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Sunday, February 17, 2008

South Africa Makes its Way Overseas...
Hell’s Kitchen has a new addition that may interest those of you with a penchant for the wines of South Africa. Xai Xai (pronounced shy-shy) is New York City’s first and only wine bar that is exclusively dedicated to bringing customers a taste of the Cape’s best offerings from key producers like Rudi Schultz, Thelema, The Foundry and Boekenhoudskloof. The brainchild of South African native Brett Curtin, alongside his two partners Tanya Hira and Dorian Gashi, offers up an innovative ambience that synthesizes the rugged elements of an African outback with a candlelit urban flavor that could only be found in the Big Apple. The menu includes selections by the bottle, glass and for tasting (a taste of any 3 selections offered by the glass is priced at 8 dollars), with generous pours and modest pricing keeping thirsty patrons in the seats. While sipping on the native fruit, tasters can nibble on a number of small plates that are also brushed w/ a South African brush, like a savory vetloek (bread fritters stuffed w/ beef) or another local favorite called pap & boerewors w/ soweto sauce (farmers sausage & tomato gravy).

I, for one, am excited to see the progressive South African wine movement take center stage in New York, and regard Xai Xai as a fine vehicle. Considering that the distribution of South African wines is still meager at best, this novel wine bar should prove to offer any inquisitive New Yorker the best access to some of the country’s top offerings. I encourage you to give their website a look and pop in next time you’re in the neighborhood,

Some of my tasting impressions throughout the evening:

Ken Forrester, Petit Chenin Blanc 2007
The cheapest Chenin Blanc available by the glass proved to be the best, as this early release from Forrester offered up as much clarity and perfume as any lover of the variety could hope for. Subtle, yet full of lovely complexities through the scents of hay, honeydew, quince and fresh dandelions that seemed to dance their way out of the glass. The palate is fresh and full of a lithe, peppy minerality that strikes a lovely chord as it echoes along on the crisp finish, 87+ points.

Spice Route, Chenin Blanc 2006
This was a very disappointing showing, especially after how well the Forrester showed. A much smokier, denser expression, with a dollop of spicy toast, fig, sour custard and honeyed tea notes that are thicker, yet bland and somewhat clumsy in comparison to the Forrester. Sometimes Chenin doesn’t take as well to new oak as you’d hope, and one can only do just that, hope that this wine will come around in the cellar, 82+ points.

The Foundry, Viognier 2006
Yet again, another odd surprise as this was perhaps the least varietally correct version of Viognier I’d had in months. The nose completely lacks any telltale aromatic explosiveness one would expect from a Viognier and is a bit marred by specks of green-ness that leave me a bit confused. Scents of turnip, celery root and white flowers turn a bit thicker on the palate, hinting at apricot skins and green apple, but come off as a bit blowzy on the finish, 84 points.

*note, the first flight was entirely under screw-cap, go South Africa!

Thelema, Rhine Riesling, 2005
This is a producer that I’ve actually had enough to say that they flat out get it down, from the top to bottom of their portfolio. A rock solid Riesling, w/ a great beam of citrus blossom, slate, apple and lime notes that zip through the persistent, sharp and bone dry finish that leaves your mouth watering for another sip, 88 points.

Tumara, Pinotage 2005
Whether or not Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) will ever become South Africa’s ‘staple grape’ remains to be seen (personally, I think Syrah is where their bread is buttered), but this example is as polarizing as any. The wine begins w/ the telltale smoked pickle barrel notes and hints of charred fruits (the Cinsault’s rusiticty is doing the talking) but them picks up beautifully on the palate, w/ spearmint, plum and pure cherry fruit that is as silky, sweet and knee-buckling as any Pinot Noir you’ll ever taste. While a little rambunctious and earthy at first, it’s all there when it comes to texture. A solid example of a head-scratching grape variety (perhaps in need of a lithium shot), 89 points.

Tokara Zondernaam, Chardonnay 2003
I’m convinced I was accidentally poured the Sauvignon Blanc, but I’ll grade it as if it were a Chardonnay (you’ll see what I mean as you read along). A green, herby nose that is evocative of passion-fruit, gooseberry and fresh dill that turned a touch angular and dilute on the medium weight, modest finish, 78 points.

Eventide Viognier, 2006
Initially a bit toasty, but w/ aeration this reveals classic notions of fresh cut peach, apricot and hints of marmalade that remind me what Viognier is all about. Although this isn’t the most exciting example of the grape, it a solidly constructed, medium bodied and symmetrical rendition that gets the juices flowing nicely, 86 points.

Rietvallei, Shiraz 2004
Here’s where things really get interesting. I believe some producers are trying to distinguish styles of Syrah in the Cape by labeling it either Syrah or Shiraz, well this producer missed the branding class altogether because if this doesn’t taste just like a Crozes Hermitage, then I don’t know what does!? Full of tarry blackberries, dark cherry, melted asphalt and a gorgeous, mineral infused spine that cackles through the palate in as focused a fashion as any. While not a blockbuster, this ‘Syrah’ is extremely plush and symmetrical and will endear any fan of the Northern Rhone, 88+ points.

Cathedral Cellar, Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
Again, old world fans need to take note, this wine (along w/ some decent vintages of Kanonkop that I’ve enjoyed in the past) is as classy a claret as you’ll find outside of the Gironde. Elegant, medium bodied and full of mature notions that call to mind mushrooms, graphite, licorice root, spicy black currants and undergrowth. Very perfumed and just lovely in every way, this Cabernet makes up for its lack of length and power in its endearing charm, 87 points (what a much riper vintage would yield on the North Fork).

Now I didn’t get a chance to taste through any of the Schultz wines but his Syrahs are absolutely brilliant (as are the Syrahs from Niels Verburg, Boekenhoudskloof, De Trafford & Els), but I did finish things up w/ a staple Cabernet from Thelema called ‘The Mint.’ As you can guess, it’s a eucalyptus inflected Cabernet that is actually finding its way into other New York City restaurants (and usually ends up being one of the best deals at steakhouses, especially from the B.L.T. crew).

Thelema ‘The Mint’, Cabernet 2004
Such a beautifully poised and silky rendition of perhaps the more feminine side that Cabernet offers, this vintage shows lovely crushed mint, tobacco, cedar, black currant and sweet blue fruits in a silky and sultry profile. Few cabernets can show such a pretty profile and follow through w/ such mouth-watering flavors that leave you begging for another sip. For fans of Cabernet that speak w/ a whisper instead of a shout, where purity as at the forefront & craftsmanship over-rides all, 91 points.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Brad, It makes me all happy inside to see that South African wines are (albeit slowly) beginning to enjoy international acclaim. I believe our wines deserve this and I believe our project / will most definitely provide the missing key to our international exposure.


Monday, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Brad Coelho said...

Thanks for checking in! This is the tip of the iceberg and I applaud Brent & company for being the catalysts in New York City...hopefully consumers will begin to see what the Cape is all about and others will follow their lead. Hope to get to South Africa in April to see it for myself!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008  

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