South Africa

May 13, 2023by Andrew Lowry

by Andrew Lowry

We polled, you answered, and we listened.

The South Africa blog post is here!

And, by the way, no artificial intelligence has been used in crafting this blog post. We just thought that should be stated up front...cause you know...times are changing, and we are "here for it."

We gave you all the option to learn more about France, Italy, Spain, Australia, or South Africa, and South Africa (SA) was the overwhelming winner. (Sorry to those that chose another country. You will just have to wait a short while because, eventually, we will have a blog post on every major wine-producing country.) 

To be honest, we were stumped that SA won, but we couldn't be more excited that the majority of our following showed interest in a -- dare we say -- second-string quarterback amongst hall of fame inductees. FOR NOW. South African wine is booming, and for good reason; they make amazing wine, and it can be had at an amazing quality-to-price ratio (QPR). That means delicious wines at a price point that makes you question why you just purchased that $85 bottle of Napa Chardonnay (becauuuussseee, Napa.)

So let us get into it. South African history, as you may well know, is a bumpy road, and we can only hope that we as a people have learned and grown from it.

Consequently, the wine industry of SA has had its ups and downs, and now it seems as though we are on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend (who knows the reference? We can be friends.) 

We hope after reading this post you will be able to hop right into any restaurant and order their finest Pinotage or demand that they procure one in the likely event that they do not, in fact, carry Pinotage.

Without further ado...

The Quick Scoop

South Africa has a densely populated wine-growing region nestled along the southwest and south coast of the country. Along the coast, it is a cool climate region thanks to a cold ocean current, but very quickly warms up when you move away from the water. 

America hasn't quite adopted SA wine the way the U.K. has, but there is still enough to go around. 

We think that if you live within the $15-$55 range, you will be able to drink some really great wine (for comparison, we would up that to $55-$150 for good drinking in Napa Valley.) 

For sure bets, ask your local wine shop for SA wines from Stellenbosch, Swartland, Elgin, or Walker Bay, and for those more adventurous (or if you've already enjoyed these locations), try to find the most obscure wards you can and see what you find (see the complete list at the bottom of the blog)!

Chenin Blanc will probably be the most common wine you see on the American market and it can come in almost any style, from dry to sweet, to floral and aromatic, to dry and zesty, and to super ripe and fruity. We prefer to stick to the dry and zesty. You should at least try this varietal even if whites aren't your thing. 

SA Sauvignon Blanc comes at a great value and can maybe replace the expensive New Zealand Sauv Blanc you've been enjoying.

SA has its own grape varietal called Pinotage that mostly makes red wines, but can be made into white wine. It is a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault and can be good, but it is still finding its way. It is cool to try and we hope you find a good one, but the consistency isn't quite there yet.

SA makes fine Cabernet Sauvignon from Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, as well as Syrah and other well-known red grape varieties.

We encourage you to go to a local wine shop and ask the owner to show you the most exciting SA wine they have. This is our go-to -- at the very least it is a fun and exciting way to start to get to know a wine region.

Crash Course on SA Wine History

SA is a very important country in terms of its historical significance to the rest of the world and how it has shaped modern ethical thinking. While we are going to skip over all of South Africa's most important historical triumphs and tribulations and focus on wine exclusively, the lessons learned from that period are not lost on us. 

So, South Africa was first colonized by the Dutch and then the British, who needed to establish a port town on their way to the East Indies so that they could restock fresh food (to combat scurvy) and supplies. And so the wine industry in SA began because sailors used to be allowed to drink whenever they wanted, and they loved their fortified wines!

Now, fast forward a bunch of years, and SA turns into a bulk wine-producing country. There was literally so much wine that it was cheaper to pour it out in the rivers than to find out how to sell it. Imagine that. Like, if only we were alive then to do a college foreign exchange trip! 

Again, fast forward some more, and SA realizes that to be a respected wine-producing country on the international market, they are going to need to reduce yields and strive for quality over quantity. And so they did, and we are experiencing that quality boom right now! This is why SA is such a great place to get great wine at a great price. 

South Africa now harvests 1.5 million tons of grapes, of which, 387.9 million liters are exported (517 million bottles) and of that, 12 million bottles are sent to the USA. The U.K. is the largest consumer of SA wine with 40.2 million bottles imported. So go to the U.K. if you want to find all the gems. Or better yet, go to South Africa!

Lowry Wine Company thinks that the U.S. is behind the curve on South Africa due to its general unfamiliarity with the region, and the difficulty we have in saying some of the names of the regions like Franschhoek or Papegaaiberg. Furthermore, we seem to be very infatuated with the romantic-sounding French and Italian grapes and their locations. We aren't sure the scales will ever tip in favor of SA over Italy or France, but with a strong marketing push, SA just might be able to give them a run for their money.

South African Wine Laws

If the wine label has a location (like South Africa or Paarl), then 100% of the grapes must have come from that place.

If the wine label mentions a single grape varietal, it has to have at least 85% of said grape.

If the wine label has a vintage date, then 85% of the grapes used in making the wine must have been harvested within that year.

If the wine label mentions 'estate wine', 100% of the grapes used to make said wine must have come from the same farm or a single property.

'Single vineyard' can be used on a wine label if the vineyard does not exceed 15 acres and is planted to a single varietal.

South African winemakers can add food-grade acid (like tartaric acid, malic acid, or citric acid) into their wine to balance it out.

They can add grape juice concentrate to sweeten wines and, by default, adjust the color to their (your) liking.

