The 411 on South African Sweet Wines
South Africa’s sweet wines helped put the country on the international wine map. Here’s what you need to know about these modern-day masterworks.
Photos by Robyn Lea
In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, was charged with planting vineyards and making wine for Dutch East India Company sailors. The hope was that it would ward off scurvy on long voyages along the spice route.
Thirty years later, another Cape governor, Simon van der Stel, planted vines on his Constantia estate. His high-quality grapes laid the groundwork for what would become one of the world’s most renowned wines.
With admirers like King George IV of England, King Louis-Philippe of France and even Napoleon Bonaparte—who, legend has it, requested a glass on his deathbed—Constantia became one of the world’s most valued and cherished sweet wines.
Although the regal demand has subsided, South Africa continues to make some of the world’s best sweet wines. From fortified reds to straw wines and late-harvest and botrytized selections, the country does them all—and does them all well.
Popular in South Africa since the early 18th century, the most common kind of fortified wine from here is traditionally called Cape Port. These Port-style wines can be produced from Portuguese varieties, like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca, or other grapes, like Shiraz or Pinotage.
Grape-based distilled spirit, typically brandy, is added to the wine to halt fermentation before it’s complete. It preserves some of the wine’s residual sugar and raises the alcohol content to between 16.5 and 22 percent.
Before the formation of the South African Port Producers’ Association (now called the Cape Port Producers Association) in 1992, there were no common criteria for the different styles of the wine. Each producer had their own interpretation, leaving consumers wondering what to expect from any given bottle.
The association set style guidelines, which helped producers to define their selections and consumers to identify their preferred styles (see “Don’t Call It Port”).
Other South African fortified wines include jerepigo (or jerepiko) and Muscadel. Jerepigo is a vin de liqueur that may be made from any grape variety. Brandy is added to the must prior to fermentation, which results in wines that are full-bodied and sweet—residual sugar levels are at least 160 g/L. Yet the wines offer fresh, unfermented grape flavors and high alcohols.
Muscadels, produced exclusively from Muscat de Frontignan or Muscat à Petits Grains (Blanc or Rouge), can be made as a jerepigo or as a vin doux naturel, if the brandy is added after fermentation has started.
Hanepoot, a South African synonym for Muscat of Alexandria, can also be produced in a fortified style. Muscadels and Hanepoots often exhibit musk and floral aromas, as well as notes of sweet stone fruit, lychee and gingery spice.
Don’t Call It Port
Effective January 2012, South African producers can no longer use the term “Port” for any wine product made outside of Portugal. So what to call all of these Port-style wines?
The Cape Port Producers Association (previously called the South African Port Producers Association) has outlined the following style guidelines.
A Port-style wine composed of grapes harvested in a single vintage, often dark, full bodied and aged in wood. The vintage year will be listed on the label, along with the term “Cape Vintage.”
Cape Vintage Reserve
A Port-style wine composed of grapes harvested in a single vintage that has been recognized by the South African wine industry and/or trade publications as being of exceptional quality. Dark and full-bodied, with superb structure and ample concentration, the wine must be aged in oak for at least one year and sold exclusively in glass bottles. The vintage year will be listed on the label, along with the term “Cape Vintage Reserve.”
Cape Late Bottled Vintage or LBV
A Port-style wine composed of grapes harvested in a single vintage that is aged for at least three to six years, of which at least two years is in oak, before being bottled. The vintage and bottling year will be listed on the label, along with the term “Cape Late Bottled Vintage” or “LBV.”
A Port-style wine made from a blend of several young, full-bodied and fruity wines, with each component aged for at least six months in wood and the entire blend aged at least one year in oak. The term “Cape Ruby” will appear on the label.
A Port-style wine made from exclusively red wine that has been aged in wood long enough to acquire an amber-orange (tawny) color and a smooth, slightly nutty flavor. Blending Cape Ruby and Cape White wines to create a Cape Tawny is prohibited. The term “Cape Tawny” will appear on the label.
Cape Dated Tawny
A Port-style wine composed of grapes harvested in a single vintage that has been aged in wood long enough to acquire an amber-orange (tawny) color and a smooth, slightly nutty flavor. Blending Cape Ruby and Cape White wines to create a Cape Tawny is prohibited. The vintage year will be listed on the label, along with the terms “Cape Tawny” and “matured in wood.”
A Port-style wine made from a non-Muscat white cultivar (such as Chenin Blanc, Colombard or Fernão Pires) that has been aged in wood for at least six months. The term “Cape White” will appear on the label.
Unfortified Sweet Wines
Outside of fortification, the most common methods of sweet-wine production in South Africa include selective late harvesting and partial drying of grapes.
Late-harvest wines are produced from grapes left on the vine well into the autumn, and often infected with Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot (known locally as edelkeur), which causes the grapes to lose their water content. These noble late harvest (NLH) wines are unctuous, with rich textures and luscious flavors of honey, raisin and dried stone fruits.
Special late harvest wines, called spesiale laat-oes, imply that some botrytized grapes were used, while straw wines are produced from grapes that are dried after harvesting to concentrate their juice. White varieties like Chenin Blanc and Riesling—both popular in South Africa—make excellent examples of these sweet wines, but the options don’t end there.
The current iteration of the original Constantia wine, Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance, is made from late-harvest Muscat de Frontignan, while other wineries use Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc or Hanepoot for their sweet wines. Even red grapes like Mourvèdre or Cabernet Sauvignon are sometimes used.
The concentrated flavors of these sweet selections result in intense, layered wines whose decadent honey and dried fruit notes are matched by high levels of acidity that prevent them from being cloying.
Many spend some time in oak to develop additional complexity. Although the type of barrel and length of aging vary by producer, many wood-aged sweet wines exhibit developed, woody notes of nuts, toast and sweet spice like cinnamon, clove and ginger.
Thanks to their intense concentration and high natural acidity, South African sweet wines are also ideal for long-term cellaring, often evolving beautifully for decades after release.