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South Africa – a traditional wine making country with a continuing wine evolution

By Julia Jenkins, 2nd September 2019

Old vines, new young wine makers and lots of energy characterises South African wine production that is reflected in the amazing array of quality wines at affordable prices now available. Gone are the days of rustic, tannic Pinotage or other jammy unpleasant reds that are now replaced by an ever-increasing range of appealing easy drinking wines some of which are made from quirky blends of different grapes whilst others make the most of their classic heritage.

A great example I tasted recently of modern wine making is an exciting new collaboration with the talented guys behind De Kleine Wijn Koop in Stellenbosch, South Africa. It’s a Cape Blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Pinotage mostly from the Swartland area and a little bit from Voor-Paardeberg, made in a light to medium bodied style. It’s a very fresh vibrant red with lovely spicy notes making it a great partner with food cooked on a ‘braai’.  Using traditional grape varieties mixed in an unexpectedly successful blend is happening throughout Swartland and other regions less focused on traditional wines.

Pinotage is the result of a cross developed in 1925 between the quality wine grape – Pinot Noir and the robust grape – Hermitage to create a grape that could withstand the harsh growing conditions in the Cape Winelands. Initially producing very rustic, harsh wines the modern versions are refreshing, spicy and fruity with lovely brambly plummy notes. It has to be present in Cape Blends such as the stylish renowned Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies.

Blends certainly seem to be the way to go for both red and white wines. Bordeaux blends such as the Rustenberg John X Merriman combine the best of the Cabernet and Merlot grapes that age well in oak producing a complex wine that ages well. The blend overcomes some of the otherwise negative characters sometimes found in the wines when made from single varieties. In white wines, too, the addition of Semillon to Sauvignon fills out the flavour making a lovely mouthfilling textured yet still elegant wine. Another example of old world influence from Bordeaux.

More modern white blends are often found too based on the Chenin Blanc grape which is the most widely planted white grape in South Africa. Eekhoring white is predominantly Chenin Blanc, with an eclectic cocktail of alternative varieties, mostly from the Swartland and from vines up to 38-years-old. It has the hallmarks of the great Chenin-based Cape white blends: a textural, multi-layered, crisp, with floral aromas, some beeswax, then plush stone fruit on the palate, finishing dry and long. Painted Wolf Chenin Blanc often has a little Semillon or Chardonnay blended with it and this range’s talented winemaker, Jeremy Borg (a trained chef and winemaker) creates amazing blends such as the recently tasted Pictus VI – his latest in his icon range with a blend Grenache, Chenin Blanc and Viognier. Again, an unexpectedly successful and delicious blend of three very distinctive grape varieties that seem unlikely to lend their style to an enjoyable blend.

In addition to the many pressures on wine producers around the world those in South Africa have been pushed almost to their limit by the drought of the last few years. As this is likely to be a recurring climate change result the varieties planted are changing to include drought resistant Eastern Mediterranean ones like Assyrtiko, Carignan etc creating more potential for more new wines to come out of South Africa over the next few years. A country to watch with wines to seek out and enjoy and great value too at all price points.

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