An Intro to South African Wines

You may say that 1990 was when South African wine came on the international scene.  That is the year that Nelson Mandela was released and sanctions against South Africa were subsequently lifted.  Before that time South African wines were made in a style that pleased the South Africa palate.  But opening their wines up to the world and a more international style caused a large change in the South African wine industry.  

Jim Clarke from Wines of South Africa USA

Jim Clarke from the Wines of South Africa USA

I was a past president and cellar master for the South World Wine Society in Vancouver in the 1990s and we were treated with the newly released South African wines, and watched as the wines evolved over time.  But most people probably have not yet tried South African wines, or have the impression that South African wines fit into the cheap and cheerful category, but that is not the case.  And that is something that wine educators are trying to let the general public know.  Which brings me to this article. 

I attended an online presentation about the History of South African wines and where it stands today.  Below follows my notes about what Jim Clarke, Marketing Manager for Wines of South Africa USA presented about their wine industry.  All images in this article come from Jim’s presentation. Enjoy.


Klein Constantia Estate Wine

Klein Constantia Estate Wine

South Africa has been making wine for 361 years, which puts it into an Old World category. February 2, 1659 was the first record of wine being made in South Africa.  From 1740 to 1860 the wines from Constantia in South Africa were among the most coveted in the world.  

We all may recognize the South African winery KWV.  It started as a co-operative in 1918.  KWV converted into a private company between 1992 and 1997.  In the 1990s with the fall of apartheid, estate wineries began to flourish.  Also this was a time of massive replanting with vineyards going from 80% white grapes down to 55%.  And the 1990s is when the entry level wines from South Africa hit the world market, which is good initially, but can pigeonhole the wines from a region as being only entry level and hard to convince people that they can make premium wines.  An upgrade wine wine quality started in the 2000’s, with winemaker’s following an “international” style, so that their wines tasted similar to wines from other regions around the world, chasing that same 100 point style.  But then in 2010 the first “new wave” of South African wines began to emerge showing off their regional styles and a focus on grape varieties that best fit their terroir. 

Chenin Blanc and its growing regions in South Africa

Chenin Blanc and its growing regions in South Africa

Chenin Blanc has become the grape that most people are most familiar with from South Africa.  As of this year, South Africa has 17,103 ha of Chenin Blanc vines planted, with is more than the rest of the world combined!  Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swartland, and Breedekloof are regions that focus on this grape.  It can be made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, and from still to sparkling.  Speaking of sparkling wines, South Africa, has their Champagne method sparkling wine that they call “Methode Cap Classique”, and their sparkling wines are the fastest growing category in South Africa.  I believe sales of these sparkling wines are doubling every 5 years.  The nice thing about these sparkling wines is that it gives people a step up from the lighter Prosecco wines, to a more structured mature bubble that is more similar to Champagne, but at a very nice price point.  Most producers make their sparkling wine with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. 

Besides Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the other more widely planted white grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and related red Bordeaux varieties, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinotage, and Pinot Noir are the main red varieties. Have you heard of Pinotage before?  It is a grape cross created in South Africa in the early 1920s, from Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  When apartheid fell, the Pinotage grape was touted as the signature grape of South Africa, but did not catch on around the world, but now in the hands of specialists, three styles of Pinotage are being produced:

  1. powerful and structured
  2. fresh and medium-bodied
  3. “chocolate” Pinotage

Give Pinotage a try if you have not had a sip before.  I, Karl, was told by one winemaker that Pinotage is a very versatile wine and goes well with spicy dishes.  Try it with your next curry.

Black-owned brands in South Africa

Black-owned brands in South Africa

Also with the fall of apartheid it is bringing in black South Africans into the wine business.  Three-quarters of the world’s fair-trade wines are from South Africa.  There are 238 different programs addressing medical services, primary education, social issues, worker training, and worker safety, in addition to individual winery initiatives. There are 67 black-owned brands and 61 black empowerment projects. You can find black South African viticulturists, wine makers, sommeliers, and much more. 

South African wines offer great value, you get familiar grape varieties, there are regional specialities, and unique stories by the new wave of black South Africans getting into the wine industry.  Give South African wines a try.

Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.