South African Wines

Last Thursday night’s tasting at Fine Wines of Stockton featured wines from South Africa. George and Gail, owners of the wine shop, visited South Africa a couple of years ago and shared their experiences and a bit about the history of wine making in the region with us.

We have written about South African wines in the past. Several of us in the tasting group are planning to visit the South African wine tasting region next year so we are interested to learn as much as we can about the area before our visit.

Cape Town was settled by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, essentially as a supply station for the company’s ships sailing between Europe and India. Early Dutch settlers planted vines, but had little experience in “vineyard management” or winemaking. 1659 was their first vintage.

Winegrowing and winemaking took a step forward with the appointment by the Dutch East India Company of Simon van der Stel as Commander of the Cape in 1679. Van der Stel was the first to possess the knowledge of both viticulture and winemaking. He was granted a farm in the Cape which he named Constantia. He produced good wines from the beginning. Over the years the property has been divided, but wine production continues to this day. Eventually named Groot Costantia, the winery provided an exiled Napoleon Bonaparte with wine on the island of St. Helena until his death in 1821. (How do you suppose he placed those orders?) The Constantia Valley, named after Van der Stel’s farm, continues as a wine region today.

Van der Stel began the expansion of Cape settlements by establishing the town of Stellenbosch. He arranged for safe passage of French Huguenots with winemaking knowledge to the Cape and established an areas for their farms in Franschhoek (“French corner”) and Paarl. Many French winery names remain today.

Van der Stel rose to the position of Governor of the Cape by 1691, the first individual of mixed race origin to do so.

The Cape wine industry struggled during the 18th century as it learned the best winemaking practices, grape varieties to plant and to improve inconsistent quality.

The 19th century brought British occupation of the Cape and Britain’s war with France, which created a market for South African wines. The second half of the 19th century, however brought tragedy in the form of phylloxera along with the end of the conflict between the British and French. These two events were followed in 1899 by the beginning of the Boer War which threw wine production into chaos.

With the conclusion of the Boer War in 1902 and the departure of British troops, the demand for Brandy plummeted. Production exceeded demand and Cape wine and brandy producers were forced to accept whatever price was offered by wine merchants for their wines.

Charles Kohler is the first important name in the 20th century history of South African wine. Charles Kohler proposed Ko-ope-ratieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, Beperkt (KWV) which became the first co-op for wine producers in South Africa. First proposed in 1916 and finalized in 1918 in Paarl, it eventually succeeded in providing price supports and leveling production. It successfully improved exports for wine and spirits. KWV became a commercial venture in 1997 and continues today with a stable of wine and brandy labels on the market.

Two more important points regarding the history of wine in South Africa. First is the development of Pinotage, South Africa’s own hybrid grape. Developed by Abraham Perold, the fourth generation descendant of a French prisoner of war brought to the Cape in 1814, it is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (also called Hermitage). The initial cross produced only four seeds, which he planted in his residence nursery rather than at the University of Stellenbosch where he was Professor of Viticulture. Inexplicably, when he left the University for a position with KWV Winery, he neglected to take the plantings. They were rescued by a colleague and replanted in the nursery at Elsenberg Agricultural College by Professor CJ Theron.

Theron grafted the seedling growth onto recently developed rootstock, Richter 99 and Richter 57. Had Theron chosen older rootstock, it was infected with viral disease and was subsequently destroyed, the history of Pinotage may have stopped at this point. Theron and Perold eventually decided on the name of Pinotage as a combination of the names of the grapes that produced the cross.

The one vine that thrived became the mother vine of Pinotage. The first plantings are documented in 1943. The 1959 vintage was the first labeled Pinotage. It has not without it’s challenges. According to Wine Grapes, by Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, off scents of spray paint may develop if the vines are water stressed or with high temperatures at harvest. A burned rubber nose may be the result of viral disease. These characteristics have decreased with experience in the vineyard and with winemaking.

Abraham Perold traveled extensively in Europe and brought back cuttings of 177 grape varieties which established the collection at the University of Stellenbosch. No notes remain which explain why he chose to cross Pinot Noir with Cinsault. We can only wonder what his thought process was.

