There are many kinds of red grape grown in the South African wine regions, and you might find some more unusual varietals on some estates. Red wines are most often (but not always) matured in oak barrels, and the skins are left on. The result is a lovely red colouring from the skin, and a richness from the wood. Here are some of the red wines you’re most likely to come across on your wine tasting adventures.
Pinotage holds a special place in local hearts, because it is the only grape that is unique to South Africa. It was invented at Stellenbosch University in 1925. It is a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault. Pinotage is a bold and complex wine with a deep red colour. Depending on the age of the wine, you may taste notes of red berries, spice, and chocolate or coffee.
Many estates in Cape Town make great cab sav. It is a darker, deeper red than pinotage and often has a more complex flavour. It has bold tannins, and you’ll often pick up black fruits, along with peppery notes and even a tobacco flavour.
This is a little softer on the palate than cab sav. It has gentle tannins, and loads of delicious fruity flavours. It used to be mostly used in blends, but you’ll find 100% merlot at a lot of estates these days.
Most South African producers call this wine shiraz, but it’s the same thing as syrah. It’s quite a versatile grape, so the wines vary from place to place. It’s a rich, deep wine with a distinct spiciness, and often a nice chocolate/coffee finish.
This is, as the name dictates, a blend of different types of grape. It is local to the Western Cape region. It has to have at least 30% pinotage to be a Cape Blend. Other grapes used include merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, shiraz, or other less common varietals.
White wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, but some are later matured in wood barrels. One of the most notable differences between white wines is the woodiness. Wooded whites are usually yellower and rich, while those bottled straight out of steel tanks are more clear, with a crisp finish. Here are a few of the white wines you’ll find most often.
South African sauvignon blanc is world famous. It’s light and crisp, with that distinctive summery acidity that makes it the perfect drink on a sunny day.
Chardonnay: Chardonnay is usually (but again, not always) wooded. It’s usually rich, yellow, and has notes of caramel, vanilla, and butter. Many estates these days produce unwooded chardonnays, which have a lighter colour and flavour.
Chenin blanc: Chenin is another great wine to sip on a sunny day. It usually has some wood contact, giving it more complexity than a sauv blanc, but it isn’t as rich as a chardonnay. It’s often a great food wine.
Don’t skip the South African white wine blends! They are incredibly diverse, but almost always delicious.
Bubbles are an essential element of any celebration. MCC stands for Méthode Cap Classique, and it is the South African equivalent of champagne. Sparkling wines are carbonated, while MCC develops its own bubbles in the bottle naturally. MCC is usually a little more pricey, but it’s well worth it for the soft bubbly texture and complex flavour palate.
Many estates produce fantastic rosé, although it is not as common as red and white wine. It’s often inexpensive, and makes for great summertime drinking.
Dessert wines are the only high quality sweet wines you’ll taste while exploring the vineyards of Cape Town and its surrounds. There are a few methods of production. Late harvest wines are made by allowing the grapes to become almost raisin-like on the vines before they are picked. The grapes produce tiny amounts of juice, but the little bit they do offer is honey-sweet. Another method is noble late harvest. This refers to “noble rot”: the presence of a fungus called botritys, which infects grapes in moist conditions. The ripe grapes are exposed to the fungus, which causes them to become raisin-like and produce a very sweet nectar. Straw wine is another type, which involves drying the grapes once already picked, typically on straw mats. Whichever the method, these wines are delicious and pair beautifully with desserts.
In fact, it was a very special dessert wine made in the heart of Cape Town that first made South African wines famous. Groot Constantia‘s Grande Constance is the oldest wine in the country, and it was famously served to Napoleon Bonaparte while exiled in St Helena. Add a taste of Grande Constance to your bucket list!