Virgin Wines: South African Wine
The South African wine industry has boomed following the end of apartheid. With heavy investment and major training programmes underway, it is set to be an increasingly major player in the wine world.
South African Wine
Despite South Africa being classed as New World, it has actually been producing wines for over 350 years after the migrating French Huguenots bought their winemaking skills to the country. The 1920's was a time of overproduction and saw the market flooded with masses of low quality wine. A master cooperative (KWV) was set up to provide stability and supervise all production within the South African wine industry.
KWV was privatised following the end of Apartheid in the 1990's and since then an exciting new generation of innovative South African wine producers have been earning skills from other wine-making nations for use at home. Considerable new capital has also been invested in the South African wine industry.
Today, there are more than 500 private wineries, and although there are still more than 60 co-ops still in existence, they have had to work hard to raise their standards. The result is a wine industry which has a lot more freedom to experiment and an increased desire by winemakers to produce wines of equivalent quality to their New World counterparts.
Getting to Grips with the Grapes
South Africa is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, which is well suited to the production of wine. Traditionally, white grapes have dominated South African wine production but more recently there has been increasing demand for red wines, which has fuelled the growth of international varieties.
Chenin Blanc accounts for a huge proportion of white production. In South Africa, it is more commonly known as Steen. It produces some very crisp and fruity, wines, along with some sweeter variations. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are also grown extensively in South Africa and are definitely worth a taste.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the Bordeaux varieties), Shiraz and Pinotage are all at the heart of South African red wine production. Although generally well balanced and with an element of earthiness to it, styles of Pinotage vary significantly as winemakers continue to get to grips with learning the limits of this homegrown grape.
Old World or New?
South African wine regions are built up around a number of smaller districts and wards, which can be confusing. But it really isn't that hard to get to grips with.
There are five key wine growing regions in South Africa. Three of those are located on The Cape, making this the centre of the country's wine production. Stellenbosch, one of the Cape regions, contributes to a large amount of South African wine production, in particular to growing international varieties, such as Bordeaux varietals and blends. Constantia, a small ward located on the coast, is historically famous for South Africa's wine production and now produces fine Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Look inland to the districts of Worcester, Robertson and Paarl, for Reds made in the Rhone style and, increasingly, Viognier.
With its warm growing conditions, combined with its wine growing history, South African wine really straddles the Old World and New, showing the fruitiness from the New World and the finesse of and elegance of the Old World.
Hunting Down The Value
For value, avoid the tourist trails of Stellenbosch. Prices will be hiked by miles. Head to the lesser known vineyards, or the littler makers, and you are likely to find much better value. Try the wine tasting trips from the little guys too. You'll be welcomed with open arms, and the wine will be a real taste of South Africa, rather than mass-produced generic wine. Follow this rule at home too to find the best wine on the shelves.