The search for great wines and great wine deals is never ending, but the discovery is always more fun when there is a unique story. Exciting wines certainly can come from anywhere, and the catalyst doesn’t necessarily have to be wine itself (though it often is). This particular white value gem starts more like a Disney story, with two young men, a long journey, and a dog.
It started in 2014, when two foreign exchange students from the U.S., Walker Brown and Charles Brain, chose to embark on a 6 day, 100-mile trek through South Africa’s Wild Coast. This part of the Cape is said to be the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. On the second day of this backpacking expedition, the travelers were joined by a wandering dog that the locals called Lubanzi, who accompanied them until the night before the final morning of the trip when he disappeared.
The story of the wandering dog, the striking beauty of South Africa, and a deep appreciation of the culture of the South African people motivated the pair to return to South Africa two years later with the idea of bringing well-made, true South African wine into the U.S. market. They met with over 40 small family farms and cooperatives in an effort to build a network from which they could source quality grapes on a consistent basis. Their intent sounded idealistic, their missions statement was that they were trying to build “… a young, innovative, and socially responsible wine brand built on the concepts of collaboration & exploration, with a ‘locally run, globally minded’ mantra.”
A lot of lofty ideas to be sure, but they found the right people to work with and proceeded to do exactly that. They made two wines that, in their minds, were the best choices to represent the unique terroirs of South Africa. The red, a Rhone blend, was certainly solid if a bit undistinguished, but the Chenin Blanc rocked us, particularly for the price.
We have been selling South African wines since the early 90s and have learned that they can be a bit parochial. Chenins in particular, on the plus side, show riveting fruit, driving acidity, and some intense stony minerality. The good ones can rival the best Chenins from the Loire Vally from the likes of Huet, Foreau, or Chidane. A lot of them, however, can cost substantially more than their accomplished French counterparts. On the flip side, many of them a bit too searing with an in-your-face minerality that is off-putting for American palates.
These out-of-towners and their winemaker managed to strike a remarkable balance between the tender, dry, citrus, melon, and peach fruit and well woven in, subtle, stony minerality from the decomposed granite and shale in a bush-vine, unirrigated vineyard in Swartland. Some 80% of this came from old vines.
This is a lovely foil for fish or fowl, and presents an excellent choice for aperitif (OK, porch pounder) scenarios. Well meshed, pleasing and brightly fleshy from front to back, nothing sticks out. ‘Nicely done’, we said, figuring that this sharply packaged bottle with a complex label and tee-top natural cork (we’d never seen one quite like it) was setting us up for something in the $25-30 price range.
While much of the press we read in our research in places like the Washington Post, Forbes, Eater, and the Mother Nature Network was commending their new age, socially conscious business model, we found some enthusiastic words from James Suckling about the wine itself, “Love the dried-peach and apple character with hints of cream and apricots. Medium to full body, sliced fruit and a flavorful finish. Drink now….91 points’.
As to the drink now part, we’ll be doing plenty of that! The wine was delicious, the package was striking, and the review was compelling. But the biggest surprise was the price, a mere $11.98! The Lubanzi Chenin Blanc 2017 far over-delivers for the price point. Clearly this is no ordinary story.
As to what all of the non-wine media attention was on about, well that’s almost over the top. Brown and Brain noticed in their vineyard travels that the living conditions for South African small farmers were difficult, to say the least. They wanted to give back to the community. So half of the profits from sales go directly back to the Pebbles Project, which is an NGO that supports the families who live and work on the farms that produce the grapes. Socially conscious, a superb value and a surprisingly engaging beverage, they have all the bases covered!