South African wine: A developing assemblage of cultivars

Not many, if any places in the world, can claim to have a variety of wine-making climates emulating the areas of western Australia, Italy’s Tuscany region, parts of north central France and California’s Napa Valley, but this is the case in South Africa resulting in some very interesting wine production from its southern tip.

Wineries @ Stellenbosch, South Africa

The value of wine was noted in the mid-1600s when European settlers planted vines and fermented the fruit as prevention for scurvy. The rise and fall of the grape over the next centuries occurred with plant disease and farmers realizing that other crops sometimes proved more profitable, but the industry was always present.  However, most South African wine stayed within the country with apartheid closing the door on many of its exports. In the 1990s with this barrier removed, the world became an open market for the product and markets sat up and began to take notice of the skills that had been developed over time.

White wine, largely based on the Chenin Blanc grape, was first out the gate and, as stated previously, climate variations in the country produced wines with both subtle and remarkable differences leading to individual tastes identifying with particular regions and wineries. This variation was compounded not only by microclimates, but also in soil compositions, the terroir, that varies almost as much from one area to another.

Red wine was soon realized as also being a viable product and Cabernet Sauvignon was the variety, or cultivar, of choice that proved itself exceptionally well. However, a distinct movement grew amongst the country’s wine producers to have a product that could be solidly identified with South Africa and it was decided that a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, known as Pinotage, was the best choice. But even today, the jury is still out if this is the best viniferous variety to represent South African reds and the country’s industry in general, with such experimentation adding to the excitement of the direction South Africa is taking with its wines.


As much of the southern part of the country is used for wine-production, a classification system was required. However, unlike France’s AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) that specifies certain varieties for regions, the South African system is based primarily on terroir with mixed vineyards being permitted, providing recognized varieties are used with all grapes in a wine originating from that area. Under the country’s Wine of Origins (WO) classification that was established in 1972, areas are increasingly defined into geographical units, regions, districts, and finally wards.

As South Africa gains importance on the world wine stage (in 2011 it was ninth on the list of international wine producing countries), there has been a significant increase in half-day and daylong tours, as well as private ones. There are some that feature overnight stays as wineries entice visitors with both modern and château-style accommodations on their grounds. Some tours incorporate both local sites and attractions with wineries, and a unique one is the Pebbles Project Wine Tour that goes off the beaten track to visit children of farmers who tend the vineyards, with proceeds going to a non-profit organization to primarily help finance education.

For a longer excursion, the 3-day and 2-night Wine Connoisseur’s Tour lets oenophiles try truly spectacular wines in unique settings including a 315-year old winery, while lunch is served with backdrops of breathtaking views, as well as visiting some fascinating wine towns en route.

  •   South Africa at the southern tip of the continent is like a green jewel that extends into the Indian and South Atlantic oceans. Grape growing and wine making proliferate here and as Richard Hand discovered traveling with, the experience and hospitality of its people are well worth the journey.

Author: Staff Reporter

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