South African Wines Are Worth Exploring

By Richard Fadeley
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
A vineyard near Stellenbosch. Photo by Richard Fadeley

Without a doubt, South Africa is one of the most spectacular wine-producing regions in the world, and also a rising star in the wine hierarchy. The country is currently ranked eighth in total wine production behind Australia and Germany but ahead of well-known wine producers Chile and Portugal — though volume does not equate with quality. Wine has been produced in this region since 1659, when Dutch settlers planted vines in and around Cape Town, on the western edge of the southern end of the African continent. Some of the panoramas are the most breathtaking in the entire planet, and the wines can rise to the occasion if you know where to look.

We gathered more than 20 wines for this tasting, including sparkling, rosé, white and red, and were pleasantly surprised with the quality and drinkability since the last time we looked in on these wines 10 years ago.

Pinotage is still the signature grape in South Africa, but it is a difficult grape to grow and vinify and can yield off-flavors when under-ripe or mishandled. Nevertheless, the region is determined to keep this variety as its flagship grape, if not among its most prized wines. It is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault (also known as “hermitage”) hence the nouveau cépage “pinotage”. It has not become an international favorite — 98 percent of the grape’s plantings are in South Africa — but South African winemakers seem reluctant to give it up, constantly adding it to various blends and occasionally as a varietal wine. We found a few that we liked. It is sort of an acquired taste, and it does make a serviceable wine when handled properly. But it is theirs and theirs alone. You have to admire that perseverance and dedication; let them work out the details.

Reds from cabernet, shiraz, merlot, pinotage and blends thereof make up a nice assortment of very drinkable and food friendly red wines.

Chenin blanc (they often call it “steen”) is the country’s most popular white, but there are also tasty chardonnays and sauvignon blancs to tease your palate, and we found a new grape that could be a stand-in for chenin or Riesling.

In the final analysis, I would suggest you try a few of the whites and several of the reds. Probably the most compelling red was the Flagstone ’09 Dragon Tree, a blend of cab, shiraz and pinotage, remarkably complex and at the same time an easy drinking and compelling wine. This has to be one of the best red blends I’ve tasted under $20. There were several others and any mentioned here will not disappoint. The Mandela line of wines is new to the U.S. and seems to be worth a look along with anything from Fairview or the Flagstaff line.

Of course, you would use the whites as aperitifs or with a fish or chicken dish, and the reds with grilled meats, cheese or a good cigar, giving the reds a bit of a chill (20 minutes in the fridge).

South African wines are honest wines at honest prices, but who knows what will happen as the excitement builds. Now is the time to explore and familiarize yourself with what they have to offer. Good deals abound! 

South African Wine Review score — notes — region — price
Whites, Rosé & Sparkling:
Graham Beck NV Brut ★★★★ A Special Occasion Wine $18
Mulderbosch ’12 Rosé ★★★★ Very Tasty Pink $10
Fleur de Cap ’11 Chardonnay ★★★★ Lightly Oaked Chard $11
Doug Green ’12 Sauvignon Blanc ★★★★ Nice Crisp White $10
Royal ’12 Old Vines Steen ★★★★ Our Favorite Chenin Blanc $12
House of Mandela ’13 Chenin Blanc ★★★½ Another Interesting Wine $12
Cederberg ’12 “Bukettraube” ★★★★ A Stand in for Chenin or Riesling $15
Man Vintners ’12 Chenin Blanc ★★★½ Another Nice Chenin and Best Buy $10
Reds and Blends:
Flagstone ’09 Dragon Tree ★★★★ Our Top Rated Red Blend $17
Ernie Els ’11 “Big Easy” ★★★★ A Big Bold Blend $18
Graham Beck ’11 Game Reserve ★★★★ Another Pleasant Blend $17
Robertson ’10 Shiraz ★★★★ Very Drinkable Shiraz and a Best Buy $11
Graham Beck ’09 Railroad Red ★★★★ Interesting Blend, Good Value $14
Seven Sisters ’12 Dawn ★★★★ A Pinotage/Shiraz Blend $12
Fairview ’08 Shiraz ★★★½ Another Favorite $14
House of Mandela ’12 Pinotage ★★★½ Good Value Here $12

Our four-star rating system and how it might compare to the Wine Spectator 100-point scale: ★ Good (80-84), ★★ Very Good (85-87), ★★★ Very Good/Excellent (88-89), ★★★★ Excellent (90+). All ratings are only opinions of our tasters and not meant to detract from your personal favorites.

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