South Africa may be classed as a New World wine region, but it actually has a long and proud history of viticulture and winemaking. The first grapes were planted way back in 1655, with the first vintage following a few years later.Today the country produces an incredible variety of styles, from the earthy, robust Pinotage, to elegant Bordeaux style blends, fragrant whites and sparkling wines to rival the best of the Old World.
Climate and geography
South Africa is located right at the tip of the continent of Africa, and so benefits from the moderating influence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.The climate is largely Mediterranean, with dry, hot summers. Most vineyards are clustered around the Cape of Good Hope, where the sea breezes help to cool what would otherwise be a hot region.
Main white grape varieties
Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape in South Africa, and for centuries was referred to as Steen. It wasn’t until the 1960s that winemakers discovered that it was in fact Chenin Blanc, the very same variety responsible for some of the great wines of the Loire Valley in France.Unlike examples from the Loire, South African Chenin tends to be almost always dry, with the characteristic floral note and lots of rich, ripe peachy fruit flavours. Fresh, young Chenins are a great match for seafood, particularly oysters, while the richer styles, which are more akin to a Viognier or oaky Chardonnay, are perfect with fish pie or chicken in a creamy sauce.
After Chenin, the next widely planted grape is Colombard (or Colombar locally), although a substantial amount is used for brandy production. This French variety is often used to add a zesty character to Chenin Blanc.
During the 1980s and 90s there was greater interest in international varieties, so plantings of grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay increased. The best examples of Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa really seem to straddle the divide between the Old and New Worlds. While lacking the ‘in your face’ zing of New Zealand Sauvignons, they still have a liveliness about them with plenty of fresh green fruit and a characteristic grassy note, with added elegance and minerality reminiscent of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. These aromatic Sauvignons are a great match for salads, especially with asparagus or goat’s cheese.
Main red grape varieties
If there is one grape that is synonymous with South Africa, it is Pinotage, which was created at Stellenbosch University in the 1920s. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault is largely ignored by the rest of the wine producing world, yet remains a mainstay of the South African wine industry.It is something of a marmite wine, being loved and maligned in equal measure, but is capable of producing wines in an array of styles, from a juicy, fruity number, to earthy, full bodied wines packed with red fruit flavours, often with smoky tobacco or tar notes. Pinotage can handle a fair amount of spice and smoke, so is a great match for barbecues and chargrilled meats. In the winter try with hearty game dishes or a fiery chilli con carne.
After Pinotage, South Africa is known for its Bordeaux-esque Cabernet Merlot blends, which can offer incredible value for money when compared to their French counterparts. South African Cabernet Sauvignon falls somewhere between the New and Old Worlds in terms of style, with plenty of ripe blackberry and plum flavours, and a savoury complexity, but smoother and less austere than a chewy Bordeaux. It makes a great match for a slow roast leg of lamb with oodles of garlic and rosemary.
Syrah has grown in popularity in recent years, and as with many varieties, South Africa produces differing styles due to its varied terrain and microclimates. Cooler regions produce more savoury examples, with a good hit of spicy black pepper, while Syrahs from warmer areas tend to be more intense and fuller bodied, with a chocolatey richness. They are a great pairing with a Moroccan tagine, braised lamb shanks or game birds.
Most important regions
The traditional heartland of South African wine production has long been the so called Coastal Region, which it remains influential today as the home of notable zones Constantia, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Constantia, located south of Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula, is in fact the oldest wine region. Owing to its position and the cooling influence of the sea, it has a cooler climate and longer growing season, which helps to ripen the grapes slowly. It is particularly noted for quality Sauvignon Blanc and its sweet Muscat, Vin de Constance.
Stellenbosch is the second oldest wine region in South Africa, and arguably the most well known. It accounts for around 14% of total production and is particularly noted for its Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, although it is responsible for a range of styles, both red and white.
Less famous than its illustrious neighbour Stellenbosch, Paarl is still worthy of attention. It’s slightly further inland, and so less influenced by the cooling sea breezes, therefore its warm climate is perfect for producing rich, robust reds. Paarl boasts a variety of different soils and terrain, so makes a range of quality wines from both red and white grapes.
Swartland is a large wine producing area situated around 40 miles north of Cape Town in the Western Cape. This area has a hot and dry climate and specialises in rich, fruit driven wines. Syrah based Rhone blends and Chenin Blanc are the real stars here and worth looking out for.
Elgin, 40 miles southeast of Cape Town is South Africa’s coolest region and is an exciting and innovative area for wine production. It’s unique location surrounded on all sides by mountains means that its climate is especially suited to white varieties, and indeed it has already experienced great success with Sauvignon Blanc. It’s also the one region in South Africa where the temperamental Pinot Noir can reach premium levels of quality.
South African wines on Winebuyers
As well as having a rich heritage of winemaking, South Africa is a forward looking and dynamic producer of a wide variety of wines. There is so much to discover covering all palates and styles. Head over and browse our South African range for some mouthwatering inspiration.