The South African wine industry has faced many challenges throughout the 20th Century. The South African Co-Operative Wine Growers Association (KWV) restricted the production of wines in such a way that innovation was near impossible and quantity was prioritized over quality. Yields were restricted and minimum prices set at a level which encouraged production of brandy and fortified wine. KWV’s control over the South African wine sector lasted until the 1990s, and still today the country’s industry is unusual for its high number of co-operatives.
South African wine fell out of international favour during the 20th Century. It reached an all-time low when trade sanctions were placed on the country in the 1980s due to its apartheid policies. Nelson Mandela’s freedom in 1990 and his subsequent election as President reinvigorated the wine industry.
Up until the last 15 to 20 years most South African wines went directly to be distilled into brandy. However, today South African wines have emerged as both some of the best valued red and white wines and of the highest quality.
In 2016, South Africa had grown to be the world’s seventh largest producer of wine in terms of overall volume. It accounted for 3.9 percent of global wine output. More than 300,000 people are employed in the industry.
South African Red Wines
There is a savory complexity to South African Cab, which makes it a delightful alternative to the more fruit-forward California Cabernets. The character of South African Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhere between the ‘new world’ and the ‘old world’.
The wine regions producing great Cabernet Sauvignon include:
- Paarl & Stellenbosch
Syrah from South Africa is becoming popular due to its dark spiced fruit flavors with a chocolate like richness. Syrah grows throughout South Africa, and therefore has a wide range of styles. You will find more savory wines from cooler regions such as Paarl and Stellenbosch and more richly intense wines from dry areas such as Robertson and Swartland.
The wine regions most noted for producing great Syrah include:
- Paarl & Stellenbosch
Pinotage is unique to South Africa. It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Pinotage offers juicy raspberry to blueberry fruit flavors with spiced chocolate and tobacco. The wines are much denser, higher in alcohol and typically more savory than Pinot Noir. Pinotage often gets blended with Syrah.
The wine regions most noted for producing Pinotage include:
- Southern Right
Merlot is widely used as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon. Still you can find several single-variety Merlots from the Coastal Region.
Other South African Reds
Several other red wine varietals are growing in South Africa, including Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cinsault (spelled ‘Cinsaut’ in SA). While most of these varietals are blended, South Africa’s cooler climate regions are making single variety Pinot Noir.
Other less known red varietals that are now being produced, but in small quantities include Hanepoot, Cornifesto, and Roobernet.
South African White Wines
Most of the Chenin Blanc produced goes into brandy production but there is an increasing market for South African Chenin Blanc. It is a peachy and floral grape variety not unlike Alsatian Pinot Gris and Viognier.
The vintners and wine regions most noted for producing Chenin Blanc include:
- Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch
- MAN vintners in Coastal Region
- Badenhorst in Swartland
Known in South Africa as ‘Colombar’ this less used white wine grape from the central France is commonly used to add Sauvignon Blanc-like zestiness to Chenin Blanc based white wine blends. Still, a large chunk of the wine production goes towards brandy making.
The flavors of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa have a lot of similarities to those of New Zealand. They are zesty, grapefruity and grassy and usually very inexpensive.
As a cool climate variety, a lot of South Africa’s regions aren’t particularly well suited for Chardonnay. However, the coastline along the South stays cool. Look for Chardonnay from Walker Bay.
Other South African Whites
Other white varietals include Semillon, Riesling, and Viognier which are often used for blending, but are increasingly found in single-varietal boutique bottlings.
Generally speaking, South African wines provide good value at a competitive price. I was introduced to these wines several years ago by a friend who had spent a good portion of his working life in South Africa. There are red and white options available to satisfy any palate.