A country whose wine history stretches back to 1659, South Africa enjoyed an oenological rebirth in the mid-1990s after the death of apartheid and the birth of democracy. Today it boasts nearly 600 wineries, with 247,000 acres planted in vines, and produces a range of wines that catch the attention of wine lovers throughout the world. Recently I tasted a group of new releases of South African wines in the United States — some from well-established wineries, some from wineries just entering the international market. Highberry Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($21) represents both. It hails from a new winery owned by three men with long wine experience, one of whom is Jabulani Ntshangase, the preeminent black South African in that country’s wine world. Its first release is a delicate, subtly flavored, pale-shaded wine offering excellent balance and evoking flavorful citrus fruits. New on the international market, Virgin Earth Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($19) calls to mind freshly mown grass, a basic aroma of its grape. It also offers a floral essence and a rich array of tropical fruits. With 18 percent of its vineyards planted to Chenin Blanc, South Africa is the world’s largest producer of the grape. And Terre Brulée Chenin Blanc 2014 ($16) proves an interesting example of the many paths the grape can take. The winery’s owner, from France’s Loire, produced a smoky, spicy wine with good acidity and hints of honey and citrus. Pinotage is a grape created in South Africa in the 1920s. Radford Dale Frankenstein Pinotage 2014 ($35) captures the essence of the grape with its dark color, an aroma that recalls plums and other red fruits, and a lingering finish. Thelema remains one of South Africa’s most dependable wineries, and its 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($35) continues that reputation. A smooth, stylish, complex wine, it displays dark fruit flavors and a long finish. Ken Forrester Renegade 2011 ($20) offers a blend of Syrah and Grenache and melds the flavors of both — the spice and black olive of Syrah and the earthier flavors of Grenache. They add up to a distinctive, well-structured, full-bodied wine.
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What could be better than a few days spent food and wine tasting in Northern Tuscany? I passed several days sipping delicious wines, sampling tasty food and savoring serene spa moments in Tuscany — all while escaping the mid-February doldrums in Philadelphia. My base for exploration was the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, nestled on an expansive estate overlooking the mountainous Serchio Valley. From here I easily explored the Italian cities and towns of Castelnuovo di Garfagna, Barga, Pisa and Lucca, discovering lesser-known parts of Tuscany. In addition to the spa, Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa boasts more than 18,000 square feet of meeting and event space as well as updated guestrooms and suites, two pools, on-site dining options and a spacious fitness center — making it the perfect Italian treat for couples, families or large groups. During my off-season visit, there were two large groups also staying for company meetings and incentives. Further appealing to guests is the location, offering the opportunity to easily explore the region or to stay at the resort and partake of unique offerings. The property assisted in arranging a number of my sightseeing activities, including a daytrip to Pisa for a glimpse at its iconic Leaning Tower and a visit to nearby Podere Concori Winery for an exclusive tasting of its local, biodynamic wines. The resort’s culinary experience with the chef offers a great diversion for groups of any size. I set out with both the executive chef and pastry chef on a foggy Saturday morning to peruse Barga’s local markets for fresh, vibrant ingredients before heading back to the property to prepare my own lunch from scratch — of course, with the assistance and guidance of the professionals. Travelers can curate the menus to their liking; I opted for eggplant Parmesan, spinach ravioli, fried zucchini blossoms and a fresh fruit tart. But I was also there to kick back in the spa, and relax I did with a treatment at both the beginning and end of my five-day visit. The spa’s smaller size lends an air of exclusivity to the experience; it feels as if it’s all your own. Treatments, which include facials, massages, scrubs, wraps and hair removal, use authentic and indigenous ingredients from the Serchio Valley such as lavender, rosemary, chamomile, mint, olive oil, chestnut honey and grapes.