I receive more positive feedback and recommendations from members regarding South Africa than for any other of my buying regions. Member attendance and response at our annual tastings has been enthusiastic, yet curiously our sales remain modest, perhaps because the picture in South Africa is more complex than many other parts of the world.
Established winemakers re-emerged onto the international scene in the early 1990s, following the demise of the apartheid era, and new wines, wineries, highly qualified winemakers, and even new regions have appeared steadily ever since. This makes South Africa more exciting than ever, but more complicated, too.
Most South African wines are varietally labelled - a key factor in any buying decision. Styles vary of course, and our notes aim to clarify this, but you will probably already know whether you like sauvignon blanc (now among the world's best), chardonnay, riesling, syrah, pinot noir, or cabernet.
South Africa's most famous grapes - white chenin blanc and red pinotage - will be less familiar unless you are already a convert. South African chenins are quite different from those in the Loire - almost always dry, but ripe and full of flavour (often with the complexity that comes from the increasingly sought-after old-vine fruit). Pinotage, a South African creation, is for many a love-it-or-hate-it grape. I happen to like it; some of my buying colleagues claim they do not, despite many of them voting for The Ruins Pinotage - now our new Society's Pinotage - in our Wine Championship blind tastings a few years ago! Pinotage's 'parents' are pinot noir, which imparts its strawberry aromas and lovely texture in young wines, and more complex, farmyard characteristics in more mature examples, and cinsault, the southern French grape, which adds spice and body. It was developed in South Africa in 1926.
All about the blend
More significant in South Africa than much of the New World (notably New Zealand and Chile) are blends, which make selection more complicated, as the style of the wine is less easy to anticipate. As in Australia and California, however, many of the best wines here are blends - a sign of maturity in the industry.
Bordeaux-style blends are one of the Stellenbosch region's great strengths. Wines such as Kanonkop's Paul Sauer, Meerlust's Rubicon and Warwick's Trilogy are South African icons, produced over many years, and with proven ageing capacity. The striking Simonsberg mountain names the ward (or area) most highly sought after for these reds, but Stellenbosch produces a wide range of wine styles, from excellent chenin blancs and sauvignons to robust pinotage and Cape Blends.
Paarl is its less-well-known neighbour, also warm, and best known for its robust but smooth reds. Franschhoek is understandably one of the most-visited towns in the Cape (with lots of French Huguenot history and some of the best restaurants in the region). It has a number of famous producers, most notably Boekenhoutskloof, but most do not produce exclusively from Franschhoek fruit. Cape Chamonix is an exception we rate highly.
The generally warmer Swartland region has been at the forefront of the development of Rhône varietals in South Africa, led by stars such as Eben Sadie, as well as home to some of the best old chenin blanc vines. Further north, and much cooler is Citrusdal, where fresher styles are produced and chenin blanc can achieve real finesse.
The Cape peninsula, to the south of Cape Town itself, is home to Constantia, known for its cooler climate thanks to the influence of the two oceans that almost circle it. Here, sauvignon blanc and the Bordeaux grapes predominate, but there are lovely examples of aromatic varieties too, notably Klein Constantia's elegant Riesling and its wonderful sweet muscat Vin de Constance.
Elgin, en route to Hermanus, is another very cool region, very much up-and-coming for sauvignon blanc, as is Elim, which is even further south and the source of our Exhibition Sauvignon. Robertson is almost due north of Elim, but way inland and far hotter. A small number of family producers manage to make excellent sauvignon here, too, but it is also a good source of chardonnay, increasingly pinot noir, and elegantly styled pinotage and Rhône varietals, not forgetting the excellent fortified muskadels which are unique to the Cape.
The most important factor in deciding whether or not to buy is often the producer's name. This is easily achieved when some of the grandest 'old' names, such as Meerlust, Hamilton Russell, Kanonkop, and Klein Constantia, still rank among the country's best producers. Where it gets trickier is when the winery is new, has no track record, or the winemaker is not a household name.
Two of the Cape's stars, whose wines are stocked by The Society, are Eben Sadie and Chris Williams. Sadie began his career with one of the most dynamic winemakers of the previous generation, Charles Back (Fairview and Spice Route). And Williams made an instant splash with his The Foundry wines (with great reviews from Jancis Robinson MW), and was quickly snapped up to become winemaker at historic estate Meerlust.
So, if what you remember of South Africa are over-sweetened whites and tired, old reds, take another look.