A Guide To South African Wines
Sabrina Lueck - Enology Instructor
South Africa has a long and storied wine (or is it wijn) history. The first vines were planted in South Africa by the Dutch in the late 1650s, at the same time that Dutch merchants were draining the Medoc marsh in Bordeaux. South Africa has some of the oldest vines in the world, but quality stagnated in the mid-20th century as the extremely cooperative Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika (or KWV) dominated production and stifled many independent producers.
Despite the very high quality of wines crafted by independent producers, South Africa still struggles with the image of “cheap” wine to this day. Now, a new generation of winemakers has ushered in a quality explosion. Some are working to introduce new varieties that excite the international palate and suit the changing climate. Others are focused on revitalizing old vines. It has never been a better time to enjoy South African wines!
South African Climate
South Africa has a diversity of climates ranging from cool coastal to hot inland. However, the most recent development wave has occurred in the cool coastal regions, where the influence of the Antarctic Benguela Current brings cool air and moisture to slow ripening. Despite the cool, moist air on the coast, almost all South African regions struggle with drought.
A severe water shortage in 2017 and 2018 almost led to “day zero” where the water supply to Cape Town would be shut off. Thanks to the Cape Doctor winds which blow from the Indian ocean, fungal disease pressure is low in most regions. This makes organic and low-intervention farming an increasingly popular option.
Significant Wine Regions in South Africa
The heart of the South African wine industry, and located only one hour outside of Cape Town. The region ranges from maritime on the coast to arid inland. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc dominate and this is South Africa’s answer to the Napa Valley.
Paarl boasts significantly more vineyards than the Stellenbosch, despite being a smaller region. This arid region is home to some of the oldest Chenin Blanc vines in the country.
Despite being located in the warm Breede River Valley, this district experiences an influx of cool ocean breezes. As a result, it is home to a quarter of the country's Chardonnay vines. Nearly a dozen sparkling wine houses are located here.
Swartland went from a viticultural backwater to the home of the “new South Africa” movement thanks to the pioneering work of Charles Back, Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, and Chris and Andrea Mullineaux (amongst others). Being a backwater has it’s upside, many old, dry-farmed, bush vines have been preserved (mainly due to the region's lack of prosperity).
Cape South Coast Region:
some of the most exciting South African wines are coming from the Cape South Coast region, which was not planted a generation ago. This region traces the edge of the Atlantic and Indian ocean coastlines and the climate is the coolest that you will find in the country. There is no bulk to be found here, only boutique wines.
South African Vineyards, Grapes, and Wines
The economic isolation of apartheid, and the dominance of the KWV growers cooperative, created a culture that valued crop yield over wine quality. White grape varieties were often grown at high ton/hectare yields to maximize grower profit; and the KWV strictly dictated what could be grown, and where. Economic isolation meant that the South African industry didn’t see the changes in the outside wine world - mainly a thirst for quality wines, and the increasing popularity of dry reds.
But a quiet revolution was happening behind the scenes, as a small group of quality-minded private producers started utilizing modern cellar hygiene practices, use of new French oak barrels, and international varieties (some smuggled into the country as cuttings). Apartheid’s end coincided with a swift “modernization” of the wine industry.
French varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc were widely planted. But modernization has a cost and many older vineyards were pulled up. Most of these older sites were suitable for the brandy industry, and not for fine wine production. However, some were older plantings of Chenin Blanc with the potential to produce exciting wines. Luckily, the South African Old Vine Project is the most comprehensive old vines database in the world. This project champions the virtues of old vines so that their value is not lost.
From a style perspective, South African wines seem to have one foot in the old world, and one in the new. Fresh acidity, and structured tannins abound. Fruit flavors are front and center, but rarely cartoonish or overblown. Here’s what to expect from some of the major varieties grown in South Africa:
A relatively small portion of South Africa’s Chardonnay is dedicated to the new style of terroir-driven still wines. Expect fresh acidity, and the tropical or citrus flavors you love in California Chardonnay, but with a lighter touch. South African producers have been exploring the new cool climate coastal regions including Eglin, to great effect.
Chenin Blanc (Steen):
South Africa’s flagship variety. After apartheid ended, many producers removed Chenin Blanc vineyards in favor of more popular international varieties. Thankfully, there is renewed interest in the variety and a new generation of producers are crafting exciting styles, often from old vines. The Old Vines Project estimates that over half of the South African vines over 35 years old are Chenin Blanc. You may be familiar with Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, with steely acidity often balanced by sweetness. South African Chenin Blanc is richer and dryer in style, and often made using techniques popular with Chardonnay - lees aging, bâtonnage, and malolactic fermentation for rounded texture. Imagine your favorite Chardonnay, but with floral aromas and more acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc had a strong foothold in South Africa at least 75 years before it landed in New Zealand. But the first varietally labeled Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t bottled until 1977. Sauvignon Blanc is making up for lost time and is expanding more rapidly than any other variety in the country. Expect a more green and grassy style of wine when compared to tropical Marlborough or riper Napa Valley.
The world’s most planted grape variety is very important to the modern South African wine industry. Single variety bottlings and Bordeaux-style blends are among the most prestigious wines produced in the country. Despite the ripe fruit character, the style is often restrained when compared to other regions such as Napa Valley, Washington, or Barossa Valley. This is partially due to herbaceous flavors, and the more subtle oak use which is common across the country.
South Africa’s signature red variety, which faces an uphill PR battle. It has a legitimately gained reputation for astringent tannins and rubbery aromas. However, thoughtful modern winemaking has shown that these qualities may be more tied to poor practices than the inherent qualities of the grape. Pinotage was created in the early 20th century as a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (locally known as Hermitage). Both of these varieties thrive in cool to moderate regions, but Pinotage has historically planted in much hotter sites. Newer plantings in cooler regions are coaxing out the delicate flavors, and showing the true potential of the variety. Expect the classic red fruit flavors of Pinot Noir, but with a warmer alcohol level.
Syrah was first planted in the late 19th century. However, the variety didn’t take off until the world developed a thirst for Australian Shiraz. You can see Syrah and Shiraz used interchangeably on labels. Riper, Aussie-style wines are often labeled “Shiraz” while producers who look to the Rhône for inspiration often label with the French “Syrah”. Expect a diversity of styles, as this variety is planted in warm and cool regions alike. But the just like Cabernet Sauvignon, you can expect a ripe fruit profile, but with more restraint than other regions such as the Barossa Valley.
If this South African wine guide has you intrigued to taste some of the country's spectacular wines, see our recent South African imports for the International Wine Club, crafted by Crastino Wines! Or, sign up for yourself and start discovering some of the world's best international wines.