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Style and History: South African Wine

Written by Tynan Szvetecz
Filed Under: Wine Regions

South African Wine History:

One of the few countries within the African continent to produce wine, South Africa owes its production capabilities to the influence of the Dutch. Three hundred years ago, the ubiquitous presence of the Dutch East India Company made the trading of otherwise esoteric items (such as imported French vines) not only possible but lucrative. Though the first wine pressed from South African harvested grapes was nothing to write home about in 1659, the country has had several centuries to hone its craft.

Interestingly, American wine tasters might be surprised to learn of the long history of wine making in South Africa. Wine from that country was virtually unknown in the United States until the early 1990's when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and eventually elected president. Before then, the United States had severe trade sanctions which prevented the enjoyment of South African wine in that portion of the New World, though it was exported to the European continent in bulk.

With the lifting of sanctions came several new transitions to the South African wine industry. The opening of American markets combined with the late 20th century boom in wine consumption all over the world pushed many South African wine makers and co-ops to increase the quality of their wine making. What was once a region that supplied an intimidating amount of cheap wine became a region speckled with more and more private-firm, estate-managed vineyards that were delivering knock-out wines.

While South Africa's bias towards white grapes reaches all the way back to the first vines that were transplanted there from France (most likely Muscat and Chenin Blanc), it is today attempting to bring more balance. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are both creating a big impact, while not detracting from centuries of experience with white grapes like Chenin Blanc and new explorations of Sauvignon Blanc which are now producing outstanding world class wines.

South African Wine Styles
The bulk of South Africa's experience with wine rests on the shoulders of white wine grapes, particularly Chenin Blanc. While the country also has extensive experience with lower quality grapes such as the regionally notorious Cape Riesling, it has had some success creating its own varietals. Pinotage is one such grape. A cross between Cinsaut and Pinot Noir, it is popular locally and is known for its rustic and simple personality.

While there are extensive vineyards throughout the region, half of the country's grapes are distilled into brandy and cheap spirits, the result of a combination between labor practices and the scorching heat of the inland grape growing areas. On the labor practice end of things, South Africa is in the process of overhauling working habits that prevent grapes from being harvested on weekends. If a plot of grapes is ripe on Friday, for example, it would not be harvested until the following Monday, whether it became over-ripe in the process or not.

The climate, of course, is crucial to the quality of wine no matter where it is made, and South Africa's most prized wines are grown on the cooler coast where more acidity and balance can be introduced to them. Nearly all of the laudable wine districts in South Africa spread out from Cape Town, the historical port city where the region's first vines were unloaded in the 17th century.

To this end, quality South African wines made from grapes that favor such a climate, like Sauvignon Blanc, will be so remarkably unique -- sporting distinctive herbal, gunflinty and smoky flavors – that they will knock your socks off.

Similarly distinctive flavors are imparted to the Cabernet Sauvignons and Shiraz's of the area, so be sure to take in these idiosyncratic South African qualities whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Notable Vineyards Producing Sauvignon Blanc

  • Boschendal
  • L'Ormarins
  • Niel Ellis
  • Saxenburg
  • Thelema Mountain Vineyards
  • Villiera Estate
  • Zonnebloem