The Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The Obamas
had a dinner reservation for the night
Democrats announced their presidential candidate
and the restaurant was looking for a wine
that popped but also made a statement.

That night in the private dining room at
Chicago's Blackbird restaurant, Eduard Seitan
served them a bottle of Graham Beck Brut NV
- the same sparkling wine sipped
by Nelson Mandela at his inauguration
as South Africa's first black president.

"(Obama) liked it so much that when
they had the election, they called me
and asked if they could order six more
for their Election Night party,"
Seitan said in a telephone interview
from the restaurant, where
he is co-owner and sommelier.

Graham Beck's Web site describes
the brut as a blend of chardonnay
and pinot noir grapes that creates
"a rich and creamy complexity,
with the fine mousse giving
it freshness and finesse."

South Africans this year are celebrating
the 350th anniversary of their wine industry
and note proudly that it
is generations older than
any New World wines
from Australia or South America.

The wines are relatively new to
the international market, however,
because decades of U.N. sanctions
against the country's white supremacist
government made it a rare commodity
until Mandela won
the first democratic elections in 1994.

Currently, South African wines make up
less than 1 percent of U.S. wine imports,
said Etienne Heyns, who does marketing
and sales for Graham Beck.
But the United States represents
a growing market and South Africa's wines
are getting increasing attention there.

"Forgive me if I'm excited, but I can't help it.
I want to tell you straight out that South Africa,
of all places, is one of the greatest sources
for moderately priced cabernet sauvignon
on the planet today,"
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov
gushed in a recent column.

The first to plant vines on southern African soil
was Dutch explorer and
colony leader Jan van Riebeeck, in 1655,
three years after he made land
at the Cape of Good Hope.
The original plan was to use
the indigenous wild grapes
to prevent scurvy among sailors of
the Dutch East India company when
they resupplied on their way
to the east along the spice route.

Wine-growing today remains centered around
the Cape, with vineyards stretching 250,000 acres
from the slopes of rugged mountains
to open plains and river valleys,
most near the Atlantic coast.
Old estates boast centuries-old villas
adorned with Cape Dutch gables
and most offer wine-tasting to visitors.

South Africa is the ninth biggest producer
of wines in the world, yet it has
one of the lowest consumption rates
of any wine-growing country.
Experts blame the apartheid era,
when few blacks could afford wine.

With a few exceptions, wine estate owners
still are almost all white in South Africa.
But bigger producers are starting to look
at the growing market among
middle-class urban blacks,
a tiny percentage of the population
of some 50 million.

September's Soweto Wine Festival
drew 4,500 people who tasted 850 wines
in the black township outside Johannesburg
better known for its protests
and police raids during apartheid.

Wines of South Africa, which represents
360 exporters, said 2008 was a record year
with more than 840 million pints exported,
an increase of 32 percent
over the previous year despite
tough global trading conditions
that saw declines in the exports of competitors.

Nearly 20 percent of Graham Beck's total production
is sold in the United States,
some 84,000 bottles each year.

"North America is the one area of the world
where consumers are still interested
in paying a little more for a more interesting wine,"
said Heyns.
The United States also is about the only place
in the world where there is
substantial growth in wine consumption.

"The entire South African wine industry
is looking at the U.S. as its future hope
for commercial success," he said.
"But the difficulty is this attention
comes at the worst time, with the recession."