When I first visited South Africa in 1999, I was taken aback by so many things: standing at the edge of the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet; Table Mountain, the dramatic backdrop to Cape Town; the staggering diversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom; meeting my first colony of warm climate African Penguins and of course visiting many vineyards and wineries with their historic and elegant Cape Dutch Manor houses.
While we consider South Africa part of the ‘New World’ in wine terms, the first vines were actually planted in 1654 — over 350 years ago — by the Huguenots who settled in the ward of Franschoek. Today over 100,000 hectares are under vine and South Africa is the 9th largest wine producer in the world.
As you might imagine the climate is hot, but there are a lot of micro-climates in the various valleys and slopes of different mountain ranges. The cold Benguela current which comes in from the deep Atlantic waters and the strong, dry Cape Doctor winds that blow across the Cape in Spring and summer are two very important influences which help moderate the heat.
Soils are very diverse with many permutations of shale, granite and sandstone forming thousands of different soils formations and different terroirs for growing grapes.
Since the lifting of Apartheid in 1994, the wine industry in South Africa has undergone huge transformation. Over 50% of the vineyards have been replanted, wineries have been modernized and the country has worked hard to realign its wine industry to compete globally. Before 1994, most of the grapes were destined for distillation. Now the focus is on top quality table wines.
Wine appellations and demarcation lines are defined by their Wine of Origin (WO) system, which has been in place since 1973. WO is their equivalent of the French AOC or Italian DOC systems. A WO can be as large as a whole region such as the Coastal Region, or be a district such as Stellenbosch or Paarl or a small ‘Ward’ (similar to a small village) such as Constantia, Franschoeck, Darling or Elgin.
South Africa grows many different grape varieties and makes diverse wine styles. White wines still slightly outnumber reds, with Chenin Blanc being the most planted white variety. South African Chenin Blanc comes in many styles from the more fruity, unoaked easy drinking style to the more complex, richly textured, barrel-fermented, age-worthy wines, made from very old bush vines. And then of course there is Sauvignon Blanc, which here is less pungent that its New Zealand counterpart, showing more citrus, stone fruit and freshly cut hay, with top wines coming from the cooler areas of Constantia, Elgin and Darling.
When it comes to red wines, South Africa has its own homegrown Pinotage variety. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It is not an easy grape to vinify, and hence opinions are mixed within South Africa as to its role in representing South African wine. Kanonkop’s Pinotage is probably my favorite. Pinotage wines have an earthy, smoky bramble fruit character with a touch of ‘band-aid’ note. In lesser wines, this note can dominate to the detriment of the wine.
Bordeaux blends and Cape blends are also important red wines. Cape blends typically have some Syrah/Shiraz and pinotage in the blend as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are many excellent wines of this style being produced, especially around Stellenbosch, Constantia and Paarl.
A more recent focus has been Shiraz, which is no surprise given the warm climate. These wines are typically more full-bodied, powerful ‘Shiraz’ style, than the more restrained Syrah from the Rhone Valley. Swarthland, Darling and Stellenbosch are top areas to look for.
For the most part South African Red wines are full-bodied, earthy, with fairly robust tannins. They are great partners for things barbequed. Whites can be fresh and fruity or show great old world minerality and savoriness.
South African Wines to Try
I think we are really seeing the fruits of all the hard work and investment in the South African wine industry in the huge array of delicious South African wines that we now find here in the United States. Below I’ve listed some of the many South African wines that I have tasted over the past year. There should be something for whatever World-cup celebrations you are planning.
• 2007 Excelsior Paddock Shiraz, Robertson, $7.99 – Juicy, smoky, ripe sweet black fruit – blackberry, plum, prune and notes of creamy spicy toffee. Easy drinking, and a great crowd pleaser.
• 2008 Excelsior Chardonnay, Robertson, $7.99 – another great value party wine. Lots of ripe fruit – apricot, pineapple, citrussy lemony-lime with creamy vanilla and butterscotch. Easy drinking, smooth.
