Beyond Pinotage: Exploring South African Wines

March 8, 2019

With a wine producing history that dates back to the 1600’s, South Africa has longer and more consistent wine traditions than California and Australia. Most of its significant expansion, however, has occurred since the post-Apartheid 1990’s when South Africa was able rejoin the international community and regrow its export markets.  Let’s discover how Old World roots combine with New World innovation to make South Africa—and its 250,000 vineyard acres—one of the most exciting wine and diverse regions in the world.

 

It’s All About the Cape

 

Ninety-five percent of the wine produced in South Africa comes from the Western Cape, a large swath of land located in the Southwestern corner of the country cooled by winds coming from the South Atlantic and Southern Oceans called the “Cape Doctor.” Most wineries are located around Capetown, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate much like the Languedoc in France.  Constantia—South Africa’s oldest and coolest wine region—is also tucked away here.  This is where the Dutch first planted grapes in the 1650’s, the French Huguenots imported their viticultural practices shortly after, and where 100 years later, dessert wine from the region became more popular than Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

A short distance east from Capetown is Stellenbosch, South Africa’s most highly-acclaimed wine region.  While Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red grape in all of South Africa, it is most definitely the standout varietal in this area.  With savory black currants and cedar notes, Vergelegen’s flagship wine, “V,” is a luxurious, structured, yet elegant representation of the region’s best (about $88, Lowe’s Greenville). Built by the owners of Chateau Lafitte in Bordeaux France, and the same location where Nelson Mandela held his earliest African National Congress meetings, these wines consistently rank as amongst the world’s best.   

 

Post-Apartheid and Pinotage Revisited

 

Before Apartheid was abolished wine was produced mainly for domestic consumption and was highly regulated by the KVV—an agricultural cooperative that sustained the industry but focused on quantity rather than quality.  Demand for South African wine post-Apartheid spurned producers to adopt modern technology, develep an appellation system that mirrored France’s, and cater to international palates. 

 

All this momentum helped propel other regions on the Cape such as Paarl from where many well-known producers now hail.  It’s also a region where some of the best Pinotage—an indigenous grape created from crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault—is grown. For some time Pinotage was considered South Africa’s signature grape but fell out of favor due to faulty winemaking and inconsistent quality.  Pinotage is making an exciting resurgence especially in “Cape Blends” as winemaking techniques and processes improve with renewed investment. Blended with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, try Olsen’s Cape Blend (about $22, available locally.) Its raspberry aromas, and silky, spicy lingering finish is delicious example of how Pinotage complements South Africa’s other widely-grown red varietals.  

 

Full Steen Ahead

 

As South Africa re-emerges with Old World traditions and New World innovation, producers continue to evaluate what varietals and styles best represent the region. Chenin Blanc—locally known as “steen”—is South Africa’s most planted grape and is largely used for brandy production.  Although stylistically different than its home in France’s Loire Valley, there is increasing interest in the South African expression of Chenin Blanc. Try Olsen’s Chenin Blanc from the Paarl region for a floral, elegant, and refreshing interpretation of this wine made from South Africa’s signature white grape (about $22, Lowe’s Greenville). 

 

White varietals still comprise the majority of plantings in South Africa—after Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon and Chardonnay follow suit.  Gewurztraminer, only planted in limited quantities, is also developing a new following as producers reinvigorate traditions of dessert winemaking. Robertson Winery’s late harvest Gewurztraminer is a luscious, full-bodied, sweet wine with floral and honeysuckle elements ($15, available locally).  Located in the Breede River Valley, this region also known for its high quality sparkling wines. 

 

Erlinda believes South African wines continue to be undervalued! With so many age-worthy reds and stunning whites at approachable prices, what’s not to love? Contact Erlinda to find the best examples before we get priced out! Visit my website at www.thevinicola.com or contact me at erlinda@thevinicola.com to learn about wine or to plan your next private tasting event.

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