It is hard to believe (at least for me), but we are well into our fourth year living down here in Houston. I have yet to utter “y’all” (except in an ironic, counter-culture way, naturally), but I think I am slowly adapting to the style and pace of life down here.
Don’t get me wrong, I still miss Philadelphia for a host of reasons: urban living, our quirky neighborhood, the history of the town, the bike riding. There are, though, several advantages down here deep in the heart.
The cost of living is lower than Philly (although not as low as people seem to think), our neighborhood, though far from “quirky,” is quite comfortable and practical, and the restaurant/food scene is at least on par with the Northeast (but the Mexican and Asian food is much, much better in Houston).
There is another distinct advantage: wine. Houston is much more of a wine town than is Philadelphia. While on the surface that might be surprising, those who have lived in the Commonwealth know well that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) does their inept best to stamp out any semblance of a wine culture there.
I say “have lived” since most of the current residents of the state seem to be suffering from a perverted form of Stockholm Syndrome as they inexplicably appreciate or even like the PLCB.
Fine people of the Commonwealth, I can assure you that living in a non-control state is way, way, way better than what is going on in Pennsylvania (the Texas Alcohol Control Board has plenty of issues, but it is nowhere close to the level of anti-consumer incompetence exhibited by the PLCB).
[Yes, I know there are other issues in Texas, like, say, guns, but I am focusing on just wine. Call me a cherry-picker of issues if you must.]
One example is simply the number of wine producers that visit the city. In Philly, producers, importers, distributers only had to meet with one client: the PLCB. There was little to no need to call on restaurants (they have to buy their wine at retail), or wine shops (there are none), or grocery stores (until recently, it was forbidden to sell wine in grocery stores, now, like restaurants, grocery stores can sell wine, but they have to purchase it from the PLCB at retail).
In Houston, if I were so inclined, I could likely have lunch and/or dinner with a wine producer every day of the week. Such was the case this summer when I had dinner with Johan Malan, the second generation winemaker/owner at South Africa’s renowned Simonsig Wine Estate.
As one does, we started with a couple of bottles of sparkling wine….
Frans Malan, the founder of Simonsig, introduced Kaapse Vonkel (Sparkle of the Cape) in 1971 as the first sparkling wine produced in South Africa. When, in 1992, sparkling wine producers were no longer allowed to use “Méthode Champenoise” on the label, Frans and his two sons Johan and François settled on “Méthode Cap Classique” to identify the wine.
From the beginning, Simonsig has always produced 100% vintage. sparkling wines since there is not a lot of vintage variation to justify a need for reserve wines. The bottles of bubbles are aged for a minimum of nine months to up to 12 months before disgorgement. Currently, Johan and his brother are contemplating creating a prestige category with a minimum of 36 months of aging sur lie. I will be eager to get my lips around those wines if (when?) they become available as the standard bubbles from Simonsig are stellar.
2017 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut, South Africa: Retail $18. 55% Chardonnay, 44% Pinot Noir, 1% Pinot Meunier. Bright and fruity with oodles of citrus. Clean and lovely on the palate. For $18? Easy choice. Very Good to Excellent. 88-90 Points.
2016 Simonsig Brut Rosé, South Africa: Retail $18. 64% Pinot Noir, 34% Pinotge, 2% Pinot Meunier. In the mid-2000s Johan wanted to make a sparkling rosé, but Simonsig had difficulty finding enough Pinot Noir. Johan figured that since Pinotage is genetically half Pinot (the other half is Cinsault) it would work well in sparkling form, so he decided to include it in the rosé. Fruity—tons of red fruit. Tons of backbone and verve. Lovely. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
Surprisingly (at least to me) sparkling wine is roughly only 25-30% of Simonsig’s total production. After tasting through a few of the company’s still wines, I quickly came to the conclusion that it is a shame that we do not see more in this country.
2018 Simonsig Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $14. 25k cases made. More and more South African producers are going back to using “Steen” the local name for Chenin Blanc. Under screwcap. Pear and a bit of citrus. I am a huge Chenin fan and this is a refreshingly good one. Very Good to Excellent. 88-90 Points.
2016 Simonsig Chenin avec Chène, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $36. 9-10k bottles. Wow. Comes from a single vineyard. Started with four vineyards in early 2000s but it became clear that one vineyard stood out. Whoa. Lanolin, baked apple. Whoa. Rich, full, unctuous, incredible. Outstanding 93-95 Points.
2017 Simonsig Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa: Retail $15. Under screwcap. According to Johan, people in South Africa want to drink SB and the younger the better. Perhaps 80% of white wine sold in the country is SB. Cat pee and tart citrus. Classic nose. Tart and precise. Fantastic. Very Good to Excellent. 89-91 Points.
2016 Simonsig Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $16. I am a diehard anti-fan of Pinotage. I find them funky (although I love the funk)—often resembling unwashed feet (I don’t like funky feet). Black raspberry and funk (although not feet) and peppery. Not unpleasant. Fruity, smoky, funky. Not my fave by any means, but one of the better Pinotages I can say I have tasted. Good to Very Good. 86-88 Points.
2016 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $35. Bush vines. Essentially 100% oak, mostly new, about 80% French. The rest American. Winemaker Debbie Thompson is the “Pinotage Lady” of South Africa, and she decided to use less American oak on the single-vineyard wines. Quite aromatic with vanilla and sweetness with vanilla and blackberry on the nose. Full of fruit and silky smooth with no real funk. This is Pinotage?! Lovely and close to a whoa. Excellent to Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2012 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $35. Johan claimed that: “Good Pinotage from a good vintage can last forever.” Who am I to argue? Clearly a sibling of the former, with eerily similar profile. Fantastic. Perhaps fruitier even, but more intense and refined. And Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2015 Simonsig Tiara, Stellenbosch, South Africa: Retail $35. 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. One of the greatest vintages ever in South Africa. I picked out the Cab Franc right away which was surprising since it is only 4%. Johan says it needs to have a certain femininity to it. Not trying to go big and bold. Elegance finesse balance. This is a wine to search out. Outstanding to Outstanding Plus. 94-96 Points.
After several bottles and a fantastic meal, it was time to run back home and make sure my boys had not strangled one another. As I was leaving, Johan let me know that starting this December there will be a new direct flight from Houston to Cape Town on United.
Who knows? Perhaps another feather in Houston’s cap?