South African wine has always had a reputation for being ripe, full-bodied and fruity, but over the last two decades winemakers have been working behind the scenes to create a growing number of nuanced wines that have picked up awards left, right and centre. From signature South African grapes like Chenin Blanc and Syrah, to the country’s leading wine regions, this guide will teach you everything you need to know about South African wine ahead of your next trip to Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, Bushmans Kloof or The Oyster Box.
Grapes were first planted in South Africa in 1655, and soon after the sweet wines of Constantia (near Cape Town) followed. So, despite being designated a “New World” wine region, South Africa possesses an impressive pedigree of viticulture. Today, South Africa is the eighth largest wine producer in the world, with more than 600 wineries and 6,000 wines.
What’s in a Name?
Despite the increasing popularity of South African wine, it’s not always easy to work out what’s going on inside the bottle. South Africans have notoriously alternative names for many of the conventional grape varieties. Chenin Blanc (the country’s signature grape) is known as Steen, Riesling is Weisser Riesling, Trebbiano is Ugni Blanc and Muscat is Hanepoot.
Thankfully, the regions are a little simpler to understand. The four main wine growing regions in South Africa are Constantia (the oldest and largest), Stellenbosch (the second oldest, accounting for 14 per cent of total wine production), Paarl and Overberg. Each of these regions is then split into wards, which create very individual wines. Paarl’s Franschhoek, for instance, has a reputation for wines made with a distinctive French flair.
In general, South African Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t quite have the zinginess of its New Zealand cousin, but there’s still a fresh green note and a mineral aftertaste reminiscent of a crisp Sancerre. South African Chenin Blanc tends to be quite dry, with big floral flavours, while Pinotage – a crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir – is unique to South Africa, and usually displays dark fruit aromas with notes of tobacco and tar.
The most popular grape varieties are Syrah (especially Syrah produced in Swartland) and Chardonnay, which finds its recipe of sunshine and cool air matches the South African climate perfectly.
Best of the Rest
Some of the country’s best wines come from a scenic valley named Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) near Cape Town, where the boutique winery, Bouchard Finlayson, is located. Framed by mountains and within sight of the ocean, its clay shale vineyard soils produce wines of outstanding quality. Highlights include the Blanc de Mer, a creamy, fragrant Riesling with hints of apple and melon, as well as Walker Bay, a mineral-rich Sauvignon Blanc that makes the perfect aperitif.
There’s no better place to enjoy these wines than in their homeland. Visit the luxurious Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, Bushmans Kloof or The Oyster Box hotels to sample South African wines at their source.