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South African Wine Buying Guide

Kumala vineyards, South Africa
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Map showing the regions of South Africa's wine producers.

A sustainable future

There is growing consideration among South African wine producers of how the wine industry can impact the environment. We tend to think of wine as a natural product, with a romantic image that is rarely associated with modern agriculture. However, there are many aspects of the production of wine that can have environmental repercussions, from the use of chemicals in the vineyards to the way water is treated and the protection of natural flora and fauna in the surrounding areas.

In South Africa the wine industry is working hard to ensure its presence doesn’t damage the stunning landscape in which it exists. The ecosystem is delicate, water is scarce and the vineyards share their home with the richest biodiversity hotspot on the planet, the Cape Floral Kingdom. Since 1998 South African wine producers have been developing a code to protect the environment and the people who work in the industry. It's now possible to tell whether the South African wines available here in the UK conform with this code, with the introduction of the new sustainability seal for South African wine.

The new seal guarantees that the wine in the bottle was produced in a manner that is respectful to the environment. To qualify, producers need to minimise their use of chemicals and introduce natural predators in the vineyards; biodiversity has to be protected; waste water must be cleaned up and, while being earth-friendly, winemakers also have to be people-friendly, ensuring the health and safety of their workers. Farms and cellars are independently audited every three years and, if they meet the criteria, they can use the new seal.

History

South Africa’s winemaking history dates back to 1655, when the first vineyard was planted in the Cape. Ever since, wine has been an important part of the country, with French settlers in the late 1600s refining the business. However, wars and political turbulence have made it difficult for the South African wine industry, and although wine has been around for a long time it’s only of late, mainly in the late 20th century, that South African wine has made a strong name for itself internationally.

Grape Varieties

White varietals currently dominate South African vineyards with Chenin Blanc being the most common one. However, both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are on the rise. The Chenin Blanc of South Africa differs quite significantly from the French equal, showing ripe tropical fruit with a clean refreshing acidity. Interestingly, South African Sauvignon Blanc also has a style of its own: grassy, herbaceous and intense gooseberry are common descriptions and it’s gaining a high reputation worldwide. However, as the consumption of red wine is rising globally, South African vineyards have focused greatly on its red offerings in the last few years. With plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon topping the list, Shiraz/Syrah, Merlot and South Africa’s own invention, Pinotage, are close by. In terms of style, South Africa is somewhere between the Old World and the New World, with intense, deeply coloured well-structured wines showing ripe fruit yet with elegance and finesse.

Pinotage - This South African invention is a crossing between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (or Hermitage as it is sometimes called). Created in 1925 by Professor Abraham Perold, it has become a trademark for South African wine in terms of distinguishing itself from both the New and the Old Worlds. Pinotage tends to produce medium bodied wines, quite easy drinking with ripe blueberry and plum flavours with hints of spice.

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On the wine route

Most South African vineyards are located on the Cape Peninsula, where a range of micro-climates, soil types and flora all add to the individual styles of a particular vineyard site. The climate is largely Mediterranean with warm, dry summers and rainfall occurring in the winter. The best way to get a taste of South African wines is along one of their many wine routes …

What better position to start than the birthplace of South African wine – Constantia. Not only the oldest wine region, Constantia is famous for having produced Napoleon’s favourite sweet wine. When Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in the 18th century he made sure there was a good supply of Constantia’s lusciously sweet dessert wines to await him on the island. Hence, in the 19th century Constantia’s sweet wines rivalled its European counterparts but as of late the region has focused increasingly on high quality dry reds and whites.

Moving along from the region that apparently is the address to have in Cape Town, one arrives at yet another highly acclaimed district, namely Stellenbosch. This is the heart of South African wine country and features a combination of historic wine estates with a selection of younger, contemporary vineyards. A very exciting region, it produces a wide range of wine, with an emphasis on the noble varieties (a name commonly used for the eight most popular grape varieties worldwide). Stellenbosch is also home to the pioneering of South African sparkling wine. Following the traditional method used in Champagne, Graham Beck Estate produces a range of superb sparkling wines. To get a taste try the Graham Beck Brut – a seriously fruity and fresh sparkling wine that was chosen as the official sparkling wine for Nelson Mandela's inauguration and, 15 years later, was chosen by the Obamas to celebrate their election success.

Along the wine route, slightly further inland lies Robertson – know as the ‘valley of vines and roses’. Robertson is an area traditionally famous for racehorses and elegant Chardonnay. Nowadays, it produces some of South Africa’s best Shiraz / Syrah and the organic, rich and peppery Excelsior Heritage Reserve Shiraz is a great example.

Bordering Robertson on the east is the Worcester district, home to 19 wine co-ops and an area known for its brandy production. Worcester is home to Waitrose’s Fairhills wines – approved Fairtrade and made by the Du Toitskloof Cellar – one of the district’s many co-ops.

Moving closer to the coast is yet another of South Africa’s stunningly beautiful wine regions: Paarl. Hosting many of South Africa’s highly acclaimed wineries it has a temperate Mediterranean climate suiting a whole range of grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.

Recognised by its rolling, golden wheat fields, and of course its beautiful vineyards is the quite large area of Swartland. Part of the ‘Coastal Region’, it is known for its port-style wines but also produces some excellent dry reds like the fruity Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah.

Closer to the Atlantic, located in the midst of the Swartland, is Darling. This wine region benefits from the cooling breezes of the Atlantic and the region is well suited to ‘cool-climate’ grape varieties. Jut an hour away from Cape Town, this area makes brilliant Sauvignon Blancs.

Even closer to Cape Town, nestled in the Tygerburg Hills, lies the region of Durbanville. This region benefits from night-time mists and cooling sea breezes and produces some seriously good Sauvignon Blanc, and not to miss, sports excellent views of the Table Mountain.

