The New South Africa

The New South Africa

No longer restrained by politics and global isolation, South African wine, which comes from some of the world’s most scenic vineyards, could become the 21st century’s first major wine revolution.

The Cape winelands, stretching inland from Cape Town at the southern tip of South Africa, are structured and dominated by formidable, dramatic mountains that provide the backdrop to the gabled and thatched 18th and 19th century Cape Dutch wine farms, and the elegant wine towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. Some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world are here. Vines seem to scale the mountains, finally merging into sheer rock faces. Always there are distant vistas of high peaks—the Helderberg, the Simonsberg, the formidable range of the Dutoitskloof Mountains.

It is a land made for grape growing. The intense heat of the interior of South Africa is gentled by the influences of two oceans—the warm Indian and the cool Atlantic—which border the Cape to the south and the west. With its Mediterranean climate, similar to that of northern California, this area has the potential to make some of the best wines in the world.

First planted in 1652 by the Dutch who settled the region, the Cape’s vineyards achieved early fame when the sweet wine of Constantia (a style recently revived by the Klein Constantia estate) became the most sought-after wine in the world. Later, when the country was part of the British Empire, South Africa supplied fortified wines to a thirsty British public. Even today, some of the fortified wines of the Cape are fine examples of the Port and Sherry styles.

I have been to South Africa a number of times, but until now I have come away with a sense that the country’s potential for making great table wines was being held back. In the face of vested, conservative interests from the largest producers, there seemed to be no inducement for innovation. In a bizarre set-up that dated back to the early years of the 20th century, the country’s largest winery was also the controlling body for the whole industry. Meanwhile, many of the winemakers did their training in Germany, and therefore lacked the grounding and experience necessary to make fine red wines. And the country’s vineyards, often planted with diseased and unsuitable clones, were not always able to produce quality grapes.

In recent years, dramatic changes have taken place. The country’s opening up to the world after apartheid has not only changed things politically, it has also changed attitudes toward winemaking, viticulture, and the structure of the wine industry. With new technology, new people, and newer clones capable of giving grapes with higher sugar levels, everything is in place for South Africa’s wine industry to steadily move onto the world stage.

The most immediately apparent change is with the KWV, the Cooperative Wine Growers Association. Set up in 1918 as a lifeline to growers, it was originally given statutory powers to set production quotas and minimum prices across the whole industry. For the longest time, if a grower wanted to plant vines, the KWV had to give permission. But with the change of regime in Pretoria in the early 1990s came an end to this regulatory power, and the KWV became just another producer. 

Today its power lies in its size, as the largest wine producer in the country. KWV winemaker Kosie Moller is responsible for two dramatic developments at this mammoth organization. One is the top-branded range, Cathedral Cellar, named after the huge cellar at the KWV complex in Paarl. There’s a complete varietal range, of which the stars are a Sauvignon Blanc from Paarl, a beautifully structured Merlot, a plummy Pinotage, and a ripe, overt Chardonnay.

The other is the launch, in late 1999, of Perold. This single-vineyard wine, a 100 percent Shiraz, is intended to be South Africa’s answer to Australia’s Grange. It is a wine that is given the best possible treatment, produced in tiny quantities (just 450 cases), and sold at a correspondingly high price (about $60, though the wine is just being rolled out into international channels). The 1996 vintage, grown on the mountain slopes above Paarl and aged in American oak, is woody, toasty, herbal, heavily extracted—enormous and powerful. For me, it’s not quite there yet, but with the care and attention it’s receiving, it could well be that future vintages (the 1998 is next) will justify the hype it is currently generating in South Africa.

The fact that the country’s biggest producer is aiming for the highest levels of winemaking is a reversal of the philosophy that for too long was prevalent among many South African cooperatives: the view that volume, high yields, and a willingness to export the cheapest possible wines was the way forward. It’s a view that has done the South African wine image no good at all in developed export markets such as the U.K. and Germany. (Other Southern Hemisphere wine-producing nations have built—and overcome—similar hurdles in the U.S. market.) Now the way forward is being planned with more care.

The KWV’s apparent willingness to think small as well as big is paralleled by the exponential growth of wine “estates.” There are now 85 South African estates being run on the lines of French chateaus, with wine being made only from vines grown on the property. Another 152 estates currently buy grapes from growers either as a sole source of fruit or to augment the production of their own vines.

Some of these estates have evolved into first-rate producers. When we first met in the 1980s, Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch was one of the few South African winemakers with an international outlook. Now, with 18 vintages behind her, she has many claims to fame. She was a pioneer among women winemakers in a male-dominated world. She was among the first in South Africa to take Cabernet Sauvignon seriously and to create a Bordeaux-style blend (Trilogy, which at one time was the benchmark for South African reds). And today, from her steep hillside vineyard and winery, Ratcliffe remains a powerful figure on the local wine scene.

