For Pierre Marais, these are the best of times.
"We've got a new government, a new president, a new flag and everything's going to be a great success now," he said in his broad South African accent as we sat in a Baltimore restaurant.
Then the waiter poured the first wine and we raised our glasses in a toast to President Nelson Mandela.
Mr. Marais, more than most white South Africans, has ample reason to rejoice at the fall of apartheid and the rise of majority rule. He is manager and cellar master for the Bergkelder, a large consortium of South African wineries, and for him the ascension of President Mandela means he's no longer a pariah when he goes to sell his wines abroad.
For American consumers, it is especially gratifying to welcome South Africa back into the community of wine-producing nations. Because of their unfamiliarity, South African wines tend to be moderately priced, and the quality is sometimes excellent.
South Africa is a country with a proud wine tradition. More than 300 years ago, almost a century before the Franciscan friars brought the vine to California, Dutch settlers realized the winegrowing potential of the cool slopes near the Cape of Good Hope. By the early 19th century, a South African wine called Constantia was prized in Europe.
The late 20th century hasn't been so kind. Just as South African wineries were beginning to build a substantial export market, international revulsion at the nation's white supremacist policies began to grow. Apartheid made the sale of South African wine difficult long before the formal sanctions imposed during the 1980s made it impossible.
Mr. Marais, a friendly, self-effacing man with a bushy mustache, remembers feeling very isolated during that period. South African winemakers tried tokeep up with developments in the outside world, but with no sales to bankroll travel, it was difficult.
Starting last year, with the easing of sanctions, that began to change.
"Everybody's now curious about South Africa, so you are really received with open arms," Mr. Marais said.
Many of the wines deserve an enthusiastic reception. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot seem to thrive in the Cape region, while sauvignon blanc shows great promise and chardonnay at least holds its own. Pinotage, a crossing of Burgundy's pinot noir and the Rhone Valley's syrah, ranges from delightful to dreadful.
Mr. Marais' organization, the Bergkelder (Mountain Cellar), combines aspects of a winery, a cooperative, exporter and university research station. It operates under a variety of labels, including Fleur du Cap, La Motte, Middlevlei, Meerlust and Stellenryck. In some cases the Bergkelder's staff makes the wines; in others it sells wines made by others.
The quality of the Bergkelder's wines is variable. Some are overwhelmed by rustic, offbeat flavors that make you wonder whether the winemaker has been isolated from the rest of the world too long. Others are excellent by any measure.
The most successful wines were the reds sold under the Meerlust label. Meerlust, in the Stellenbosch region, is a privately owned estate represented by the Bergkelder, and judging by the three reds I tasted, it is the crown jewel of the collection.
The finest was Meerlust's 1987 Rubicon, a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. For structure, complexity and length it rivaled the best of its counterparts in the Medoc. Its flavors -- black cherry, sweet oak, pipe tobacco and red meat -- were reminiscent of the Napa Valley.
The 1986 Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon and 1987 Meerlust Merlot were just a step behind. Both are complex, intensely flavorful wines that can be drunk now or kept for a decade or longer. The Meerlust wines will be priced about $16, well in line with their quality.
The chardonnays were less impressive, but one -- the 1991 Stellenryck -- was a fine value at about $9. It was elegant, restrained and very well-balanced, with pleasant hints of mineral and smoke.
Probably the most widely distributed of the Bergkelder labels is Fleur du Cap. The 1992 chardonnay is a very flavorful, lighter-styled wine, but the other Fleur du Cap dry table wines I tasted (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinotage) were unexciting. For a better example of pinotage, try the 1989 from Middlevlei ($9), a small estate in Stellenbosch. It might remind you of a good red from southern France, such as Minervois or Corbieres.
Fleur du Cap did offer one astonishing dessert wine. Its 1990 Noble Late Harvest, a chenin blanc turned into golden nectar by the "noble rot," is an exceptionally sweet wine with wonderful flavors of honey, apricot, pear and peach. Its racy acidity and tremendous persistence on the palate reminded me of some of the best dessert wines of the Loire Valley. At $8 a half-bottle, this is one of the greatest values in dessert wine you can ever hope to find.
The wines of the Bergkelder were good enough to stimulate my curiosity about other South African wines. Because few are available so far inMaryland, I was forced to go to Virginia and the District of Columbia.
None of the wines found there could rival the gems from Meerlust, but there were several that merit the interest of retailers and consumers.
One exceptional value was the crisp, clean, lightly herbal 1993 Goiya Kgeisie chardonnay-sauvignon blanc blend from Vrdendal Co-op. At $6, it was a steal.
Another winery that showed a flair with whites was Ruiterbosch, which offered a pleasant, medium-bodied 1992 chardonnay ($12) and a crisp, minerally 1993 sauvignon blanc ($10) that resembled a good white Bordeaux.
Among the reds, there were some encouraging highs and pitiful lows.Judging by its expensive but mediocre 1988 pinotage and 1989 cabernet sauvignon, the Nederburg winery from the Paarl region is not one to seek out. But the 1990 Groot Constantia Landgoedwyn, an imaginative blend of shiraz, cabernet franc and merlot, is a surprisingly elegant, well-structure wine for only $9.
South Africa will probably never become a dominant exporter of wine to the United States. Competition for scarce shelf space has never been more intense, and consumers aren't used to thinking of South Africa as a land that produces wines.
Still, there's no reason to hope South African wine can secure a comfortable niche in the American market. After all, in less than a year it has gone from being one of the most politically incorrect products in the world to one of the most progressive purchases you can make.
WINE OF THE WEEK
1991 Vina Mayor, Ribera del Duero ($8). This exceptionally well-made, medium-bodied Spanish red wine offers lush fruit, intense black cherry and herb flavors and a surprising elegance for a wine that had been a bit rustic in past vintages. Drink over the next two years.