South African Wine – From Coop to Quality

Harry Lambourne
22nd June 2023

South African wine is one of the most sought after new world wine nations. It’s the 8th largest producer of wine in the world, (MacNeil 893), and responsible for a whole host of everyday table wine, as well as delicious, complex offerings.

Unsurprisingly, the history of South African wine is not without its controversies and outright wrongdoing. So, we will take you on a tour of the 300 years South African wine. From the dubious beginnings, to the fraught middle, finally with what appears to be a happy ending.

We will also review the key grapes varieties of South African wine, as well as the top South African wine regions and their terroir. We’ll throw in some key recommendations as well!

By the end you’ll be well equipped to decipher any wine lists South African section. You’ll be able to start your note for your favourite South African tipple. Believe us, whatever your favourite style of wine is there will be a South African wine to match it.

So, without further ado let’s begin our tour of South African wine.

South African Wine – The History

Chequered Beginnings

South African wine burst onto the global market in the mid to late 1990s, but the first vines were planted long before that. The first vines were planted around 300 years ago in the 17th century by Dutch colonists. The dutch influence in South African wine and South Africa in general is clear even today.

South Africa was colonised primarily as a restocking station between Europe and the spice-rich East Indies. When settling in the region they noted some indigenous grape varieties and aimed to turn these into wine, likely through the process of wild yeast fermentation. However, the results were underwhelming. These indigenous bush grapes were not cutting the mustard.

This led to Jan van Riebeeck, (the commander of the settlement), sending word to Europe. The next ships were to immediately bring European grape cuttings, (MacNeil 893). It is likely that these first grape cuttings were of Chenin Blanc and Muscat of Alexandria. Chenin Blanc because today it is the most frequently planted grape variety. Then, Muscat of Alexandria because even in the late 17th century this wine began to cause a stir.

Sweet Muscat wines from South African are still very popular, but they were some of the most sought after exports from South Africa for hundreds of years. There are records of this wine popping up across Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte and King Frederick of Germany are both said to have ordered cases of the stuff, (MacNeil 894).

Then, it crops up in literature, Charles Dickens called it a ‘cure all’, in the Mystery of Edwin Drood. Baudelaire draws some raunchy comparisons to it, as he’s one to do. Even Jane Austen mentions this elixir in ‘Sense and Sensibility‘. Mrs. Jennings states, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister.”

Sense and Sensibility. An early proponent of South African wine.
Sense and Sensibility

Look out for Vin de Constance if you want a taste of history! There are numerous great examples out there.

When discussing this period of the history of South African wine, there are some injustices which can’t be overlooked. For a long period, these newer vines couldn’t be harvested by machine or plow, which led to the colonists of the time to use slave labour. Initially, this was the Malay people before Madagascan and Mozambique slaves were used. Sadly, this is an unavoidable part of the history behind these first vines, (MacNeil 895).

A Rocky Middle

As time went on South African went through numerous attempts to establish a successful wine industry. However, until very recently it was dominated by a few coops which used grapes grown by a vast amount of winemakers. These grapes were generally used to produce either unexciting still table wine or distilled into brandy. In fact, up until 1990, 70% of grapes were still used for cheap table wine, brandy or simply discarded, (MacNeil 897).

This fact speaks to the issues that the South African wine industry had gone through. For long periods, the South African wine industry went through cycles. Large, powerful coops which were backed by government commissions, were established in the early 20th century. This followed the Anglo-Boer War and an outbreak of phylloxera. However, the large amounts of coops caused over-planting, grape prices fell and things went south again.

World War 1 rolled around again causing devastation to the South African wine industry. Grape vines were uprooted and alfalfa fields were planted to feed ostriches. Ostrich feathers had become very fashionable as part of roaring 20s fashion. As so often is the case, this fashion trend was fleeting. Grapes were then replanted and once again overproduction loomed.