Not far away, Beyers Truter makes arguably the finest Pinotage in South Africa at the Kanonkop and Beyerskloof estates. Over the years, he has remained faithful to a style that has staying power, avoiding the route of easy-drinking Pinotage. “When Pinotage ages, it becomes more like Pinot Noir, and I like this Burgundian character in the grape,” Truter says. “Before, we didn’t know how to handle Pinotage. Now we have learned about red winemaking, and about where to plant vines for red wines.”

The willingness to learn has been the main impetus toward change in South African winemaking. Winemakers such as Truter, Gyles Webb of Thelema, and Neil Ellis, who makes wines under his own name, are putting out world-class red wines, while Danie de Wet of De Wetshof comes into the same class with his white wines.

For their ventures, Webb and Ellis have chosen relatively cool-climate vineyards in Stellenbosch on the slopes of the Helshoogte Pass and in the Jonkershoek Valley, respectively. They both emphasize fruit rather than weight, using the climate in a way similar to how growers use the elements in Sonoma County. “You need to manage the ripeness of the fruit in the warm climate of South Africa,” says Ellis. “Otherwise it could run away with you.” In Robertson, inland from Paarl and Stellenbosch, Danie de Wet specializes in Chardonnay. His range runs from the fat d’Honneur to the steely single-vineyard Bateleur.

At Saxenburg estate in southern Stellenbosch, overlooking False Bay and Cape Mountain, winemaker Nico van der Merwe has the benefit of working two vintages a year (one South African, one French: Saxenburg’s owners, the Buhrer family, also own Domaine de Capion in the Hérault in the south of France). This experience particularly shows through in Saxenburg’s fine Shiraz. The Shiraz Reserve, which is rich, warm and herbal, comes from a single block of 20-year-old vines, quite old for Shiraz by South African standards.

This new breed of winemakers is undoubtedly heading a much-needed renaissance in South African wines after the sterile, painful years of apartheid. However, problems remain.

One is the need to involve black and colored South Africans in positions of importance. Uneducated and impoverished farm laborers are still the only significant black presence in South African viticulture. Management in the wine trade is still largely dominated by Afrikaaner whites. Even fewer non-whites are currently in senior winemaking positions, although that could change as more black wine-school graduates begin working in wineries. How long it will take for the tide to change is a hard question to answer. And some blacks have become vineyard managers. Yet there is evidence that things are starting to move. Several “empowerment projects” donate land to the farm workers and/or earmark income from special labels to increase the workers’ stake. Winds of Change, a new label from the SONOP wine farm in Paarl, has begun exporting its Pinotage-Cabernet blend and is aiming for 100,000 cases of production. Freedom Road, a fund-raising venture made at Backsberg but run by its farm workers, is exporting its 1999 Sauvignon Blanc. And Fair Valley, established by Fairview, is planning an independent worker-owned winery.

The other major problem is wine-related. Like so much of the country, South African wines are still paying the price of the country’s past. Due to years of isolation, South Africa largely missed out on the explosion in wine knowledge that occurred in the 1980s. Only now is it catching up.

By throwing off the shackles of previous regimes and attitudes, South African producers are increasingly making fine, relatively inexpensive wines. If things continue to move ahead at the current pace, South Africa could well become the first wine country to be “discovered” by American consumers in the 21st century.


South Africa has had an appellation system since 1973. The system is based around geographical areas of origin, which can range in size from a single estate to the whole of the Western Cape wine country (for wines which blend grapes from different regions, much the way Golden State wineries employ the “California” appellation).

The most commonly identified wine appellations are called districts, and there are 12 of them. South Africa’s best wines come from Constantia, Durbanville, Franschhoek, Paarl, Robertson and Stellenbosch. The others are Klein Karoo, Olifants River, Orange River, Swartland, Tulbagh and Worcester. Other wine areas, such as Walker Bay, are smaller divisions called wards. The origin of each wine is identified on the label and on the neckseal, which is intended to guarantee authenticity.

South Africa’s most widely planted grape variety (27 percent of the country’s vineyard acreage) is Chenin Blanc, frequently called Steen in South Africa. In addition to making fairly crisp, high-quality table wines, Steen is also distilled into brandy, and used for much of the inexpensive white table wine that is sold locally and/or exported. When the yields are low and the grapes handled properly, Steen can be a ripe, tropical-fruit-flavored wine.

Chardonnay is a relative newcomer to South Africa. Currently it’s being made in every style imaginable, but the trend is toward the California approach of wood aging and oak influence. From a flavor standpoint, the emphasis is on citrus and peach characteristics.

