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.
Browse our South African wines
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.
Three key grape varieties in South Africa
If there is a trio that represents South Africa’s signature grape varieties, it’s chenin blanc, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon. Chenin’s remarkable history in South Africa, stylistic versatility and resurgence as a truly fine wine in the recent ‘new wave’ ensures a wealth of choices to try. Pinotage continues to evolve into a plethora of different styles meaning there’s never been a better time to explore, or revisit, its charms. And while Bordeaux and California may produce better-known examples of cabernet sauvignon, its historical importance in South Africa – and the many outstanding wines with a specifically Cape character to them – means there are rich pickings indeed.
Find out more about these three key grapes in South Africa
My name's Jo Locke and I am the buyer for South African wines here at The Wine Society, which I've been since I joined in 2004. And that was a real joy for me, because I had bought South African wines in a previous life, but I'd had a gap of about ten years and an enormous amount changed in that time. But I have to say even more has changed since, and for the better. It's the most exciting region that I'm currently buying wine from.
Now, as a previous buyer of Bordeaux wines, you won't be surprised to hear that I'm a lover of the cabernet sauvignon grape champion of the left bank in Bordeaux, most commonly used for blending in classic French wines. But it's a grape that stands well on its own, as well as in blends. It's a grape that is well structured. You can get lovely characters as the wine matures, of cedar, tobacco, cigar box, pencil lead, those are the classic pointers. When it's young, it's more berry fruit with a lovely freshness to it. Sometimes a grip of tannin, but in the warmth of South Africa you get an extra ripeness, which helps to moderate those tannins.
You get some super top examples where you will have very good use of oak and you get some very affordable wines. Probably the best rule of thumb is that at the lower price bracket, you're better off with a blend. The higher you go, you can safely rely on cabernet sauvignon, particularly from the Stellenbosch region, which has proved such a fantastic home for cabernet, and in particular the Simonsberg Mountain, which has really made a name for its cabernet in recent years. Most of the wines that you see labelled cabernet will have a splash of those other traditional blending grapes in them.
So, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, increasingly, occasionally shiraz and sometimes cinsault. That's a traditional style in the cape, but by and large, the core of those wines, will be cabernet. And so that is a wine to explore. And I'm sure you will find flavours, myriad flavours.
My name is Jo Locke and I've been a buyer here at The Wine Society since 2004, with responsibility for South Africa all of that time, which was a joy for me because I did buy South African wines in a previous life, but I'd had a ten-year gap and coming back to it was so exciting because so much has changed, and for the better. But what's interesting is that even more has changed since, and South Africa is certainly the most exciting region that I'm currently buying from, so I can thoroughly recommend that you explore it. Today, I’m here to talk about chenin blanc, which I'm on record as admitting is my favourite white grape, partly because I learned about wine initially in the Loire Valley, and that's where the chenin blanc grape originates, and it was taken to South Africa by French Huguenot settlers over 350 years ago. It was originally known as Steen, and you sometimes still hear it referred to that, but you don't tend to see that on labels anymore.
It's perhaps one reason why it's still South Africa's most widely planted grape of whites and reds. For years it made cheap-and-cheerful stuff, perhaps not South Africa's finest hour, but in the last two, three decades, the winemakers there have really realised what they've got, particularly the fantastic old vines that produce some of the top examples these days, either straight chenin or the Cape White Blends, which tend to be a base of chenin blanc, or an element of chenin blanc blended with other things. The Rhône grape varieties, viognier, roussanne, marsanne are actually quite a common grape to blend with them. The beauty of chenin is that it retains a certain freshness. It retains its acidity, it retains a minerality, even in those hot, dry temperatures of the Cape, including the Swartland region, which is home to many of those old bush vines. And it's those old vines that are low to the ground, rather sprawling. They're well protected from the heat of the sun, so they cope very well with the conditions.
Chenin is made in a wide range of styles, whether it's bottled as a solo grape or indeed in a Cape Blend. It's very versatile because it has some body, it doesn't have too strong a flavour, a little bit like chardonnay. You can put it through oak, you can turn it into sparkling wine, you can make really top sweet wine from it. So, there's probably a chenin blanc out there for everybody and I would urge you to try them, really well worth exploring. There are some fantastic new-wave, top-end chenin blancs these days, made by people like Lukas van Loggerenberg, Sebastian Beaumont at the eponymous estate down in Bot River. Thistle & Weed is one of the newer names. And of course, Chris Alheit, who makes our Exhibition Chenin for us, but also who made his name with the very famous wine Cartology, which is primarily old-vine chenin, with just a splash of old-vine semillon, which was another grape that settled very early in the Cape all those years ago. So, South African chenin, explore it for the everyday, but also for those special occasions.
I think you'll like it.
My name is Jo Locke. I'm the buyer for South Africa here at The Wine Society, which I've been since I joined in 2004. But I had actually bought South African wines in a previous life. It was a fantastic return for me after a ten-year gap, and so much have changed in that time and even more has changed since. So, it's one of the most exciting places that I buy wine, and I would argue that any of us is buying wine these days. Today I'm going to talk about pinotage, which is South Africa's very own red grape. It was actually created by a crossing, which many grapes are created that way, cross fertilisation between pinot noir and cinsault, which is originally from the south of France, and that happened back in the 1920s. Professor Perold at Stellenbosch University made that crossing, but the first commercial plantings weren't until the 1950s, so it took some time to actually get the grape material going. And then the earliest one of the famous names, Lanzerac, was the first commercial bottling, and there have been a few old bottles of that wine still around and they have aged incredibly well. Since then, in the 70s and even into the 80s, pinotage had a bit more of a checkered history. People didn't always love it. I went to South Africa on an MW trip, I think it was in 1985, and I was amongst our group in quite a minority of people who enjoyed pinotage. But it wasn't all good. Now, having said that, things have changed dramatically in the last ten years or so. The quality is really excellent and there's tremendous variety as well. You can get light, fresh styles made in a much more modern, accessible way. Great served cool, whether it's with a summer barbecue or even in the winter months, it’s a lovely wine to have with mushrooms. Or they can go full up to the big, traditionally vinified, open fermenters, big hefty reds tend to be quite high in alcohol. It's a grape that needs to be as physiologically ripe as possible. It gets naturally high sugar levels. Some people use French oak, some use American oak, some a bit of both. And all of these factors have an impact on the style. Some of the most serious, well-known examples are from Kanonkop, who make our Exhibition Pinotage for us. But there are other very well-known names. Beeslaar, which is the wine made by Abrie, who is the winemaker at Kanonkop, is one of the most celebrated wines these days. And there are myriad wines from all across South Africa, from the warmer regions right down to the cooler regions, which you won't be surprised to hear, tend to make those lighter, fresher, cooler styles.
So, it's a grape that's very versatile with food. I went to a fantastic tasting years ago where, in an Indian restaurant, and the only wine that went with every single tasting dish we tried was pinotage.
It's incredibly adaptable, so, if it's a wine you didn't used to like, I would urge you to give it another go. If it's a wine that you've discovered and you've enjoyed, try the different styles, because we have quite a range of different styles available at any one time, so it's well worth a look and worthy of your attention, I would say. Sometimes it'll bring out the pinot noir bit of its heritage, sometimes more the cinsault. But the two together make a really interesting and unique grape that's planted hardly anywhere else.
So, South Africa is your place to go for pinotage.
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.