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Best South African Wines, A Guide to South African Varieties

Best South African Wines, A Guide to South African Varieties

franco salzillo arriaga |

South Africa is an exciting wine-producing country. South Africa’s wine style is often considered right in the middle between the Old and New World Styles. The wines are bold and fruit-forward, but they have elegance and finesse. 

The best South African wines are all made with select grapes of French inspiration, and they’re on par with the finest in the world. There’s no doubt South African white wine has a strong following, but it’s the South African red wine varieties that earn the highest praise. These are the best South African wines by variety. 

Best South African Wines

  1. Pinotage
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon 
  3. Bordeaux Blends 
  4. Rare Blends
  5. Chardonnay
  6. Riesling
  7. Sauvignon Blanc
  8. Semillon
  9. Chenin Blanc
  10. Muscat de Frontignan

1. Pinotage

Pinotage is South Africa’s flagship grape, but it is not always the source of the best South African wines. Pinotage wines are inky and concentrated, and they can display charred, smoky notes and leather undertones, which are appealing but not for everyone. 

Pinotage was created in 1925 by combining Pinot Noir and Cinsault, and the result was much better than everyone expected. Pinotage wine has gained popularity in the country and abroad, and the grape is sometimes blended for much more exciting results. 

The finest regions for Pinotage are Stellenbosch and Paarl, but the grape grows in every South African wine region. It comes without saying, Pinotage has enjoyed popularity but is also forgotten when talking about the best red grapes in the world. As the country’s vines grow older, Pinotage will get more attention, and that’s something to look forward to. 

2. Cabernet Sauvignon 

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red variety globally, and it’s prevalent in South Africa, particularly in Stellenbosch and Paarl. Here, the grape is bottled as a mono-varietal or blended with Merlot, and sometimes Shiraz for more complex wines. Arguably, the best South African wines in the red category are made with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the finest wines are up there with the best in the world. 

Although white varietals still dominate South Africa’s vineyards, Cabernet occupies the best plots and produces the most age-worthy wines in the country. KWV, the country’s largest producer, is partially responsible for giving Cabernet Sauvignon its place, and other producers soon followed. There’s no doubt the noble red grape can produce exemplary results in the sunny South African vineyards.

Wines to try:

Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

3. Bordeaux Blends 

Cabernet Sauvignon produces good mono-varietal wines, but it offers more generous libations when blended with other red grapes, traditionally Merlot, and in South Africa, others, including Shiraz and Pinotage.

Cabernet is planted all around the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch and Paarl. Producers in both regions craft extraordinary Bordeaux Blends, and it’s thanks to the terroir influenced by the cold breeze coming from the False Bay. This is red wine country, and what comes out of the wineries here is concentrated, age-worthy red wine of the highest quality. South African red wine varieties thrive here, led by Cabernet. These are hands down the best South African wines. 

Cabernet loves the granite and sandstone soils in the region, not dissimilar to the gravely vineyards in Bordeaux — perhaps that’s the secret behind such marvellous wine. 

Wines to try:

Anwilka 2015

4. Rare Blends

Dutch settlers planted the first vines in South Africa in the 1650s, and expertise from the French Huguenots arriving in the country in 1680 helped establish the country’s wine traditions. With no strict rules to restrict wine production and an entirely new terroir, winemakers began experimenting with unusual grape combinations. They eventually got their own national grape, Pinotage, and a wide range or rare blends came to be. 

Cabernet-Merlot blends are widespread, but Cabernet-Shiraz and Cabernet-Pinotage blends are not uncommon. This blending tradition has become a signature for South Africa. Some of the best South African wines are made by blending South African red wine varieties in traditional and uncommon ways. 

Rhone Blends, Bordeaux Blends and others, like Malbec-Merlot or Cabernet-Merlot-Syrah blends, make the country’s wine repertoire exciting, even for the most experienced wine tasters. 

Wines to try:

Anwilka ‘Petit Frere’ 2018

5. Chardonnay

Unlike most other New World wine-producing countries, Chardonnay is not the most planted white wine grape in South Africa; that title goes to Chenin Blanc. Still, Chardonnay produces the country’s most satisfying white wines, especially when the wines go through the malo-lactic fermentation and are aged in oak barrels. 