If a wine says 'dry' then it must have less than or equal to 5 grams of sugar per liter.

South Africa, unlike France, has no laws on crop yields, fertilizer quantities, or irrigation levels.

Winemakers cannot increase the alcohol of the wine by adding extra sugar to the grape juice when fermenting (called Chaptalization/enrichment/amelioration).

SA Climate

Wine grapes essentially only grow between 30 and 50 degrees latitude north and south, and SA just barely pokes itself into the 30 degrees south range. The country as a whole would probably not survive as a wine-producing region if it didn't have a cold water current running up from Antarctica to cool it down significantly.

Because of this cold water current, many of the coastal regions of SA thrive on cold climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, some Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.

As we go inland, it starts to warm up, and we start to see some warm-climate grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Sangiovese, and Viognier.

The Major Grapes

55% of all wine grapes farmed in SA are white grapes and SA is traditionally known for its Chenin Blanc which accounts for about 20% of the national vineyard land.

Other whites you will find: Sauvignon Blanc at 11.5%, Colombard at 11.7%, Chardonnay at 7.6%, and then in decreasing quantity, Muscat of Alexandria, Semillon, and Viognier.

45% of vineyards are dedicated to red wine varietals. The big player for red wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, taking up around 11% of vineyard land -- we all know this grape. Next is Syrah at 10.5%, then Merlot at 6%, Pinotage at just less than 8%, then Cinsaut, Grenache, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Ruby Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Tinta Barroca (for Port wine), Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese make up the rest of the red wine production.

Here is a graph to make the above clearer.

Source: South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS), SA WINE INDUSTRY 2021 STATISTICS NR 46

The Major Wine Regions

Much like other countries with an internationally significant wine industry, South Africa (SA) has broken itself into smaller geographical areas so that the wine consumer (you) and the government can track where the wine is coming from.

The South African government chose to call their system of delineation the Wine of Origin (W.O.) system and divided up their land (from largest to smallest) into Geographical Units (GU), Regions, Districts, and Wards. (Wine Estate was the smallest and most specific category, but it is now removed from the W.O. system. Producers can still say their wine is an "estate wine" if all the grapes used were harvested from the same property.)

Districts are defined by general common climatic conditions, and wards are defined by specific soil types and hyper-specific microclimatic conditions. Wines coming from a common ward, should, in theory, share a certain qualitative commonality when drinking them. This certain commonality is referred to as Terroir, a term the French created to describe a wine that has a sense of place. It's kind of wonky stuff, and we can and will do a whole post on Terroir at a later time, but it holds true: a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa tastes different than the same grape, made in the same exact way, from Bordeaux, France. This is why we get hyper-specific with farm location. You can always stop at, "I like wines from the Coastal Region of SA," and many people do, in fact, because that's more than enough to find a great wine you like. 

ALL the W.O. GUs, regions, districts, and wards can be found at the bottom of this blog in a nice and clean tabular format. (Keep in mind, places are removed and others are added all the time. This is as current as we could find):

Note: we do not recommend reading all of these unless you are the kind of person who reads dictionaries. This is mainly for reference, and you will see 10% of these on the American market. We will highlight the main players below.

On the American market, you are most likely going to see wines from the Western Cape Geographical Unit. We encourage you to try to find wines from other GU too, but here are the most popular regions, districts, and wards within the Western Cape to look for on wine labels:

From the Breede River Valley Region: Robertson (look for Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc, Shiraz, and Cab; known for fortified Muscadels and off-dry Colombards) and Worcester (produces 12% of the national crop and most likely to find red and white cheap agreeable quaffing wine here and also brandy.)

From the Coastal Region (most popular): Paarl and Tulbagh (typically fortified wines, but some great Bordeaux and Rhone varieties popping up and some sparkling wine in Tulbagh), Stellenbosch (very famous, you'll see that most Cap Classique is from here and nicer reds -- very easy to find on the American market), Swartland (low interventionist is the name of the game here. Rhone reds and Chenin whites. Our faves), Darling (look for the Sauv Blanc and Chardonnay), Wellington (full-bodied reds), Franschhoek Valley, and Constantia (world famous red and white sweet wines (mostly white)).

From the Cape South Coast: Elgin (cool climate Sauv Blancs, Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs), Elim (very cool climate, mostly Sauv Blanc and some Syrah), Walker Bay (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as some Sauv Blanc).

And the regions Olifantstrivier (typically cheap bulk wine, but some areas within are popping up with promise) and Klein Karoo (port-style wines and Portuguese grapes like Tinta Barroca, Souzao, and Touriga Nacional.)

So when shopping for wines at your local wine store you may see any of these W.O. -- big or small -- on the label. By law, if the winemaker decides to place Paarl on their label, then 100% of the grapes within that bottle of wine must have come from the region of Paarl, as delineated by the regulating authorities. If the label just says South Africa, then the winemaker can use grapes from anywhere in South Africa. This doesn't necessarily mean the wine is of lesser quality, although most times it will be a cheaper wine of lesser quality. 

Conclusion

So that is South Africa. Yeah. Thanks if you made it this far. Please go have a couple of glasses of wine now. 

Sources

South African Wine Industry and Systems data at https://www.sawis.co.za/

The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition, by Karen MacNeil

Exploring Wine by Steven Koplan, Brian H. Smith, and Michael A. Weiss, from the Culinary Institute of America, published by Wiley, 2010

The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th Edition, by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

Wine of Origin Tables

 

 

 


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