Table of Contents
A Complete Beginner’s Guide to South African Wines
South Africa has nearly a 400-year history of producing wine and some of the oldest vines in the world. It exports hundreds of millions of liters every year, and yet it is a region that is often overlooked. But why?
South African wines benefit from the cool coastal climate, rich ancient soils, and high mountains. But years of political turmoil and outside influence stifled South Africa’s ability to export high-quality wines for much of its history. Today, while there is still some low-quality bulk production, there are a number of elite wineries devoted to quality and creating delicious, interesting, and drinkable wines.
A Brief History
South Africa’s first wines were made by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, after they discovered vines growing on the Western Cape. Seeing the economic promise of the region, French colonists brought back French vine cuttings to be planted and harvested.
Within twenty years of its first plantings, South Africa became known for its exquisite sweet wine, Vin de Constance, which was vinified in Constantia, just south of Cape Town. The wine was reportedly ordered by the case by Napoleon Bonaparte, and loved by Germany’s King Frederick the Great and even Jane Austen. Vin de Constance is still produced to this day.
Since the abolition of slavery in 1834, South African colonies experienced war, depression, and
the insertion of British colonies into the Union of South Africa, increasing hardships and political uncertainty. South Africa’s economy looked to precious gems rather than wine for economic stability, and the industry suffered.
In 1918, wine production once again rose to the forefront at the formation of the KWV (Cooperative Winegrowers’ Association), and high-quality, individual estates began growing rapidly well into the 1970s. Although South Africa was producing extraordinary wines by this point, the region was still isolated from the rest of the world.
It was not until the end of apartheid in 1991 that South Africa was able to begin to export its wines to the rest of the world. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison signaled a new political era and the lifting of trade sanctions and embargoes. South Africa’s modern wine revolution had begun.
The international adoption of South African wine has been prolific and winemakers and wineries are receiving recognition. Abrie Beeslaar, of Kanonkop, South Africa’s renowned wine estate in Stellenbosch, was crowned as the International Winemaker of the Year during the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2021. The second time winning the award after receiving the top accolade in 2008.
Wine of Origin System
Like most wine-producing countries, South Africa designates a series of wine-producing regions, known as appellations, layered within one another. There are six main “Wines of Origin” (WO) designations, and within those are districts which are then further divided into wards based on their terroir, or soil. The most elite wines come from single vineyards, which are areas of less than six hectares producing only one single grape.
South Africa’s WO system, established in 1973, designates that the wine has been approved by a tasting panel, and that 100% of the grapes used derive from the region stated on the bottle. It also requires a single-varietal wine to contain at least 85% of said grapes. For comparison, the US requires a minimum of 75% of varietal-correct grapes to be used.
Major Wine Regions
South African wine country clusters around Cape Town, and fans out towards the mountains. Along the coast, vineyards are strongly influenced by the cool Benguela Current and sea breezes. South African soil is both diverse and ancient, with granite, sandstone, and shale deposits that give its wines their character.
The largest geographical unit in South Africa is the Coastal Region, which contains every official appellation except those in the Northern Cape region. Below, we’ve summarized the major wine districts you need to know to find the best of the best of South African wine.
Although Cape Town was only designated as an official wine region in 2017, within it lies the historical estate of Constantia, an extension of table mountain, dating back to the 17th century. Although Constantia’s sweet wine is made from Muscat grapes, dry wines are also produced, including the exquisite Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc.
Cape Point extends along the town’s windy coastline along Chapman’s Peak and makes for elegant Sauvignon grapes with mineral tones and great complexity. Cape Point Vineyard’s Isliedh is a Cape classic, with 11 maximum Platter’s 5-star ratings since its 2003 debut.
The hot, dry weather of Swartland is juxtaposed by the cool sea breezes of the Atlantic. The region is famous for its old vines of Chenin Blanc and Syrah, many of which are over 90 years old. Shale, sandstone and granite soils produce pure, mineral-driven wines. Some of the best of these are produced by AA Badenhorst, a family-owned winery producing natural wines with traditional equipment.
Many of South Africa’s most famous estates reside in Stellenbosch, a picturesque region defined by its academic center, the city of Stellenbosch. Virtually all of South Africa’s main varietals are produced here, but it is best known for its outstanding red blends. Look out for vintners such as Kanonkop and Meerlust, both of which produce unmatched examples of Cape Blends.
