"South Africa really does shine with potential in the modern wine world," says Ashley McCandless, sommelier at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver, B.C.
What makes South Africa a great place for winemaking?
The South African climate is among the best in the world for growing sublime grapes. The hot days provide warmth while the nightly ocean breezes cool the vineyards. This combination of hot and cool mimics the climate of the Mediterranean and is the basis for great-tasting grapes.
"If you can maintain a hotter vineyard by day and a cooler vineyard by night, then that's the perfect recipe to make good-quality grapes," says McCandless.
Also working in its favour are South Africa's geographic conditions. Variety is the name of the game here: You'll find ancient geology, deep valleys, soaring mountains and a plethora of flora and fauna. This varied landscape produces an exciting range of grapes, and wine styles you won't find anywhere else.
One inimitable South African varietal is Pinotage, a spicy and rich cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut grapes. Good Pinotage is said to taste and smell like no other wine, with notes of red berries and damson fruit and the slightest taste of toasted marshmallow.
Chenin Blanc accounts for over 30 per cent of South Africa's white wine production. Originally a French varietal, South African Chenin is fruity and fresh, with tropical flavours of guava, banana, pear and pineapple.
South Africa: The best of both worlds
Winemaking in South Africa dates back over 300 years, to when Dutch colonists identified wild grapes.
Unfortunately, the grapes they found didn’t make for great-tasting wines. (On their own they taste acidic and don't have much complexity.) McCandless says that after tasting the South African grapes, colonists sent word back to Europe requesting cuttings of their old-world European vines. In 1659 the first grapes from those imported vines were pressed and the South African wine industry was born.
It's for this reason that South African vineyards can boast the best of both worlds: Old-world grapes of French and German origins grown in a new-world style make for memorable wines.
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Foods to pair with South African wines
Braai, or South African barbecue, is undoubtedly the country's favourite pastime, says McCandless. While locals experiment with wild game (such as ostrich) on the grill, barbecued fish, pork, chicken and steak also pair wonderfully with South African wines.
"South African wines are great for summer sippers, but they also have something for everyone," says McCandless. Once summer's over and the barbecue is packed away, try a robust red – perfect for cool fall days and long winter nights.
Bottles to try
"There are a lot of great values if you stay between the $14 to $25 range," says McCandless. Just be sure to stay above the $12 mark. At $12 and under, you're getting into blends from leftover wines that aren't true to South Africa, she says.
Although we've done our best to recommend wines that are widely available, prices and availabilities are subject to provincial liquor laws.
Western Cape Wine
Dry, crisp and clean with flavours of fresh lemon and white grape. It’s a great patio sipper, and pairs well with shellfish or grilled fish.
Guinea Fowl White
Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend
The Chenin Blanc has aromas of tropical pineapple and honey and is really crisp and clean. Adding the Viognier to the blend makes for a much more well-rounded and fuller body–style white. Great for summer sipping on its own, but also big enough to have with a meal.
From the coastal region, this is a sort of Rhone-style blend. Really juicy and full of black fruit flavour, violets and spice, it’s great with barbecued meat.
From the Western cape region. This hugely popular wine has a coffee-like flavour – really rich, inky, dark and robust. It has the earthiness of a Pinot Noir and a cool, funny personality.
The Meerlust Wine Estate
74% Cabernet Sauvignon/18% Cabernet Franc/8% Merlot blend
From Stellenboche, it’s among the top 100 wines of 2006. "It's super, super silky," says McCandless, and has flavours of violet, ripe plum and cedar wood with an intense spiciness. Great texture and rich complex tannins.
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