For a long time, this is how the South African wine industry operated. Large coops dominated production and this led to unimpressive bulk wines and brandy. For example, KWV, (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika), operated from 1917 until 1991. Grape growers from across South Africa would sell their grapes to KVW, so they could be used in production of lesser wines and brandy. Then, during the 1990s, it slowly dismantled into smaller groups as a major turning point in the South African wine industry was on the horizon.

A New Start in The South African Wine Industry

The 1990s were a huge turning point for South Africa, not just in terms of the wine industry, but their whole political and social landscape went into upheaval. For a long period, South African wine was largely unknown beyond its borders. There were strict trade sanctions against the incumbent apartheid government and this meant that exports of wine simply weren’t happening.

However, this changed when apartheid ended and the doors of commerce swung open as wine began to flow across the world. This caused winemakers to move away from grape growing for brandy or cheap wine. Winemakers broke away from the huge coops and looked to produce their own wines. Today, 80% of South African wine is made for consumers, (MacNeil 897). This is a 50% uptick from before 1990.

This is always where wine flourishes. When it is left to small winemakers looking to produce something new and exciting. So, without further ado, let’s look into the grapes that have established reputation in South African wine.

The Grapes of South African Wine

There are a huge number of various indigenous grape varieties across the whole of South Africa. However, there are a few select grapes which are used far more than any others. These will be our focus in this article.

South African wine is dominated by white wine grapes. This is due to the prevalence of brandy and sweet wines which utilised these grapes historically. Although, a large amount of red wine is produced. The vast majority of these grapes are international varieties from Europe, with the exception of one – Pinotage. This grape is a crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir but more on that later!

The White Grapes of South African Wine
Chenin Blanc Grapes - South African Wine Grapes
Chenin Blanc Grapes

First on our list of South African white wine grapes is Chenin Blanc. Much like in the Loire Valley, the success of this grape has stemmed from its versatility. It has the ability to make dry fresh still wine and even deeply acidic sparkling wine. However, it can produce rich, luscious sweet wines as well as everything in between. This spectrum of flavours can be found in South African Chenin Blanc as well. You will find that fresh, zesty style which has tart green fruit and herbaceous notes. Or, you can find riper, oaked versions often blended with Rhône Valley varieties, such as Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. These wines will display stone fruit flavours with touches of butter and honey.

This dichotomy between fresh, zesty styles and riper versions of the same grape variety is a trend throughout the other white grape varieties of South African wine. Sauvignon Blanc can display rich tropical notes, or deeply acidic and herbal notes. Chardonnay can be big, bold and buttery, or heavy on the tart citrus notes. These tend to be down to winemaker preferences but also the location of the vineyard. Coastal areas are cooler and keep things fresh, whereas areas inland that get much hotter tend to display riper tasting notes.

The Red Grapes of South African Wine

International varieties also dominate the production of red South African wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot tend to be put on the hotter sites as they’ll fully ripen. Then, you’ll find Syrah on both the hot and the coastal sites. This allows you to have the jammy, rich styles of Syrah, as well as the leaner, peppery style. Finally, Pinot Noir has begun to find much success in many of the cooler sites in South Africa, such as Walker Bay.

The biggest point of difference in South African red wine is Pinotage. This was originally created back in 1925 by Dr. Abraham Izak Perold. It is a crossing of two different grape varieties – Cinsault and Pinot Noir. This means that cuttings of two separate vines will be combined into a single rootstock, creating a new grape variety.

For a great amount of time, this variety remained in relative obscurity, until Kanonkop garnered acclaim in the 1970s. You can also find it in ‘Cape Blends’ where it generally represents around 70% of the blend. Pinotage is certainly unique and well worth a try. You can expect rich black fruit flavours, along with spicy and sweet notes. This includes tobacco, smoke, liquorice, dark chocolate and even bacon!

An honourable mention needs to go to the sparkling wine of the region – ‘Method Cap Classique‘. These are traditional method sparkling wines, like Champagne or Crémant. They also use the classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but you can also find Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in the mix.

