Think Cabernet Sauvignon, and your mind likely takes you to Bordeaux, Napa or maybe even Australia or Washington State. Chances are, South Africa isn’t even on your Cab radar.
It should be.
South Africa has a long history with Cabernet Sauvignon, both as a varietal and blended wine. Highly rated examples abound, too, including many Stellenbosch-based bottlings from producers with long track records, like Kanonkop, Le Riche, Rust en Vrede, Rustenberg and Waterford.
But South African Cabernet Sauvignon was never firmly identified as a consistent exemplar on the international wine stage.
It’s time for that to change.
The variety is actually the most widely planted red-wine grape in South Africa. The greatest acreage lies within the country’s largest Wine of Origin (WO) area, the Stellenbosch district of the Coastal Region, with more than 7,300 acres planted. It’s here that the cultivar truly shines.
Though Stellenbosch is home to several soil types, all are well drained and defined by the appellation’s mountainous surroundings, elevation and oceanic proximity. That, along with the region’s warm climate and cooling southeasterly winds, yield the definitive South African style of Cab: ripe and fruity, not overly jammy, with ample acidity and moderate alcohol in the resulting wines. Think New World fruit meets Old World structure—the best of both.
The continuing formalization of specific wards within the region has only helped to further define Stellenbosch’s Cab style. Each area offers distinct typicities, like the silky-smooth textures from Banghoek, the minerally, almost crunchy offerings of Jonkershoek Valley, the bold, muscular structures of Simonsberg-Stellenbosch and richly fruited Bottelary bottlings.
Beyond Stellenbosch, superb Cabernet Sauvignon can also be found in the Paarl and Robertson regions. Paarl, Stellenbosch’s northern neighbor on the other side of the Simonsberg mountain, doesn’t share the same oceanic influence, but it still has its charms. The Berg River tempers the warm climate, similar to the role of the Gironde in Bordeaux, for concentrated, dark-fruited pours with structured tannins and good medium-term aging potential, like you might find from the Médoc.
To the east, Robertson is a different world. Relatively flat topography is defined by different soil types, mostly sandy and loamy alluvial soils versus clay-based in composition. Coupled with a warm, dry climate, the vines here often yield rich, full-bodied and velvety Cabernets with ripe cassis, plum and mulberry characteristics, like those from South Australia.
Beyond the diversity and caliber of Cabernet Sauvignon produced in South Africa, the wines also represent tremendous value. While they’re not all necessarily cheap—though plenty of high-quality selections are priced between $10 and $30—they are generally a fraction of the price of comparable international bottlings. A 91-point Cab for ten bucks? Try finding that in Napa or Bordeaux.
So rethink your go-to for quality Cab and explore the range of offerings South Africa’s winelands have to offer. Your palate, and your wallet, will thank you.
Three South African Cabernet Sauvignons
Babylonstoren 2015 Nebukadnesar (Simonsberg-Paarl); $45, 93 points. Dark and brooding, this Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, currently smells somewhat reserved, with shy notes of black plum, cassis, Baker’s chocolate, boysenberry and cigar-box spice. It’s medium-plus in weight, with opulence and a rich body that’s framed by bold, supporting tannins and medium acidity. It’s well balanced, with a long, spicy finish that ends with a kiss of dark chocolate. Catamarca Imports LLC.
Ernie Els 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Stellenbosch); $24, 91 points. While this is currently slightly tight and closed, it shows the structure and elements to present a complete and well-balanced wine with a little time. Scents of charred plum skin, dark chocolate, cigar box and roast beef dance in the bouquet, while the bold, firm palate offers flavors of black fruit skin, cassis and char. Drink 2019–2022. Editors’ Choice.
Robertson Winery 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (Robertson); $10, 91 points. Brambly berry, black plum and cherry abound on the nose of this attractive wine. Touches of cinnamon stick, violet and milk chocolate add interest. The medium-weight palate is fresh and vibrant in ripe fruit tones, with velvety tannins and ample acidity. It’s well balanced and harmonious, while the lasting finish evolves from fruit flesh to soil then tree bark and finally soft sweet spice. Best Buy.