Have you ever had a South African wine? Well now is a great time to start. You may have seen some SA wine at your local wine shop, fallen in love with a bottle of The Chocolate Block, or laughed when you first saw a bottle of Goats do Roam. But for many of us, it stopped there. South Africa has a long history of wine making dating back to the 17th century (more on that later). More recently, the wines coming out of South Africa are very worthy of your attention. They’re new world, yet old world, familiar, yet unusual, and best of all, there are some great values to be found. Read of to learn a bit more about South African wine.
Fast Facts about South African Wine
- South Africa is the 8th largest wine producing region in the world.
- In South Africa, wineries/vineyards are called wine farms.
- South Africa is one of the oldest wine regions outside of Europe.
- There are over 1000 wine farms in South Africa.
- The wine production area is called the Cape Winelands.
- Grape varieties are called cultivars.
- Almost 100% of the wine made in South Africa is produced sustainably.
- Because the seasons are flipped from the northern hemisphere, harvest is SA is in February, March, and April.
History of South African Wine
First Grapes Arrive in South Africa
The first vitis vinifera grapes that came to South Africa arrived with Dutch explorers. They were searching for a place to make a pit stop as they explored the southern hemisphere. They settled in Cape Town and Jan Van Riebeek was tasked with planting the first vineyards. It was erroneously thought that grapes would cure the sailors of scurvy. The first harvest was in 1659 (100 years before California ever saw a grape, for perspective). It’s because of this early foundation of wine that South Africa toes the line between Old World and New World. The first grapes of SA were the popular grapes of the time (imagine, Cabernet Sauvignon hadn’t even been born yet); Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Hamburg, and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Constantia: The First Winery Established in SA
In 1685, the first winery, Constantia, was established. The winery still exists today. The Dutch influence is still dominant in the South African wine industry, hence why the names of producers and the names of the wine regions are Dutch though it was ruled by the British in the 1800s. South Africa served as a backup supply of wine for the British whenever they were feuding over tariffs or at war with the French.
Like most of the world, South Africa was plagued by phylloxera (phylloxera is a nasty tiny bug whose only purpose in life is to destroy grapevines…and it did destroy most grapevines around the world). When farmers replanted, they opted for high-yielding grapes like Cinsault. Pinotage was also formed, a grape made almost exclusively in SA. It is a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir. Grape growing in SA got a bit out of hand; supply far outweighed demand. To help control quality, yields, and supply, the winemakers association, Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt, was formed. While this sounds great, it was a bit too strict and it stunted any creativity winemakers would have.
Fast forward to Apartheid. Obviously this is a bigger discussion than a beginner’s look at South African wine can cover. Perhaps over a humungous glass of Chenin Blanc. I digress. Sanctions were levied against South Africa until Apartheid ended. Because South Africa was excluded from most international exports, they had a surplus of grapes; most of which was turned into brandy. A dark period indeed. Soon following Nelson Mandela’s release, sanctions were lifted, but SA winemakers realized how much progress they had missed out on.
State of the South African Wine Industry Today
South Africa was still trying to shed its bad reputation as a bulk, cheap, crappy wine producing country at the turn of the century. The potential of SA being a star in the wine industry has always been there. The terroir is perfect for quality wine production. Slowly but surely over the last 2 decades, wines coming out of South Africa have improved dramatically. Winemakers upgraded their wineries and make a conscience shift to quality. New winemakers planted popular grapes like Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. There was an influx of new foreign investments as well. Like in Australia, “flying winemakers” began consulting and making wine in South Africa. We can debate the globalization and homogenization of wine over that same glass of Chenin Blanc, but the fact remains that South African wine improved tremendously.
Wine Regions of South Africa
The vast majority of wine farms in South Africa are located in the Western Cape region. The labelling law system in South Africa is the Wine of Origin scheme, abbreviated WO. The specific demarcated area will follow the letters WO on a label. There are 60 wine appellations in South Africa that belong to Wine of Origin quality-level wines. It breaks down even smaller from region to sub-region to district to ward. Wines of South Africa explains it way better than I ever could. Here’s a pdf file for you nerds. For our intents and purposes for South African wine basics, here are the ones you should know.
Best Wine Regions of South Africa
From the look of their Wine Routes map, you can throw a stone in any direction in Stellenbosch and hit a wine farm. Stellenbosch is the most famous wine region of South Africa. It is located in the south west corner of the continent on the coast near Cape Town. The area is hilly and has an arid Mediterranean climate but cooling ocean breezes. In my never humble opinion, this is where to get your Chenin Blanc from. They also boast great Cabernet Sauvignon for the price.
Settlers planted some of the first grapes in South Africa in Paarl. It’s not far from Cape Town and just north of Stellenbosch but has a warmer climate since it’s further inland and doesn’t have the cooling effect from the Atlantic. There are roughly 49 wineries in this region. You’ll find full bodied and spicy red in Paarl from Shiraz, Pinotage, and Cabernet. The white are bright and crisp from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.
Franschhoek is Dutch for French corner so it is no wonder that it the best place in South Africa for food and sparkling wine, and Bordeaux blends. The wine farms are located in the valley of Franschhoek surrounded by mountains. In addition to great reds, Franschhoek has excellent Semillon as well. Sparkling wine, or Cap Classique as its called in SA, is the best in Franschhoek. They focus on bubbly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, not unlike in Champagne. Some of the best restaurants in all of SA are found in Franschhoek as well.
Constantia is where the Dutch settlers first planted grapes back in 1659. It’s located just outside of Cape Town. Where are my sweet wine lovers? Constantia is also home to Vin de Constance, a famous dessert wine dating back to the 1700s. There are several wineries in the area as well as the flagship winery, Groot Constantia.
Walker Bay is located on the south coast of Africa. It is one of the coolest (temperature cool, not The Fonz cool) wine regions of South Africa. It benefits from a cooling effect from winds from Antarctica. The maritime, cool climate is perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Special mention goes to Robertson ward in Breede River Valley for making my favorite Cap Classique sparkling by Graham Beck.
Grapes Varieties in South Africa
South Africa is famous for white wines from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard, and Chardonnay. They also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (Syrah), and Pinotage. Ampelographers created Pinotage in 1924; it is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. There are also planting of Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Merlot.
You may hear South Africans refer to Chenin Blanc as Steen, this is leftover from when the Dutch arrived. Chenin Blanc in SA is delicious. You’ll find many different styles from sparkling wines, light and crisp, and full-bodied oaked wines. Chenin Blanc has very high acidity which makes it an awesome wine with food. Read more about Chenin Blanc food pairings here.
Pinotage: South Africa’s Signature Grape
Pinotage is a grape you’ll rarely find outside of SA although wineries have planted it in Zimbabwe, Australia, and even Switzerland and Brazil. Abraham Izak Perold is credited with its creation. He was attempting to create a variation of Pinot Noir that would be easier to grow in South Africa. He crossed it with the very hearty grape, Cinsault. I’ll be honest, my first 5 bottles of Pinotage that I tasted over 15 years ago, did not impress me. They smelled like burning rubber with a hint of banana. Not exactly something I would want to drink. Thankfully, winemakers have gotten the hang of the grape and producing Pinotage with a lot more red fruit and earthy character.
What else would you like to learn about South African wines? Let me know in the comments and I’ll research and report it!