South African Chardonnay is often big and bold. It offers tropical fruit aromas along with the more traditional golden apple scents over a brioche-scented palate extending into a long aftertaste. 

The best Chardonnay from South Africa can age, and it will evolve for a few years in bottle. It’s on par with the best the New World has to offer, but its acidity levels are always more pronounced, which makes the wine much more balanced. Chardonnay will surely become more prevalent in the African country in the following decades.

Wines to try:

Klein Constantia Chardonnay

6. Riesling

Riesling isn’t the most planted white grape in South Africa. In fact, it’s a rarity. Still, the country’s coldest wine regions are doing well with the German grape. Several sub-regions have night temperatures below 10°C, ideal for growing Riesling. Not to be confused with Cape Riesling, AKA Crouchen Blanc, authentic Riesling has a home in South Africa, and it is turning heads worldwide, even if there’s very little of it. 

Perhaps it’s too soon to call South Africa a source of premium Riesling, but wine producers are getting there, one vintage at a time. Expect to see more Riesling coming from Constantia, for example, near the coast, and probably some from the highlands inland, where the conditions are suitable for growing another cold climate varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. South African Riesling is a revelation. 

Wines to try:

Klein Constantia Riesling 2016

7. Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc has thrived in France since the 18th century, and it arrived in South Africa in the late 1800s. The first South African Sauvignon Blanc vines were probably planted in Groot Constantia, but the real volume was planted in the 1970s, thanks to the white variety’s popularity. 

Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Stellenbosch, Robertson, Swartland and Worcester, and it’s prevalent on the Cape South Coast. Although some producers blend Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon, as in Bordeaux, most are bottled as a mono-varietal, unoaked and sold when still young. 

South Africa’s Sauvignon Blanc is crisp, refreshing and fruity and often shows minerality and citrus scents. Much more herbaceous than most other New World examples, this white grape finds the right balance in South Africa. It’s more fruit-forward than French examples, but more mineral than those found in America, Australia or New Zealand. 

Wines to try:

Klein Constantia “Métis” Sauvignon Blanc

8. Semillon

Semillon is native to France, and it was brought to South Africa by the French Huguenots in the late 1600s. For a while, Semillon was called Green Grape in South Africa, but it now goes by its French name. Before, a sizeable portion of the country’s vineyards was planted with Semillon — at least 80% of the vineyards in South Africa were planted with the green grape. However, most historical vineyards have been replanted with more commercial grapes. 

Today, you can still find Semillon planted in Olifants River, Swartland, Klein Karoo, Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch, Worcester, Breedekloof and Cape South Coast. And, more often than not, Semillon is blended with Sauvignon Blanc or even Chardonnay in an uncommon combination that seems to work well. Semillon, though, is not considered a main varietal in South Africa.

Wines to try:

Boekenhoutskloof Franschhoek Semillon

9. Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is immensely popular in the French Loire Valley, and it has a long history in South Africa, where it’s called Steen. Experts believe this is one of the first vines to arrive in the country with the first Dutch explorers in the 1600s, and it’s easy to see why — the grape is one of the most versatile varietals in the realm of wine. You can make still, sweet and even sparkling wine with Chenin.

The most significant Chenin Blanc vineyards are found in Breedkloof, Olifants River, Paarl, Swartland and Worcester. Cold climates, like the coastal Elgin, also produce Chenin, with fresher results. The grape is rarely oaked, and it’s sometimes blended with other varietals. Most of the country’s bulk white wine is also made with Chenin Blanc, but fine examples also exist. 

Wines to try:

Reyneke Chenin Blanc 2019

10. Muscat de Frontignan

Last but not least, a lesser-known Mediterranean varietal has a special place in South Africa’s wine and its source of the best South African wines on the sweet side. The famous Vin de Constance, a wine style that once swooned Europe’s courts off their feet, is made with this noble and resistant grape. 

Muscat goes back to 1659 in South Africa, as it was one of the first grapes planted in the country by the Dutch settlers. The sweet wines made with the grape were already popular by the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the wine style was lost in time for a while, modern winemakers in Constantia revived it, and it’s once again considered an excellent sweet wine on par with the best in Europe. Muscat feels right at home on the cool Cape Coast.

Wines to try:

Klein Constantia Vin De Constance 2016