I recently learned that, for the first time ever, WineShop At Home, the Napa winery I’m with, is going to make some wines this year using South African grapes. How cool is that. The news prompted me to do a little research, which I will share with you today. Thank you to Decanter, The Manual and WineCoolerDirect for their help with this article.
The History of South African Wine
South African wine started in the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company set up an outpost in Cape Town. Their intent was to stock up on wine during the long voyage from Europe to Asia and back.
After the first vintage in 1659, South African wine became one of the most popular fortified wines in Europe.
But in the late 19th century, like Europe’s vineyards, South Africa’s vineyards were decimated by phylloxera. After that, winemakers started growing high-yield grapes that brought prices down to the point where winemakers were dumping their wine into rivers instead of bottling it.
In the 20th century, most South African products were boycotted due to Apartheid. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the country’s wine started to get noticed.
What Grapes Are Used?
On the white side, the major wines are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard and Chardonnay.
On the red side, the major wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Pinotage.
Pinotage is a South African original. The grape was created in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Cinsaut is known as Hermitage in South Africa. Hence you get the combined name of Pinotage.
While Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape, it accounts for only six percent of wine grape production in the country.
Some people think of Pinotage as a poor person’s Pinot Noir. But the two grapes are actually quite distinct.
Are There Any Unusual Names for the Grapes?
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is called Steen. Trebbiano is called Ugni Blanc. Semillon is Groendruif. Muscat is Hanepoot. Riesling is sometimes called Crouchen. And Sparkling Wine that uses champenoise methods is called Method Cap Classique or MCC.
Where Is the Wine Made?
Most South African wine is produced in the southwestern part of the country, called the Western Cape. This area has a Mediterranean climate that is influenced by its proximity to the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
The wines are categorized into big geographical areas that are then broken down into regions, districts, and wards.
Key Wine Regions
Constantia is the oldest wine region. It’s located on the peninsula to the south of Cape Town and is almost completely surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian oceans. It is best known for producing Riesling, sweet Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux-style reds.
Stellenbosch is the second oldest wine region, but it’s probably the best known, accounting for about 14 percent of South Africa’s total wine production. This region is known for producing Bordeaux-style blends as well as Pinotage.
Paarl is located further inland and has a warmer climate. The region produces robust wines made from varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay.
Swartland is a hot and dry area, although it benefits from the Atlantic Ocean’s cooling effect on its western border. The grapes of note in this area include Shiraz, Chenin Blanc and Rhône blends.
Walker Bay’s cooler climate make this region well suited for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
South African Wine Style
Serious Eats says that “South African wines straddle Old World and New: the wines often smell of ripe, silky fruit, but showcase earthy flavors and finish with restraint. Because of the generally warm climate, South Africa’s red grapes in particular get very ripe and produce full, high alcohol wines. But especially in the Western Cape, the cool ocean breezes help the wines retain the bright acidity that keeps things fresh and food friendly.”
South Africa’s Wine of Origin (WO) System and Labeling
South Africa has a system called the Wines of Origin that is similar to the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system. If you see a Chenin Blanc that says Wine of Origin Stellenbosch, you know several things:
- The wine has passed a taste test.
- It’s made from at least 85% Chenin Blanc.
- Every single grape came from Stellenbosch.
If producers don’t include a Wine of Origin on their label, they’re not allowed to put a vintage, grape variety, or region on the label.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with South African wine.