South African Wines: Your At a Glance Guide

South Africa has a long history of winemaking dating back to the 17th century. Both South African white wine and South African red wine are more than worthy of attention, bridging the gap between New World and Old World with amazing finesse and presenting some seriously good offerings for exceptional value. Read on as we take a whistle-stop tour of South African wines, looking at the South African wine regions and exploring the top varieties and blends you can’t afford to miss out on.

South African wines – a brief history

The origin of South African wines can be traced back to the founding of a supply station by Jan van Riebeeck in the 1600s at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company. Vineyards were planted to produce grapes to ward off scurvy amongst the sailors making their voyages along the spice route. In 1685, Cape Governor Simon van der stel bought a 1,850 acre estate, founding what would become the globally renowned Constantia wine estate.

With the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon yet to be discovered, the grapes of the time were the then popular Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Hamburg and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. 

This early foundation is precisely why South African wines sit neatly between Old World and New World. 

Fast forward to the 19th century when South Africa fell under British rule, and the country’s wine industry burgeoned with both South African white wine and South African red wine flowing into the British market. Then came the devastating phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, a nasty bug that served only to destroy grapevines around the world, which prompted a mass replanting of South African vineyards with high yielding grape varieties such as Cinsaut. 

The 20th century was a quiet time for South African wine brands globally, with their isolation further deepened by the boycotts borne of apartheid. It wasn’t actually until the late 1980s when apartheid came to an end that the world’s stage opened up again to wines from South Africa and a renaissance ensued. Then came an influx of overseas winemakers into the country, bringing with them international influences, and so was born a renewed focus on well-known varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Getting to know the South African wine regions

Constantia is the historic nucleus of Cape wine. The nearest to Cape Town, it’s brimming with some of the most famous wine estate names, including Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia. Here is where delicious Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon wines are produced, as well as the famous dessert wine Vin de Constance which dates back to the 1700s.

Durbanville and its hills which lie northeast of Cape Town boast a wine making history dating back almost 300 years. Coming out of this wine region you’ll find Sauvignon Blanc in the white corner, and Shiraz and Merlot in the red. 

Franschhoek, meaning ‘French corner’ in Dutch, can be found nestled into a protected valley surrounded by mountains. Now a boutique region punctuated by grand old buildings, fine restaurants and small producers, the region dates back to the late 1600s and is a well-known hub for food and sparkling wine, as well as Bordeaux blends. As well as outstanding South African red wine, this region produces some exceptional Semillon too. On the sparkling front, Cap Classique as it’s labelled in South Africa, there’s a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, pretty much like with Champagne.

Paarl is another historic South African town that’s been producing wine for many hundreds of years. There are numerous South African wine brands here, small and large, boutique to co-operative, outputting wine from the everyday to the simply spectacular. Winemakers here focus a great deal on Shiraz, but it would be amiss to overlook the superb Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon blends that come out of this region, as well as the more unusual varieties like Viognier and Mourvèdre, which have been worthy of prizes on more than one occasion.

Robertson is a warm and fertile valley known for its South African white wine offerings such as Chardonnay, but the region has its red star performers too, including Shiraz. 

Stellenbosch is home to more than 80 wineries and producers and pretty much all the most famous global names in South African wines live here. The region stretches from the coastal slopes to the inland hills, with star varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. 

 Stellenbosch South Africa wine region

Walker Bay is near the coastal town of Hermanus and has turned into one of the most fashionable South African wine regions. With Elgin to the west and Bot River inland, it is presided over by the Overberg appellation, and home to Cape Pinot Noir and notably delicious Chardonnay.

Wines from South Africa – what to expect

South Africa produces mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage grape varieties. Apart from South African red wine, the country is known for its world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Gris wines.

The best South African wines tend to be blends of different grape varieties. This is a sign of maturity in the country’s wine industry, although it does make it a little trickier to predict the style of the wine you’re about to sample. The traditional Cape Blend is one to note, comprising Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

Give it a try…

Lothian Vineyards Noble Late Harvest is a wonderful Viognier. This South African white wine delivers a smoky wild honey which subsides into tangerine and musk melon on the nose. On the palate, expect a tangy, long lasting acidity that cuts through the sweetness beautifully.

Lothian Vineyards Noble Late Harvest South African White Wine

Batting for the reds, Radford Dale Black Rock 2016 is an eclectic blend of Viognier, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Shiraz and Grenache. This Western Cape South African red wine delivers blueberry, liquorice and green herbs on the palate, with a satisfyingly lingering yet delicate finish.

Radford Dale Black Rock 2016 South African red wine

South African wines – ready to give them a try?

Keen to give wines from South Africa a try? The Oddbins South African wine range is certain to have something that’s right up your street. On the fence with your choices? Contact our helpful team for advice via Live Chat, e-mail or by calling 0800 328 23 23.