Food and South African wines

Chenin Blanc – The South African style of Chenin is seriously fruity - think tropical fruit salad. It’s usually bone dry and works brilliantly with fresh fish such as lemon sole in a buttery lime sauce.

Sauvignon Blanc – A style of its own, it’s grassy, herbaceous and quite a mouthful. Try with tempura-battered prawns or tuna carpaccio.

Chardonnay – South Africa makes quite an elegant style of Chardonnay, combining richness from oak ageing with ripe fruit flavours ranging from citrus to melon, making it an excellent match to chicken Tikka Masala or poached chicken in creamy white wine sauces.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Rich yet elegant, South African Cabernet Sauvignon is a grace to tender steaks but works equally well with Toulouse-style sausages.

Shiraz / Syrah – Rich and full bodied with peppery notes and hints of tar and smoke, the South African style of Shiraz works wonders with rich beef stews and marinated and grilled red meats.

Pinotage – This medium bodied style with plummy fruit is brilliant with grilled spare ribs, whiskey marinated grilled meats and portobello mushrooms.

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Biodiversity: the Eco-friendly way

Realising that the remarkable variety of flora and animal species in the Cape is vital to the character of South African wine, winemakers are making every effort to preserve South Africa’s natural environment. So much so that by 2009 all exported wines must have the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) certification, which includes strict guidelines on how to preserve South Africa’s biodiversity and farm in eco-friendly ways.

Some wineries, like Graham Beck, have gone as far as keeping a conservation manager on site, which General Manager Gary Baumgarten says has helped bring back the natural flora of the vineyard. The IPW, which is part of the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI), embraces minimising interference in the vineyard, planting vines in ways to prevent erosion, reducing the amount of sulphur dioxide used in wine production, and setting aside a minimum of two hectares of land to preserve biodiversity. Many producers are already complying with these guidelines and some are exceeding them. The Boschendal winery has set aside 1,000 hectares, which winemaker JC Bekker considers an investment, “The time of farming with vines as mono culture is long gone.

Our aim is to produce wines that reflect the site it is grown on, this includes the preservation of the natural fauna and flora environment around the vineyards”. Biodiversity is defined as the ‘variety of life on earth’, and BWI in South Africa aims to sustain and, where needed, to improve a healthy ecosystem. Frans Smit, head winemaker at Spier, says the initiative is important in order to keep South Africa’s natural environment unharmed for future generations, “It has helped us really look at our close environment and make sure that whatever we do we need to respect our environment”. Similarly, Stormhoek winemaker Graham Knox explains the importance of the initiative for South Africa, “The foundation of the BWI as an industry standard will ensure the long term future for a healthy wine industry that is seamlessly compatible with nature”.

Fairtrade

The South African wine industry is at the forefront when it comes to Fairtrade – more than 50% of the world’s Fairtrade-certified grape growers reside in South Africa. In all, this constitutes 22 Fairtrade-certified farms that during 2005 exported 2.1 million litres of wine.

In order for a product to be certified Fairtrade it has to comply with strict criteria set out by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO). Typical conditions include minimum wages, producer price guarantees and an investment in enhancing social, economic and environmental development in the area where the product is made.

Fairhills wines are certified Fairtrade and are absolutely delicious. Part of the South African Du Toitskloof Cellar, a co-operative with almost 700 hectares of vines under cultivation, it’s owned by 11 families who are all grape farmers and supply their entire crops to the Cellar. In all, the project accounts for 750 employees and their families. Profits are used to improve housing conditions, childcare, healthcare and school facilities on the farms.

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Selected South African Wines


Porcupine Ridge Syrah, Coastal Region

Porcupine Ridge Syrah, Coastal Region

A truly handcrafted full bodied Syrah with a silky texture and juicy fruit flavours. An excellent match to a slow-cooked pot roast.


Nederburg Lifestyle Shiraz / Pinotage, Paarl

Nederburg Lifestyle Shiraz / Pinotage, Paarl

Blended from Shiraz and Pinotage, Nederburg presents a juicy and plummy red. Enjoy this medium bodied red with a hearty bean soup and smoked sausages.

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Rustenberg John X Merriman, Stellenbosch

Rustenberg John X Merriman, Stellenbosch

This wine shows notes of red berry fruits, chocolate, and a round spicy earthiness. It’s soft and elegant tannins makes this succulent wine a superb match to red meats and spicy sausages.


Boschendal Shiraz / Cabernet Sauvignon, Paarl

Boschendal Shiraz / Cabernet Sauvignon, Paarl

From one of South Africa’s oldest wineries, with a French viticultural heritage, comes this full bodied red. It’s spicy and smoky red fruit notes make it a great match to grilled kebabs.

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David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Semillon, Elgin

David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Semillon, Elgin

A very characterful white, this has an immensely pure, zesty, mineral style. This has the complexity and balance to partner with simply cooked shellfish dishes. Exclusive to Waitrose.


Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc, Walker Bay, South Africa

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc, Walker Bay, South Africa

This blend is refreshing and zesty, and suitable for a wide range of occasions, from everyday drinking to delicious dishes like seafood chowders.

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Boschendal Chardonnay, Paarl

Boschendal Chardonnay, Paarl

Rich and creamy Chardonnay with luscious notes of ripe mango, pineapple and pear fruit. This wine has a long nutty finish and is a great partner to a creamy crayfish pasta.


Nederburg Lifestyle Chardonnay / Viognier, Paarl

Nederburg Lifestyle Chardonnay / Viognier, Paarl

Peach and melon fruit notes from the Viognier are held together by Chardonnay’s nice structure and creamy texture. Enjoy with Indian cuisine such as lamb samosas.