Wine making in South Africa, and particularly in the region around Cape Town, has been receiving more and more attention and acclaim, but the history of wine production in the area actually goes back several hundred years. The Dutch are credited with bringing wine production to the region to help prevent scurvy among their sailor population, and one of the first vineyards established, Constantia, still produces wines to this day. There were historic detriments to South Africa developing an international wine presence—a Phylloxera outbreak at the end of the 19th century that destroyed many of the country’s vines, and international resistance to doing business with South Africa during Apartheid. But the last twenty years have seen a decided resurgence in South African wines.
There is a wine classification system in South Africa that denotes “Wine of Origin” (WO) based on the specific region, district, and ward where a wine’s grapes are produced. The system is much less stringent than the appellations found in European countries (percentages of varieties, maximum yields, etc. are not regulated), but focuses on accurate labeling of the wine’s geographical zone. There is also a “single vineyard” designation, which indicates the grapes used in the production come from a single vineyard.
So what are the most famous wines of South Africa? They are defined by grape variety and region. Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Breede River Valley are the most known areas. Each of them produce a number of varietals. To be labeled a varietal wine, the wine must include at least 85% of that varietal. For whites, Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, and Chardonnay are probably the most planted, and for red Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and the whimsically-named Pinotage. You may have heard of this “Pinotage” wine: it is one of South Africa’s signature varietals, a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (known locally as “Hermitage”), and is currently very much in fashion and receiving a lot of international attention.
There is also quite a tradition of dessert wines in South Africa, including a “Cape port,” which is a fortified port-style wine, but we’ll save these for another day!
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wine production in South Africa.
Were you surprised to learn that wine production in South Africa goes back so many centuries? Have you had a “Pinotage” wine before? What’s your favorite South African wine? We’d love to hear from you in the comments or on social media.
By Peg Kern
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