Africa's wine once had a reputation to rival Europe's. In the 19th century, vin de Constance, a Cape Town dessert wine, was the A-list tipple of its day, served to Napoleon on his deathbed and celebrated in print by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But before the end of apartheid in 1994, white-only rule and a system of paying black workers in highly alcoholic runoff had left a pronounced sour taste in international markets. Postapartheid, South African wine has reformed there are growing numbers of black customers and vintners but its quality has come under fresh attack. In April 2008, critic Jane MacQuitty stunned the country's wine industry when she announced in the London Times that several South African reds had a "tell-tale dirty, rubbery ... pong" and were "a cruddy, stomach-heaving and palate-crippling disappointment."
In response, Stellenbosch University launched an investigation and found that two South African reds did have a burnt-rubber taste but it was not specific to varietal, year or even South Africa, appearing in wines from other countries too. And the answer to how South Africa can produce some of the world's best and most keenly priced wines but still catch flak internationally is obvious to anyone who has compared a thousand-bottle wine list in Cape Town to the tiny shelf of cheap table wine labeled South African in their local store. "We export the crud," says a manager at a leading Cape Winelands exporter, requesting anonymity.
As with fine wine in France or Italy, the trick is to buy at source. If you're in the country from August to October, head for the Cape Winemakers Guild auction, www.capewinemakersguild.com, to be held this year on Oct. 3. Or try the Soweto Wine Festival, www.sowetowinefestival.co.za, on Sept. 4-5. If you're overseas, contact an exporter like Wine Cellar, www.winecellar.co.za, or Caroline's Fine Wine Cellar, carolineswine.com. Both assemble tailor-made consignments and ship to your door. The word this year is that the sauvignon blancs, always good, may be great enough to reconquer Europe all over again.