Primer for South African Wine

Karen Frazier
Map of South Africa with corks

South Africa is one of the world's top 10 wine-producing countries. The wines are often high quality wines at a good price, so they can be much more affordable than wines from other areas of the world.

South Africa's Wine of Origin Designation

Wine came to South Africa with Dutch traders in the 1600s, although the wines didn't enter the international markets until 1990. Today, about 70 percent of the grapes grown in South Africa go to wine production. Most of South Africa's wine regions are located in the Southwestern part of the country, known as Western Cape. Wines regions are organized according to the Wine of Origin (WO) program established in the 1970s.

  • Any wine labeled with the Wine of Origin (WO) designation must contain grapes only from that region.
  • WO designates where the grapes come from and what can be on the label.
  • A wine can be labeled without the WO designation, but they can't list a grape variety, vintage, or region on the label, nor is there any quality guarantee for that wine.
  • Districts are organized into four groups: Geographical units are the largest areas which are then divided into regions, which are divided into districts, and then wards.
  • Wines labeled single vineyard must come from a vineyard that is six hectares or less.
  • Wines labeled estate can contain grapes from neighboring vineyards provided each vineyard has its own production and bottling facility.
  • 90 cultivars--both red and white wine grapes--are approved for use in WO wines.
  • The vintage on a WO label guarantees that at least 85 percent of the grapes used were harvested in the listed vintage.
  • Wines with the WO label have also been vetted by a tasting panel and meet all quality requirements for color, clarity, and flavors.
Stellenbosch Vineyard, South Africa

South African Grape Varietals

More than 90 grape cultivars are grown in South Africa, there are seven that are among the most widely planted and popular wines from the country.

Pinotage

This is a grape that is uniquely South African. The Pinotage grape is a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The wines made from Pinotage grapes are dark red, with smoky, fruity, dark berry, and spicy flavors similar to Australia's Shiraz. The wines are boldly tannic with low to medium acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is the most planted red wine grape in South Africa. The wines are acidic and tannic with stone fruit flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon grown in some of South Africa's cooler climates with lots of coastal cooling may have some green or herbal notes as well.

Merlot

Much of South Africa's Merlot is grown in the Stellenbosch region, which also grows Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. The region is known for its Bordeaux-style blends. While you can find soft, fruit-forward single varietal Merlots from Stellenbosch, for the most part Merlot is blended with other Bordeaux varietals.

Shiraz/Syrah

In South African wines, Shiraz or Syrah can range in style from concentrated jammy, spicy, fruit forward flavor bombs to more subtle and refined styles reminiscent of France's Rhône wines. Syrah is also used for blending with other reds.

Chenin Blanc

South Africa plants more Chenin Blanc than any other grape. It makes dry white wines with tart flavors that include citrus, tropical fruits, and melons, with plenty of acidity and mineral notes.

Sauvignon Blanc

As it does in other Southern Hemisphere countries such as New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc grows well in South Africa. The Sauvignon Blanc wines from South Africa are crisp, light, and acidic with herbal and green notes.

Sauvignon Blanc Sign at Vineyard in Franschhoek, South Africa

Chardonnay

The ward of Robertson is the top Chardonnay wine region in South Africa. As it is elsewhere in the world, the Chardonnay from South Africa ranges in style from crisp and acidic to toasty and warm with oak flavors.

Chardonnay Grapes at a Winery in Franschhoek, South Africa

Cap Classique Wines

Cap classique or méthode cap classique (MCC) wines are South Africa's sparkling wines made using the méthode champenoise. Wines labeled as MCC, méthode cap classique, or cap classique are designated premium sparkling wines from the country. South African wine tasting notes suggest these wines rival great sparkling wines from around the world but are far more affordable than their European counterparts.

7 South African Wines to Try

Get a taste of South Africa by trying some of these wines from the country.

Graham Beck Brut Méthode Cap Classique

The Gram Beck Brut is a non-vintage MCC blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that only costs around $17 per bottle, but it's creamy, complex, and delicious.

Kanonkop Pinotage

At around $42 per bottle, the Pinotage from Kanonkop is one of the most consistently highly rated Pinotage wines from South Africa. With flavors of blackberries and dark chocolate, it's a great example of the types of wine the grape can produce.

Ken Forrester The FMC Chenin Blanc

This Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc, Ken Forrester "The FMC", costs around $65 per bottle, and it receives aggregate ratings across critics and vintages of 91 points. It has flavors of pear, tropical fruits, and honeysuckle with a lingering finish.

Meerlust Rubicon

Meerlust Rubicon from the Stellenbosch region is a South African Bordeaux-blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Wine Spectator calls the 2014 vintage "polished" noting flavors of black currant and fig.

Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc

At $20 per bottle, the Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc is a budget friendly wine that delivers flavors of grapefruit, lemon, herbs, and minerals. Vintages consistently receive ratings of 90 points.

Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay

This is an affordable bottle of Chardonnay; the Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay only costs $27 per bottle, but it's well-received by tasters and critics. Decanter awarded the 2016 vintage 95 points. Expect flavors of citrus and vanilla with hints of sweet spices.

Mullenix Syrah

From the Swartland region, Mullenix Syrah costs around $40 per bottle. Wine Enthusiast awarded the 2014 vintage a 94 point rating, and Robert Parker awarded the 2016 vintage a 93 point rating, so it's well-received by wine critics. Here, you'll find a fragrant and refined wine with notes of citrus, black fruits, and violets.

Try South African Wines

If you've never tried a wine from South Africa, there couldn't be a better time than now. Because wines from South Africa are relatively new to the world stage, you can find exceptional wines at affordable prices.

Primer for South African Wine