Tasha Brandstatter on March 2, 2017 0 Comments Even though South Africa has a long history of producing high-quality wine, most wine drinkers outside the country know little about it. With their unique classification system and grape varieties, at first glance it may seem like approaching South African wine requires a bit of a learning curve. The good news is that there are only a few terms and regions you need to know to get started on exploring this country’s remarkable wines, which bridge the gap between Old and New World wine styles. History South African wine has its roots in the Dutch East India Company, which set up an outpost in Cape Town in the 17th century. They hired Jan van Riebeeck to manage the station and plant vineyards, in the hope they’d be able to stock up on wine during the long voyage from Europe to Asia and back. The first vintage was produced in 1659, and in the coming century South African wine, known as Constantia, became one of the most popular fortified wines in Europe. It’s mentioned in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, among other works. In the late 19th century, however, South Africa’s vineyards were decimated by phylloxera, and afterwards winemakers started growing high-yield grapes like Cinsaut. This created a wine lake that depressed prices to the point that many winemakers found it more economical to dump all their wine into rivers than to bottle it. In the 20th century, South African products, including wine, were widely boycotted due to Apartheid. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the country’s wine started receiving international attention. As a result of its relative isolation in the second half of the 20th century, South African wine remains obscure and mysterious to many oenophiles even today. Labeling One of the most confusing things about South African wines are the different terms and names they use on their labels. Here are the basics of what you need to know: South Africa’s commercial wine businesses are legislated by the Wine of Origin programme, or WO, which regulates how wines are labeled and how regions are defined. There are four classifications of wine regions under the WO. From large to small, they are geographical units, regions, districts, and wards. When looking for a top-notch wine with a distinct sense of terroir, search for a ward designation on the label; this is the equivalent of the French appellation designation. All the other regional classifications (geographic, region, and district) are defined largely by political boundaries and are not necessarily indicative of terroir or quality. South Africans also have different names for their grapes than what’s commonly used in other wine-producing countries. Some common examples: Chenin Blanc is called Steen, Crouchen is Cape Riesling (Riesling itself is Weisser Riesling); Trebbiano is Ugni Blanc; Semillion is Groendruif; and Muscat is Hanepoot. While this isn’t a huge problem if you’re buying South African wine in the US, where the labeling is changed to be more friendly for the US market, if you’re buying it in South Africa itself, it’s something you need to keep in mind. Sparkling wines also use unique terms. They’re produced using both the Charmat and champenoise methods, but wines produced with the champenoise method are labeled Method Cap Classique, or MCC. Pinotage Of all the grapes grown in South Africa, people in the US probably associate Pinotage with the country the most. Bred in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Cinsaut is known as Hermitage in South Africa, hence the combination Pinot and Hermitage, which equals Pinotage), Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape, even though it accounts for only six percent of wine grape production in the country. Though Pinotage shares some characteristics with Pinot Noir, it has a distinct aroma and flavor that some people find enticing; others, off-putting. It tends to produce darker, denser wine than Pinot Noir, with a higher alcohol content and more savory characteristics. It also tends to have notes of banana and tropical fruit; or, less pleasantly, acetone and paint. If the wine isn’t made correctly, it can come out tasting like raspberry vinegar due to the grapes’ volatile acidity. South African winemakers usually blend Pinotage with Syrah, or turn it into a fortified or sparkling red wine. However, within South Africa itself, Pinotage is looked down on. The style of winemaking currently leans more toward European-style wines, which Pinotage definitely isn’t. Regions to Know South Africa’s wine regions are centered around the coastal region of the Western Cape. A few of the most famous are: Constantia The oldest and largest of South Africa’s wine regions, Constantia wineries disappeared completely in the late 19th century due to phylloxera infestation. It was only in the 1980s that the winemaking tradition in Constantia was revived. The wineries here produce mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux-style reds, but Klein Constantia winery is famous for its Riesling and sweet Muscat. Stellenbosch The second-oldest wine region, Stellenbosch accounts for about 14 percent of South Africa’s total wine production. With a climate very similar to France’s Bordeaux, this region is famous for its high-quality red wines that have a rich, distinctive sense of terroir. The seven wards of Stellenbosch, which you should definitely keep an eye out for, are: Banghoek Bottelary Devon Valley Jonkershoek Valley Papegaaiberg Polkadraai Hills Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Among these, wines from Simonsberg are the most prized by collectors and aficionados. Paarl The heart of South African wine production for many years, Paarl has lately been on the decline and is often overlooked in favor of Stellenbosch. However, its two wards, Franschhoek Valley and Wellington, are gaining acclaim for their terroir-driven, European-style wines. Franschhoek Valley in particular has one of the best reputations in South Africa, with a tradition of winemaking dating back to Huguenot settlers who established their own, strict, French-style classification system called Appellation Grand Prestige. Overberg One of South Africa’s newest wine regions, Overberg wasn’t even classified as a region until 1973. It has a cool, high-elevation climate that produces excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The most celebrated vineyard here is Elgin, which is famous for its “sublime” Sauvignon Blanc. With this basic understanding of the country’s history, regions, and what to look for on the label, you now have enough knowledge to get started exploring the exciting world of South African wine!