South African Sauvignon Blanc is normally unwooded, although a few producers are making a Fumé style. The wines range from very herbaceous to lusciously tropical.

Pinotage is South Africa’s own red grape variety. A hybird of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Pinotage was developed in 1925. Older Pinotage wines, from poor clones, have a characteristic acetone flavor along with notes of dried prunes. However, modern wines, from the late 1980s onward, are fruitier and feature sweet berries, toffee and ripe plums. “Juicy” is a word often used to describe the wines. “Cape blends” are based on Pinotage, usually combined with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Sauvignon took a while to settle down in South Africa, because of the poor clones that were originally planted. Black currant, mint and eucalyptus are all flavors commonly found. It is often blended with Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux-style blends.

Soft, fruity wines are made from Merlot, and there are few really great examples as of yet. For the time being, Merlot is widely used as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon.

By calling it Shiraz, the South Africans have finally adopted the Australian nomenclature for Syrah, after years of indecision. This is probably the red grape with the most potential in the country, and already it is resulting in deliciously savory, herbal, spicy wines that have beaten the Australians in some competitions.

Pinot Noir is, as always, a difficult grape to grow. The only area in South Africa cool enough is Walker Bay, around the town of Hermanus. Stylistically, these wines are on the full side, like California Pinot Noir rather than streamlined Oregon Pinots.



91 De Wetshof 1998 Bateleur Chardonnay (Robertson) $20 Ripe fruit doesn’t preclude a fine, complex, steely character reminiscent of Chablis. Good French oak flavor and some tannins suggest it is worthy of aging. From a single vineyard.

90 Spice Route 1998 Chenin Blanc (Paarl) $10 The fruit comes from 60-year-old vines in the Malmesbury region, which is close to the cooler Atlantic coast. Full barrel fermentation gives a rich wine with spicy wood flavors. The fruit is ripe, with just a touch of acidity. Made by Fairview.

88 Neil Ellis 1998 Sauvignon Blanc (Groenekloof) $13 A well-made white featuring a grassy nose. Crisp and clean on the palate, it’s tightly wound and sturdy. Shows some friendly fig and melon components as it evolves in the glass.

88 Cathedral Cellar 1998 Chardonnay (Western Cape) $12 Aged for six months in new French oak, this has a spicy, honeyed character. It is a powerful wine, with serious amounts of wood balanced by richness, honey and citrus fruit. A deliciously smooth, creamy wine. Made by KWV.

88 Boschendal 1998 Grande Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc (Paarl) $12 Fermented in French oak, this wine has fatness and ripeness without losing the herbaceous character of the fruit. With 15% Chardonnay, there is some nice roundness to fit with the wood, but there is a definite crispness to the aftertaste.


91 Kanonkop 1998 Pinotage (Stellenbosch) $20 Ripe, firm fruit, with long oaky flavors. This is the epitome of Pinotage, balancing strong tannins against the juicy essence and acidity of the fruit. Some wood notes are there, but they’re not too dominant.

91 Thelema 1997 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Stellenbosch) $30 Lighter than previous vintages of this award-winning wine. But it’s still full of black-currant and mint flavors, along with dried fruits and ripe plums. The use of wood is subtle, and the upfront fruit is very new-world. Will be released in July.

91 Meerlust 1995 Rubicon (Stellenbosch) $30 A graceful Bordeaux blend defined by a lovely cherry fruit core and an appealing nose of earthy herbal notes. Positive fruit with a lean but elegant feel. Fine quality; it performs like a lesser classified growth.

90 Backsberg 1996 Klein Babylonstoren (Paarl) $16 A dense, chewy wine made from 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot. Round and fun, but also serious and concentrated. Black fruit, with some earthiness adding complexity. Lot’s of dark coffee graces the middle and finish.

90 Saxenburg 1997 Private Collection Shiraz (Stellenbosch) $25 Aromas of herbs and spicy wood. Excellent spicy fruit along- side Mediterranean herbs and tarry tannins. An attractive wine, full of sunshine and open fruit flavors.

90 Warwick Estate 1997 Trilogy (Stellenbosch) $20 A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. From a cool year, but still a spicy, perfumed wine with deep cassis and black cherries. Toasted wood lends a complexity without overwhelming the fruit.

89 Rust En Vrede 1996 Estate Red (Stellenbosch) $30 Blending 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Shiraz, and 10% Merlot, this is the top wine from this all-red property. It’s a big, powerful, chunky wine with tarry flavors and strong fruit and wood tannins.


Published on May 1, 2000
Topics: South Africa, Wine Travel

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