overly earthy on the palate with burnt, charcoal-like flavors. any fruitiness tended to be under-ripe and sour. today, more and more truly great pinotages are being made, however. the golden kaan pinotage 2005 ($14, winelegacy.net) is an excellent example of just how far this upstart grape has come from its laboratory beginnings. this hearty red starts with smoky and leathery scents. the fruit flavors are bold, with mouth watering dried cranberry notes and a spicy, smoked-bacon finish. this is a great red all on its own, but it is even better with a plate of baby back ribs.
chenin blanc, or "steen" as it is nicknamed there, is the grape that most exemplifies the south african white wine taste. unfortunately, south africa has failed to make a significant foothold in the international wine market. this has led many producers to panic and uproot their older, more intensely flavored chenin blanc and instead plant younger sauvignon blanc and chardonnay vines, in an effort to compete with these better known varietals from south america, australia and new zealand. this is too bad, because a great chenin blanc, like the rudera "teddy hall" chenin blanc 2008 ($9.99, bacchus of ny, 2056 broadway at 71st st., 212-875-1200), with its signature flavors of apple, pear and stone fruit, is inexpensive, delicious and uniquely south african.
not only is sparkling wine being made in virtually every wine-producing area of the world, but it is, in many cases, being made very well. graham beck brut nv ($14.99, court square wine and spirits, 24-20 jackson ave. at pearson st., long island city, 718-707-9911) is a non-vintage sparkling wine made using the same grapes used in champagne (in this case a 54 percent chardonnay, 46 percent pinot noir mix), the same method that is used to make champagne, but at a sliver of the price. with rich citrus-like flavors of orange and vanilla, this will make you feel like a high roller without having to peel off too much cabbage.
by the end of my short tenure at the standard bank of south africa i had gained little in physical possessions, but my interest in south african wines had been piqued. it was definitely the most enjoyable temp job i ever had. without a doubt, i never looked at the phrase "casual fridays" the same way ever again.
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