South Africa has been making wine for over 350 years, longer in fact than either America or Australia, thereby claiming the distinction of the oldest of the ‘New World’ producers. However, South Africa’s penetration of the global marketplace is very recent.

For most of her wine history South Africa produced fortified, often sweet, port and sherry styled wines. Only after World War 2 did some pioneering souls begin to take still table wines seriously. Innovative technology brought over to the Cape pitched the wines hurriedly onto the world stage. Yet the international importers of such wines were generally unimpressed with crude, home grown varieties and stubbornly muscular wines. Meanwhile South and North America, Australia and California had stolen a lead with more consumer friendly styles and domestically understandable presentation.

Like so many new world countries, the wine industry here has mirrored social change. The landmark speech of President de Klerk in 1991, and the release a few years later of Nelson Mandela, heralded the welcome end of Apartheid and opened up South Africa’s repressed wine making skills and set her on the course we know today.

The mid ’90s saw the country thrust into the hitherto restricted global economy. Sanctions were lifted and the world beat a path to many aspects of South Africa’s door. Not least of which were the wines. Due to the enforced isolation and the reliance on a home-grown mentality, wine culture was now lacking way behind the rapidly expanding new world countries. Relatively unknown too were the increasingly popular handful of European grape varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, instead South Africa had grown up building its wine from local indigenous varietals. Vineyards are centred upon a huge area of land with its fulcrum being Cape Town itself. It is this southern limit of such a vast country that is well suited to modern viniculture lapped by the warm Indian Ocean, yet influenced by the cooling winds of the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa’s climate is not dissimilar to that of California. It is unusual therefore to discover that nearly 80% of land under vine produces white grape varieties.

The principal wine that reaches our shores in increasing number is the doyen of the Loire Valley, Chenin, or Steen as it is called locally, but there the similarity generally ends. Chenin here can range from the very ordinary to some robust yet clean dry and off-dry whites. Chenin is much respected within the half dozen or so regions here as it has adapted to almost all micro-climatic variances with its natural ability to change and be changed to the whim of most wine makers. Good Chenin should have a refreshing citrus cut on the palate with hints of orange and pink grapefruit showing a slight prickly fizz on occasions. Add to this an assertive ripe fruit-laden taste and some Chenins will offer rich full bodied wines to savour.

Increasing experimentation is now underway to elevate the rather ordinary Colombard grape via blending as well as other southern French varieties such as Ugni Blanc, Clairette and Semillon. Riesling and Sauvignon are more widespread now as well as the long-standing Muscat vineyards.

Reds are becoming better known and have shrugged off their traditional ‘tarmac and rubber tyre’ image in most cases, and are far less dependent on the brutal over-oaking of the past. The principal red is a recent crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault known as Pinotage, as well known here as Zinfandel is in California and Shiraz in Australia.

Several top class appellations will carry the word estate on the label, although something of a rarity in the regions, indicating a specific farm wherein all grapes are grown by the owners, similar to the Château system in France. Another definition providing a new breed of sparkling wine is Méthode Cap Classique. These white wines use the traditional French champagne system.

To seek out dessert wines, look for Noble Late Harvest on the label indicating sweet wines made from botrytised grapes.


One of the oldest of South Africa’s wine regions, jutting out into the sea on the southern outskirts of Cape Town, cooled by the sea breezes and the Antarctic currents, this is one of the mildest regions. Many of us will have tasted the wine to which the region originally gave its name, a rich sweet dessert wine called Constantia Muscat, in its day, a more popular pudding wine than Tokaji from Hungary. Muscat wines were made by leaving the grapes on the vine well into the warm autumn, to dry and shrivel thus concentrating the sugar starches and evaporating the water content. A revival in this wine is now underway with a delicious example in the form of Vin de Constance.


Now regarded as one of the finest wine regions and the home to South Africa’s most renowned university, over a third of the country’s top estates nestle along the mountain foothills of Stellenbosch, making it something of a wine capital. Apart from the indigenous varieties increasing use is made of Bordeaux style blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the ascendency. Top estates include such luminaries as Kanonkop, Meerlust and Rustenberg.


About 30 miles east of Cape Town, Paarl probably produces more wine than Stellenbsoch. A vast array of increasingly well researched soil types with rainy winters and long dry summers, and home to the most powerful wine organisation, KWV (Ko-operative Wijnbouvers Verenging). In South Africa. KWV is government owned and has acted as a self-styled regulator of the area’s wineries, creating a similar denomination as the DOCs of France under the title of Wine of Origin guaranteeing regions, districts and estates within the region. To the east is the internationally acclaimed Franschoek area (named after the early Hugenot settlers from France translated as French Corner). Most varieties are now grown here with some superior sherry-styled fortified wines, although to enter the E.U, sherry as a nomenclature is forbidden.


North of the Cape itself, Robertson produces good whites with increased attention paid to Chardonnay and now Sauvignon Blanc.

Walker Bay

Walker Bay in the Overburg district is producing some wonderful Burgundian styled reds from the fickle Pinot Noir grape. With a relatively cooler climate, great strides are being made in the Pinot world from estates such as Hamilton Russell and Bonchard-Finlayson.