When the industry promotional group Wines of South Africa (WOSA) planned its 2014 U.S. tour, it included a stop in New Orleans. It worked in conjunction with the PBS show Original Fare, which was shooting an episode on wine bars across the country, and Pearl Wine Co. was filmed for the show because of its selection of South African wines, says owner Leora Madden.
Shortly after the New Orleans event, WOSA invited Madden and a handful of U.S. retailers on a 10-day tour of South African wineries. The tour shed light on the development of the nation's wine industry.
"It was unbelievable," Madden says. "We spent three days in Stellenbosch, seeing at least two dozen producers a day and tasting more than 200 wines a day."
The group also picked grapes with winemakers, visited cellars to observe the fermentation processes, tasted wines from barrels and visited Graham Beck Nature Reserve.
"The typography, geography, the soils, which are mostly made up of decomposed granite, are in drastically different climates within very short distances apart and I think that's what makes South African wines so fascinating."
Wine production began very modestly in South Africa with the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century. Eventually, exports to Britain helped encourage the growth of an industry, but it wasn't until the 1950s that winemaking took off, as vintners were successfully producing affordable white table wines. In recent decades, South African winemakers have gained acclaim for high-quality reds and whites.
Stellenbosch produces highly regarded sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs and is the country's largest regional exporter, Madden says, adding, "The most important thing I got from the trip is that the Swartland is currently the best wine-producing region in South Africa."
Madden met with some top winemakers who were attracted to the region.
"I met a number of distinguished winemakers I've been following through the years," she says. "That was the highlight of the trip, to meet and chat with these winemakers and several of them are coming to New Orleans in September."
"We blind-tasted with the cellarmaster at Chocolate Block in Swartland," she said. Boekenhoutskloof's The Chocolate Block is a complex blend of primarily syrah, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, cinsault and viognier. It's among to a wave of new South African red blends that are drawing attention around the globe.
"We visited a new AOC (the South African designation for a wine produced entirely with grapes from a specific region), Hemel-en-Aarde, which is producing some of the best pinot noir I've ever had," Madden says.
"I tasted a Sadie Family syrah- mourvedre blend and had never dreamed I would taste a wine of that stature and quality from South Africa," she adds.
At Pearl, the shop she purchased a year ago and renamed after her great-grandmother, Madden stocks the syrah-mourvedre blend as well as white and sparkling wines from the A.E. Badenhorst and Mulderbosch wineries and red wines such as Wildekrans pinotage, featuring one of the nation's signature red grapes. The shop hosts a tasting of South African wine on Wednesday, May 28.
Pearl Wine Co. is at 3700 Orleans Ave., (504) 483-6314; www.pearlwineco.com.