South Africa is unique region as it's one of those key examples of old world & new world winemaking being blended together. This comes from a mix of some of the most ancient soils on earth, paired with it's generally warmer climate. Expect bold red & white wines with high aromatic intensity.
GENERAL TERROIR & HISTORY
Typically regarded as a new world wine region, South Africa has a much richer history in winemaking than is commonly expressed. However due to it's political struggles over the years, it's had it's wine making culture has gone through quite a bit of ups & downs. Wine grapes were introduced to South Africa in the 1600s by the Dutch East India company. Constantia was a Chenin Blanc based dessert wine that shot to fame across Europe by the mid-1700s, on par with Hungarian Tokaji & French Sauternes.
This boom was crushed by the phylloxera epidemic & the Anglo-Boer war in the late 1800s & 1900s. Furthermore, apartheid in the country led to international sanctions in the 1960s, which didn't help the reputation of South Africa's wine, where quantity over quality was a result of a system of government driven win cooperatives. It was only since the mid 1990s where South African winemakers pursued quality over quantity.
It has a mid-Mediterranean climate with cooler microclimates driven by coastal wines. The Coastal Region makes sone of it's best wines, particularly from regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Swartland. Cape South Coast is it's trending region, showing potential for great quality cool climate wines like Pinot Noir, Chadonnay, and sparkling wines.
Today, Chenin Blanc is the most grown white grape, while Cabernet Sauvignon is the regions most produced red grape. It's iconic wine however, is a Pinotage. Growing season starts in September & the majority of harvest happens in February.
It's Wine of Origin classification system is a four tier systems based on geographical regions which reduce in size as you go up the tiers. "Estate Wines" would be the highest tier, where vineyards are treated as single units, similar to the French Cru system. An example would be:
- Overarching Region; Cape Coast
- Region; Coastal Region
- Sub-Region; Cape West Coast
- District; Stellenbosch
- Ward; Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
- Estate Wine; Kanonkop Wine Estate
MAJOR WINE VARIETALS & STYLES
Cap Classique is a style of sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method. The main difference with a classic French Champagne, which typically uses Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Meunier would be the addition of Chenin Blanc. This would give the wine additional sweet-citrus like notes
LIGHT BODIED WHITE WINE
Chenin Blanc (Unoaked), Sauvignon Blanc
South Africa makes some of the best Chenin Blanc wines, at the fraction of a price of the French Vovray. Dry styles are tart & refreshing, making a good alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc, with more dominant tropical notes
In terms of growing, Sauvignon Blanc grows in similar climates to Chenin Blanc, and so there's no wonder that South Africa has a great range of Sauvignon Blanc. Savory & racy acidity with a light body, expect notes of melon & gooseberry, with a mineral base. Some winemakers would oak their Sauvignon Blanc to give it more body
FULL BODIED WHITE WINE
Semillon Blend, Chardonnay, Viognier
South Africa's specialty in this category would definitely be the Semillon based blend. Franschhoek is the main region producing this style, and winemakers usually oak age these blends to produce a full-bodied, creamy & savory white wine with strong aromatics due to the slightly cooler climate. Expect nutty bread notes together with lemon & apple aromas.
Chardonnay performs well in selected cooler microclimates in South Africa, producing oaked Chardonnays with beautiful tropical fruit notes, and notes of graham crackers & toasted almonds from oak ageing. Look to Elgin in Cape South Coast and Banghoek ward within Stellenbosch
While production is still relaatively small, Viognier production is scattered throughout the country & is blended to add floral aromas & weighted oiliness to the palette.
AROMATIC WHITE WINE
Chenin Blanc (Oaked)
The pinnacle of Chenin Blanc sits here, with extended oak aging to develop candied apple notes & buttery creaminess. Expect notes of passionfruit, stewed apples & lemon meringue
FULL BODIED RED WINE
Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Syrah, GSM Blends, Bordeaux Blends
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red grape in South Africa, and they delivery beautiful structure & tannin, as well as big, varied aromas. Other than single varietals, they are often blended to create Bordeaux style blends that are elegant & savory, resembling old world styles of France & Italy
Pinotage is very difficult to grow, and has suffered years of poor reputation as a cheap commercial table wine. Fortunately, there are a growing number of producers looking to create quality wines out of this grape. Created by grafting Pinot Noir & Cinsault, it produces lush, smoky wines with notes of plum & chocolate.
Surprisingly to the rest of the world, Syrah has become increasingly grown in South Africa, and the region's granite based soils boost Syrah's peppery aromas & age-worthy tannin. Look out for Swartland, Franschhoek and Jonkershoek regions. What's unique also about Swartland is that it's rugged dry region also grows Grenache & Mourvèdre, and many winemakers use this opportunity to create Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Pape or GSM blends. A region with great potential, it produces juicy and fleshy reds with sweet black fruits, olive, and pepper flavors supported by robust tannins
Most of South African wine comes from the Western Cape area
The Coastal Region, which includes top producing areas like Cape Town, Franschhoek, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Swartland, has a hot climate. This makes it an ideal place to grow Cabernet, Pinotage & Syrah to create bold red wines. Constantia is also found in the Cape Town district of the Coastal Region.
There are some cooler microclimates that produce lush styles of Chardonnay & Semillon within the Coastal Region. But if you are looking for cool climate South African, look to the Cape South Coast, where you will find districts like Elgin, Overberg & Walker Bay, which have amazing potential to create quality cool climate wines such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines.
Breede & Olifants River Valleys are the more "mass production" table wine areas of the country. Brandy production from Chenin Blanc also comes from this area.