Finally, apartheid, the South African government’s policy of maintaining white dominance by racial separation, lasted from 1948 until a new constitution was written in 1994. These policies resulted in economic sanctions by many countries, including the UK and the US in 1985. The US began to lift sanctions in 1991. South African wines did not reach significant portions of the world market during this time. The re-opening of world markets to the South African wine industry has meant increasing wine exports. 2012 exports were at record levels.

At least 20 red grape varieties are grown in South Africa, including Pinotage and Roobernet, both crosses developed in South Africa. White grape varieties number at least the same, and include Nouvelle, another locally-crossed variety.

All this history has made me thirsty to talk about the South African wines we tasted. George and Gail changed the format a bit for this tasting. We tasted the first bottle blinded, and then talked about the wine before George uncovered the bottle. The following four wines were poured blinded as well, in pairs. We tasted the first two then discussed them before moving on to the second pair. Finally, the last wine was tasted blind, described then uncovered. It was an interesting tasting. Here we go.

2011 Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage $15 This ruby wine had dark fruit scents on the nose with just a hint of smoke. There was plenty of dark fruit, berry and earthy flavors with good acid and significant, but smooth tannins. This wine had lots of flavor and a fairly light weight in the mouth. None of the off-putting scents that have plagued Pinotage in the past. This wine would pair nicely with pasta and roasted or grilled meats.

2007 Rustenberg John X Merriman Stellenbosch $33. Dark fruit and herbal notes are obvious on the nose. Complex flavors of berries and plums with hints of green pepper and earthiness in the background combine with significant, drying tannins. The finish is long with both flavor and tannins. The complex flavors derive from the Bordeaux blend: 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec

2010 Thelema Mountain Red $19. Minimal dark fruit nose is followed by flavors of plums, blackberries and a bit of black pepper. Tannins are a bit grippy, but do not stand out. Acid is adequate and the body is light. This wine has lots of flavor, a light body and long finish. It would be great with pasta or pizza. This is another blend: 29% Shiraz, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Grenache, 11% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc.

2008 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon2008 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon $42. Berry and herbal scents are followed by dark plum, berries and a bit of tobacco flavor. Hints of vanilla peek out on the finish with significant tannins and good acid. This 100% Cabernet is flavorful and well-balanced. Kanonkop is located on Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch. The average age of the vines is 20 years with most located on the favored south facing slopes.

2009 Glenelly Cabernet Sauvignon $23. Caramel and ripe fruit scents lead to plum, dark berry, tobacco and smoky flavors. Good acid and significant tannins complete the flavor profile to create a complex wine with a long finish. Well pulled-together.

Glenelly Estate has had a series of owners over the years but the original land grant in the Stellenbosch region, by Simon van der Stel, was to a French Huguenot family in 1682. After a lengthy period of ownership by a British family, the estate is purchased in 2003 by May de Lencquesaing who had previously managed Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Second Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac, Bordeaux. An amazing history.

2010 Raats Cabernet Franc2010 Raats Cabernet Franc $39. Minimal fruit on the nose with slightly sweet dark fruit flavors, minerality and notable acidity. This wine has clean, dark fruit flavors with a hint of vegetal flavors in the background. Tannins are with smooth and well-integrated. A tightly structured, flavorful wine. This 100% Cabernet Franc is grown in Stellenbosch.

So, you can see from this tasting, South Africa has lots to offer wine drinkers. Their own grape variety (Pinotage), single varietal wines and blends. All were interesting wines in an affordable price range. And these are only the red wines. We will leave the white wines for another occasion. It’s aways nice to leave something for next time.



  1. Pingback: Chenin Blanc – A Perfect Summer Companion | Pull That Cork

  2. Nice blog! Give me a shout of you’d like to visit our biodynamic estate when in South Africa. The gates of Waterkloof are always open! 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I will discuss the possibility of a visit to Waterkloof with our group and be in touch. Thank you Louis!

  3. Thanks Dave. I enjoyed doing the research and am glad you enjoyed reading it.

  4. Enjoyed the history and content of your blog about South Africans and how their wine industry was developed, tied to your tasting. Great learning in it!