The South African Wine Regions

South Africa has such a rich and varied terroir which allows for these great varieties in flavour from the same grape variety. It is bordered by two oceans, (the Atlantic and Indian). These oceans help to have a deeply cooling effect on what would otherwise be a hot region.

The Benguela Current runs up from the Antarctic Ocean which brings cooling winds. Then, the local wind pattern called the Cape Doctor blows these cooling winds through the vineyards. Temperatures can regularly exceed 30 degrees so these mitigating factors are deeply necessary.

Table Mountain
Table Mountain

There are also various mountain ranges, including the awe-inspiring Table Mountain. While Table Mountain may be the highest peak in the area, followed closely by Simonsberg, there are a seeming never-ending section of peaks and valleys through the South African wine world.

The Western Cape is the hub of almost all the South African wine production in the region. You’ll see wines labelled as such when they draw grape varieties in from across this super-region. However, there are smaller sub-regions within the Western Cape which specialise in specific grape varieties and styles.

The Western Cape is defined as a ‘Geographical Unit’. Then, the next section down is called a ‘Region’. This is a large area with a set of dominant topographical features that link the region together. One further step down you have ‘Districts’ and then below that you have ‘Wards’. These are even more specialised and will generally be used when winemakers are creating wines with a real sense of place.

Let’s take a look at some of the key wine producing regions within the Western Cape in South Africa and what wines you should try from them.

The Coastal Region

Shockingly, this is made up of the coastal vineyards. The key sub-region of the coastal sites is Stellenbosch. This has long been a key area for fine wine production in South Africa. It’s generally warm but rarely too hot thanks to cool winds from the False Bay area. It also gets sufficient rainfall. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are found in blends here, but you’ll also get Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the cooler areas.

Paarl is just to the north of Stellenbosch but is less exposed to the cooling influences of the Cape Doctor. This means you can expect bigger red wines and white wines with riper fruit flavours.

Next, (in the coastal region), is Contstantia which sits just to the east of the Table Mountain. We’ve touched upon the fact that historic sweet wine can be found here, however the region also has a speciality for old vine Sauvignon Blanc.

Swartland is another one to watch. It’s a centre of innovation, whereas many areas in the South African wine industry have had issues in modernisation. Through dry-farming methods and the limiting of yields winemakers in this area have built up a reputation for old vine Chenin Blanc and high quality Syrah.

Breede River Valley

Next is the Breede River Valley. Worcester is a key producing area but it is deeply hot and dry. Due to this, irrigation is necessary. The water is largely drawn from the Breede River. The area is a key point of production for high volume branded wines and brandy.

Robertson is slightly cooler than Worcester thanks to cooling winds and can be a source for great Syrah and full-bodied Chardonnay in the less fertile areas.

Cape South Coast
Walker Bay - South African Wine
Walker Bay – Home of Great South African Wine

Last is the Cape South Coast area. Here you can find really fresh, vibrant wines. The exposure to the ocean and high quality fruit combine into some of the best wines in South Africa.

Walker Bay is an area of stunning natural beauty and delicious wine! In particular, the smaller sub-region of Hemel-en-Aarde, produces some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in South Africa.

Then, the areas of Elgin and Elim are both sources of high-quality pungently herbaceous and fresh Sauvignon Blanc.

That’s the long and short of the South African wine industry. You really have a winemaking nation which is establishing itself as a major player. Long gone are the days of large coops simply producing brandy or unimpressive table wine.

Today South African wine is some of the most desired in the world. Fresh and feisty Sauvignon Blanc. Bold, powerful Chardonnay. Lusciously sweet, or deeply intense old vine Chenin Blanc. Brooding red blends. The mysterious and regional Pinotage. Even the famous piece of history that is Vin de Constance – the sweet Muscat wine.

There is an endless choice of options in South African wine and it’s about time you get out and try some. We’ve got a recommendation or three below!

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Works Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

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