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South African Cultivars


Neville Goedhals


[Impress friends, family and lovers with your selection of foreign wines ... A series of articles offering practical advice on purchasing wines imported into the USA. Each article covers a different country of origin.]

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Although South Africa has been producing wines since 1791, only wine connoisseurs have been taking advantage of its excellent vintages and low prices. Located at the southernmost point of South Africa, the Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate, cooling winds and winter rain offer perfect conditions for producing great cultivars.

Stellenbosch, founded in the 1600’s, is regarded as the center of the South African wine industry. It offers numerous tasting tours recommended both for the excellent wines and for the scenic beauty. Other areas producing wines of note include Klein Constantia, Paarl, the Overberg, Darling, Elgin and Cape Agulhas. 




The wine area is home to over 4,500 grape-farmers, most of whom take their fruit to one of 70 co-ops. In addition there are 90 wine estates that grow their own fruit.


The Whites

South Africa is celebrated for its clean fresh white wines, in particular Chenin Blanc, known locally as Steen. Other white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, Colombard, Semillon and Riesling. Most of the whites are listed as ‘Best Buy’ by trustworthy sources such as the ‘Wine Enthusiast’ while many beat the Italian, German and French wines in international competitions.

A note to white wine lovers: South African Sauvignon Blanc dominates at most international festivals and competitions. It’s difficult to find a bad one.


The Reds

Great inroads have been made by South African red wines where the focus is shifting from mass produced wine to more fashionable blends, and a number of estates regularly produce gold medal winners. Nevertheless some care is needed in selecting origin and vintage. Better known South African reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

A note to red wine lovers: Look for South African blends with a Merlot base. They are uncommonly smooth with rich flavors, often beating French Bordeaux blends in tasting tests.

The Pinotage grape is regarded as a ‘local treasure.’ It’s a South African grape variety made by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsaut resulting in a red grape capable of producing a full aromatic red wine. When stored in oak Pinotage can be outstanding. For those who like a woody taste to their reds be sure to purchase a bottle.


What to Buy:

Vintage: Most good reds will require three to four years in the bottle, and the varieties I have listed below are at their best after eight years i.e. buy 1998 or older, or better yet, buy recent vintages and store them at a constant temperature (cool room temperature or less). The white wines do not require aging and 2004/5 produced some excellent wines.

Some thoughts on food: Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with red meats or chocolate, while Pinot Noir complements white meat roasts such as duck, chicken or pork.

The wines listed below range in price from a paltry $11.00 to $36.00 for the most expensive. It doesn’t cost a fortune to savor good wine.

Recommended Reds: Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon; Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon; Kanonkop Pinotage; Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir; Meerlust Merlot;

Recommended Blends: Meerlust Rubicon; Kanonkop Paul Sauer; Engelbrect Els; Rupert and Rothschild.

Recommended Whites: Neil Ellis Sauvignon Blanc; Nederburg Stein (Chenin Blanc); Bouchard Finlayson Chardonnay; Buitenverwachting Rhine Riesling.


Where to Purchase

Unfortunately many supermarkets appear to be stocking up on mass produced wine with long shelf life (Usually these wines have high levels of sulphites which may aggravate asthma or prompt allergic reactions such as hives or headaches). Although you may find the odd gem amongst the wine labels on your supermarket shelf, it’s much easier to find a good vintage in a liquor store.

Purchasing note: Recently the U.S. Supreme Court repealed state laws barring consumers from buying wine online and having it shipped across state borders. Simply enter “South Africa online wine” as your search criteria for an astounding list of online suppliers.

Cautionary note: The South African wine industry has a “Wine of Origin” certification scheme to protect both the producer and consumer. When purchasing check for the certification label on the neck of the bottle; this guarantees the character and quality of the wine i.e. the origin and varietal composition.