• 2008 Ken Forrester, Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, $12.99 – A mix of quite tropical fruit and a flinty note with nuances of fresh cut hay and dried herbs. Very drinkable on its own or with lots of light dishes.
• 2008 Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc, Constantia, $15 – From a renowned historic property not far from False Bay. Very elegant. Taut palate, lean and minerally with lots of fresh gooseberries, papaya, dried hay and a touch of green pepper.
• 2009 Buitenverwachting, Sauvignon Blanc "Beyond", $10 - a great value more fruity and easy drinking Sauvignon Blanc by the same producer. Much more zesty and luscious with lots of ripe stone fruit, notes of guava and passion fruit and hint of spice on the finish. A firm favorite in our house for parties.
• 2008 Raats, Chenin Blanc "Original Unwooded", Coastal Region, $12 – even though this is juicy, fruity and easy drinking it has great focus and minerality for the price. Lots of ripe tropical fruit, apricot, pineapple, tangerine with a tinge of spice.
• 2008 Ken Forrester, "Petit Chenin", South Africa, $10 – another great value gem, easy drinking, with crisp acidity and lots of ripe juicy tropical fruit.
• 2007 Neil Ellis, The Left Bank, $10 - smooth, easy-drinking red blend. Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah (Shiraz) and Merlot. Smoky and spicy notes prevail, backed by jammy plums and blackberries. Slight rustic grip to the tannins but would be great with ribs.
$16 to $25
• 2008 Brut Rosé, Graham Beck, Sparkling Wine $19 - A lovely sparkling wine from South Africa, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Graceful red-berried fruit – wild strawberry, cranberry with a creamy mid-palate. Not very complex, but dry, fresh and a lovely drink.
• 2009 Warwick, Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, $16.99 – I have such fond memories of my visit to this estate. Great wine, while ripe and tropical the fruit is more restrained than most new world examples, Crisp, with a subtle herbaceous note that is balanced with the ripe fruit.
• 2008 Paul Cluver Chardonnay, Elgin, $18.99 – This is a truly delightful wine, from the cooler plateau of Elgin. Lovely balance of ripe fruit with crisp acidity and freshness – ruby grapefruit and tangerine, creamy fig, toasty oak well integrated. Elegant with a lovely long finish.
• 2007 Raats, Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch $21 – Richly textured and nicely complex. You can taste the intensity of flavor from the old vines. Ripe peasr, pineapple, butterscotch, honey. Quite full-bodied, but retaining mineral elegance.
• 2006 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound, Stellenbosch, $17.99 – I’ve tasted this wine so many times, and always love its smoky, juicy ripe black fruit, earthy flavors, with hints of licorice and vanilla. Fairly full-bodied, tight tannic grip, long earthy finish.
• 2008 De Morgenzon Shiraz DMZ, Western Cape, $16.99 – A real mix of modern international style and honest South African terroir. Ripe, bakes blackberry and plum fruit, spicy black pepper, earthy, leathery notes and sweet vanilla.
• 2007 Neil Ellis Shiraz, Elgin, $16.99 – From the cooler plateau of Elgin this Shiraz has more obvious cracked black pepper and violets. Fresh, nicely structured with ripe, grippy tannins. Long smooth finish and showing some old world elegance.
$25 and above
• 2008 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, Walker Bay, $27 – Every time I taste this wine blind I put it in Burgundy. A lovely mix of new world ripeness with old world minerality and elegance. Crisp, complex, layerd with bright ripe but not too overt fruit, smooth, beautifully integrated toasty oak.
• 2006 Stellenbosch "John X Merriman," Rustenberg, $30 - A red Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Full-bodied, gripping tannins, smoky, layers of ripe baked black fruit and an earthy minerality. This wine cries out for steak and hearty meat dishes,.
• 2007 Kanonkop, Pinotage, Stellenbosch, $30 - My favorite Pinotage. Rich, ripe, full of raspberry, blueberry and , bramble fruit, very supple tannins and new oak is well integrated to give a long smooth finish.
These are but a small selection of the many great South African wines available around the country. Enjoy these and other wines by these great producers.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.