After a slow start, South Africa’s wines have reached international heights. The wines are sold at an impressively good value, and the country offers styles and tastes that are special and—importantly—enjoyable.
South Africa has been producing wine since the first vineyards were planted by the French in the seventeenth century, brought to the country by the Dutch governors of Cape Colony. At one time, the sweet wine of Constantia was the most prized in the world. For decades, South Africa, as part of the British Empire, sent shiploads of fortified wines to London.
This luxurious past can still be seen in the stunningly beautiful Cape vineyards, and the elegant, gabled Dutch Cape houses that form the centerpieces of many wine estates. But the future has also made its mark in South Africa’s vineyards, where local winemakers (joined by an increasing number of European and American winemakers and investors) are creating a new generation of wines.
The style, the character of the wines is somewhere between California or Australia and Europe. Food friendly and equally elegant and powerful, there are many wines here for drinkers tired of alcoholic blockbusters.
All South Africa’s vineyards are within an hour or three of Cape Town, in the southwest corner of the country. South Africa has its own appellation system, Wine of Origin, which is indicated on the label and on a government-issued neck sticker.
The most important quality wine areas are around the two cities of Stellenbosch and Paarl. All wine styles are made here: the country’s greatest reds are from Stellenbosch, but Paarl’s sub-district of Franschhoek runs them a close second. Increasingly, other areas are being developed: the west coast, which makes great cooler climate Sauvignon Blanc and red wines under the Darling and Swartland Wine of Origin, and the south coast at Walker Bay and Elgin, from which the country’s best Pinot Noir comes.
The other famed quality area (although tiny in volume) is Constantia, almost in the suburbs of Cape Town. The original Cape vineyards now make impressive reds and whites, in the country’s most historic wine estates.
Larger volume areas are further north and east than these classic heartland areas: Robertson, known for its Chardonnay, Worcester for inexpensive volume wines, and Oliphants River, better known for reds and fortified wines.
South Africa’s wine styles are evolving. Chenin Blanc, the local white workhorse grape is also capable of making some impressive dry and sweet wines. Sauvignon Blanc has the potential to be more exciting than Chardonnay.
For reds, Pinotage, South Africa’s own red grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) still leaves wine critics divided, but can make great things, especially if found in Cape Blend wines (Pinotage blended with other red grapes). Shiraz is seen as the new hope for red wine, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Bordeaux blend wines are still the country’s top reds.