For many wine drinkers, South Africa is a bit of a mystery. A lot of stores have shelves of cheap bottles with various animals on the label, but while people all over the world assumed there wasn't much out there beyond Fairview's Goats do Roam, South Africa got busy making really great wine. Let's get caught up, shall we?
New World vs. Old World
We've explored French wine basics, sipped our way through Italy and Spain, sniffed around Portugal, and dug deep into German wines—all of those are what we call 'Old World' wine regions. Most recently, we introduced the first New World wine region in our series: New Zealand. New World regions generally have a shorter growing history than Europe, and sometimes these spots have a warmer climate. In general, wine bottles from the New World are labeled with the grape variety, rather than featuring the place first and foremost.
While South Africa, which is about three times the size of the state of California, is considered a New World wine region, it's no newcomer to growing wine grapes. Grapes were first planted in 1655 and soon after, the sweet wines of Constantia (which is near Cape Town) were lauded all over Europe.
Today, 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.
What You'll See on the Label
Most South African wine production is located in the southwestern part of the country, called the Western Cape. The wines are categorized into big geographical areas that are then broken down into regions, districts, and wards. For example, Stellenbosch is a district within the Coastal Region.
South Africa has a system called the Wines of Origin that's similar to the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system in the US. If you see a Chenin Blanc that says "Wine of Origin Stellenbosch," you know a few things right away: the wine has passed a taste test, it's made from at least 85% Chenin Blanc, and every single grape came from Stellenbosch. Producers don't have to label their bottles noting that they're a Wine of Origin, but if they don't, they're not allowed to put a vintage, grape variety, or region on the label.
Popular Grapes and Wines to Seek Out
If you're looking for good value as the weather gets warmer, start with some South African Sauvignon Blanc. These wines help illustrate how South Africa straddles the line between New World and Old World: they don't have quite the same intensity as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but there is still a fresh green note that'll have you thinking of a picnic on the lawn, nicely combined with hints of white flowers and fine, chalky minerals that might remind you of Sancerre. To dip your toe in, try Neil Ellis 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($15) from Groenekloof, a ward within Darling in the Coastal Region. It'll brighten your day with a grapefruity tang and hints of fresh herbs.
While we often think of Sauvignon Blanc as a limeade-like thirst quencher for before the meal begins, the right bottle can also work well paired with richer entrées, like halibut with creamy sauce. Try it out with Cape Point Vineyards 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($25). Enhanced by a touch of Semillon, it combines flavors of white peach and raw hazelnuts. Buitenverwachting (often shortened to Buiten or Bayten) is another good producer to seek out.
For centuries, South African winemakers called this floral grape 'Steen,' but in the 1960s, they discovered that it was actually Chenin Blanc, the same grape that made French regions like Vouvray and Savennières famous. If you like Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc, then I highly recommend you give this grape a try. South African examples are usually quite dry or made with just a little touch of sweetness that enhances its yellow apple and jasmine scent.
MAN Family Wines makes a great Chenin Blanc from the Coastal Region that you can buy for under ten bucks. The 2014 vintage is crisp and clean, with ripe cantaloupe and white peach notes that make it a great match for seafood and an afternoon on the deck.
You'll also find South African Chenin Blanc shining in a number of delicious blends, often combined with Rhône varieties such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. These wines have a little more rich body and weight. Try Fable Mountain Vineyards 2012 Jackal Bird ($25). This full-bodied wine is amazingly fresh with flavors of yellow cherry and marcona almond.
"You are going to see some cool stuff in regards to Pinotage," declares Christopher Bates, a Master Sommelier whose love of South Africa has grown over the years with multiple visits. On one such trip, he observed that the Pinotage tasting was always the one that the group was dreading—but it always ended up being everyone's favorite and most enlightening. Once maligned as smelling like Band-aids and barnyard, recent vintages of Pinotage are downright delicious.
Good examples of Pinotage combine sun-kissed blackberry and black cherry flavors with roasted herbs and a hint of smoke. They might remind you of Southern French blends made from Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.
In even better news, it's easy to find a delicious bottle of Pinotage at all price points. For about $13, stock up on Tormentoso's 2013 Pinotage and enjoy its fresh red plum and blueberry flavors with a grilled burger. Kanonkop is a fantastic Stellenbosch producer that makes a great Pinotage blend called Kadette that sells for about $12. (They mix the Pinotage with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.)
If you want to explore the heights that the grape can reach, though, save up for Kanonkop's 100% Pinotage (it's around $40.) Pour it into a decanter to enjoy rich black cherry, violet, and dried tobacco flavors—perfect for pairing with roast lamb or other grilled meats.
These wines—sometimes called Shiraz, sometimes Syrah—have ripe blackberry and blueberry flavors but also an Old World earthiness. Many also hint at the peppery, meaty flavors that you'd find in Syrah from France.
Keep an eye out for Syrahs from Swartland. This is a large area located north of Cape Town that's often compared with the Rhone Valley (which is famous for its Syrah). For a taste, try the Secateurs 2012 Red Blend from Badenhorst Family Wines ($14), which brings together Shiraz with Cinsault and a few other grapes for a juicy, medium-bodied wine with flavors of strawberry and anise.
If you like bolder Syrahs, try Bellingham's 'The Bernard Series' 2011 Small Barrel S.M.V. ($40) from the Coastal Region. Lovers of Australian Shiraz will especially appreciate the black cherry, dark chocolate, and stony granitic tones of this wine.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
These two grapes find their spiritual home in Burgundy, France, but are grown all over the world with mixed results. It's tricky to find the right balance of sunshine and cool air (not to mention the correct soil) that these grapes need to make excellent wine. A few regions in South Africa have mastered that see-saw pretty well—the leader being Walker Bay. Keep your eye out for bottles from the Hemel-en-Aarde ("Heaven on Earth") valley. This is where the famed Hamilton Russell winery is located. Their 2013 Chardonnay ($25) is a rich, creamy wine whose ripe peach and toasty flavors are balanced with a sharp minerality.
There's not much Pinot Noir grown in South Africa, but many of the options you'll find are of very high quality. Storm Wines Pinot Noir 2012 from the Vrede Vineyard in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ($45) is intoxicatingly aromatic with its fresh strawberry, rose petal, and cinnamon flavors. If you love Oregon Pinot Noir, you'll love this too: it has lots of acidity, medium body, and soft tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon Blends
Looking around the world for well-made Cabernet Sauvignon at an affordable price? It's getting harder and harder to find, but South Africa offers an impressive quality-to-dollar ratio. Mulderbosch's Faithful Hound, made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, sells for around $19 and can easily hold its own amongst its more expensive peers. This full-bodied Old-World-meets-New blend is all about ripe black cherry, bright mint, and cedar flavors, wrapping up earthy and smooth.
And Bubbles: Méthode Cap Classique
'Cap Classique' is the name for traditional method sparkling wines made in South Africa. These wines, which can be produced anywhere in the country, get their sparkle by a second fermentation in the bottle, like Champagne. While the category is on the rise, there isn't a huge chunk of shelf space dedicated to these wines...yet. One of the benchmarks—and a great value for a party—is Graham Beck's Brut Rosé, which sells for around $15. This blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is a wonderful aperitif, with fresh notes of raspberries, red apple, and rose petals.
Note: Fable Mountain Vineyards, Cape Point, Kanonkop Pinotage, Storm, Badenhorst, Mulderbosch, and Bellingham wines provided as tasting samples for review consideration.