Wine News / July 26, 2013

Wine 101: South Africa

Grapes on the Vine - South African Wines 101

For an area with lesser-known, but up-and-coming wines, you may be surprised to hear that South Africa has been producing wines for more than 350 years! While you may have skipped over wines with Pinotage or Chennin written on the label, we hope that after reading this article you’ll consider giving one of these wonderful wines a try.       

South African Reds

The Western Cape of South Africa is home to 95 of the country’s vineyards. Here, the Mediterranean climate grows many grapes that you may be familiar with, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The one you may not recognize is Pinotage, a cross between the Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes. It’s lovely when blended with other varietals, creating a “Cape Blend.” On its own, Pinotage produces more of a Beaujolais-style wine with flavors and aromas of red berries and rich fruit.

This grape varietal continues to be explored and wine makers are finding new potential in it every year. Try Pinotage with Duck and figs – the delicious mocha notes in the wine will make it a tasty experience. 

South African Whites

The most popular white varietals in South Africa include Chennin Blanc, Colombard, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Around South Africa, Chennin Blanc is referred to as Steen. It’s one of the most widely planted varietals with the lowest replanting rate, meaning that although the importance of this variety has declined, growers are still making much use of it’s versatility. Chennin Blanc pairs beautifully with seafood like a scallops and prawns.

Colombard is the second most widely planted varietal South Africa and is often used in Brandy. The country also produces nice Chardonnays, with most wine makers using the Burgundian techniques to produce it, including barrel aging and lees-stirring.  Sauvignon Blanc has also had great success in this region, producing light, crisp, grassy wines.

Now, when we describe a wine as grassy, it doesn’t mean you’ll taste as if you just ate a handful of grass. We’re referring to the aromas of fresh cut grass and the taste of green herbaceous notes. It’s a beautiful aroma in many Sauvignon Blancs. Most South African white wines, like many of the white wines you’re familiar with here in the U.S. pair beautifully with seafood.

South African Wine Regions 

The regions you will want to familiarize yourself with if you are interested in trying these wines are:

  • Stelleboch – a coastal region and a long-time hub of fine wines in South Africa. This area has an ideal climate and a great reputation for producing Bordeaux-style blends of red and white wines.
  • Constantia Ward – home to some the oldest vineyards on the Cape. This area produces stunning Sauvignon Blanc!
  • Swartland District – located in the Northern part of the Cape. It’s an area once known for producing the most inexpensive wines in the region, but is now known for high-quality Syrah and Old Vine Chennin Blanc.
  • Tulbagh District  – Looking for bubbles? Here’s where you have to go! Here, the mountains trap the cool air in at night – perfect for these types of wines.
  • Robertson District – produces herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc, full- bodied Chardonnay, and excellent Syrah.
  • Walker Bay District – home to South Africa’s best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. You’ll also find Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Syrah also grown here.

I hope that many of the wines from these regions are available in your local stores. If not, try asking a smaller, boutique wine shop in your area about South African wines. They may have better luck getting the lesser-known varietals in stock.

My last bit of advice: wines from South Africa are very food friendly and easy to drink. Give them a try!

Sara Lehman


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