Stellenbosch borders the Paarl district to the north, which is mainly known for its Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Syrah production, and the Elgin Valley to the east, all of which benefit from the cool maritime climate of the coast.
Cape South Coast
The South Coast is the coolest wine-growing region in South Africa, due to the proximity of the Atlantic winds. Its districts include Walker Bay, where vineyards thrive as high as 200-420m. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Pinotage thrive here. Strong south-easterly winds allow for very late ripening, making the wines in this region aromatic and lush.
Major Wine Varietals
Winemakers of South Africa know the value of diversity, which helps explain the region’s eclectic mix of red and white grapes. However, it was not always this way; in 1996, 80% of vineyard area was planted with white-wine varietals, most of which were used for brandy production. As of 2017, things have become more balanced, with about 55% of vineyard area dedicated to white grapes.
While almost all varietals planted are European in origin, South Africa does hold claim to Pinotage, the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that was first bottled and sold in 1961.
Major White Varietals
From its inception as a wine country, the principal grape of South Africa has been Chenin Blanc (also known by its other name, Steen). It remains the most-planted variety to this day. If you are a fan of dry whites such as Pinot Gris, it’s worth swapping out your usual dinner-table white for a bottle of South African Chenin.
Second only to Chenin in production is Colombard, another white grape that drinks well on its own but is often used in blends. Also known as Colombar, it is commonly used in brandy production, a major output of South Africa.
South African Sauvignon Blanc can range from crisp and mineral to herbaceous, tangy wines. Most vines are new plantings, making up 9.8% of white varietals produced.
Chardonnay is one of the most important white grapes in South Africa. Its style can vary between the humble, dry weeknight wines to the complex and creamy. It is also used in the production of MCC sparkling wines that are lively and exciting.
Other White Varietals
Both Muscat and Sémillon are important varietals across South Africa. Muscat Blanc is used in the production of the famous Vin de Constance, the luscious dessert wine, and Sémillon was one of the first varietals planted by colonists. Today, it is most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc.
Major Red Varietals
With over 30,000 acres devoted to Cabernet, it makes up 11.5% of all red varietal plantings. Drank on its own or blended with traditional Bordeaux varietals, it stands out as a delightfully fruit-forward and ripe alternative to big California reds. The cool coastal climate produces wines full of blackberries, herbs and green pepper, and the warmer vineyards express classic cassis, blackcurrants, eucalyptus, and chocolate notes.
Also known as Shiraz, South African Syrah often resembles those of the Rhône Valley. Rich and ripe, they spill peppery, gamey notes on your palate. Syrah makes up just over 10% of red-wine plantings, with over 25,500 acres devoted to its growth.
Pinotage is perhaps South Africa’s most notable varietal. Relatively new compared to the traditional European varietals, Pinotage was created as the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault in 1925. It was first vinted and bottled in 1961, and has been a major player in South Africa ever since. It is often full of juicy red fruits, blueberry, and spiced chocolate flavors. Don’t let the name fool you: Pinotage is more dense, alcoholic, and savory than Pinot Noir.
Much like the Merlot of France and the US, it is used both for varietal wines and blends. The best single-varietal Merlot emerges from the Coastal Region, though it remains less successful than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other Red Varietals
You can find notable wines with Cabernet Franc, Cinsault, Malbec, Grenache, and Pinot Noir varietals, all of which can be drunk of their own or blended together in Bordeaux-style wines.
Frequently Asked Questions about South African Wine
What is Pinotage?
Pinotage is a red varietal that was created in 1925 by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes. It typically results in dense, juicy reds that are full of raspberries, tobacco, and chocolate aromas.
What is Chenin Blanc?
Chenin Blanc (also known as Steen), is South Africa’s most popular and well-known grape varietal. Often peachy and floral, it can be quite dry or slightly sweet, depending on the producer.
What is a vintage?
By law, a wine showing a vintage (a year of production) on its bottle must consist of at least 85% of grapes grown in that year. This ensures the quality control of all vintage wine produced.
What is the most widely planted grape in South Africa?
Chenin Blanc is the most-planted varietal, covering 42,500 acres of land.
What is MCC?
MCC is an abbreviation of “Methode cap Classique” and refers to the process used in bottle-fermented sparkling wines. It is the same technical process used by the French to make Champagne, and is an indicator of a quality sparkling wine.