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The Storied History of South African Wines

Plus, 5 bottles under $20 that showcase the country’s winemaking legacy

Janice Williams By January 27, 2022
collage of South African wines
Illustration by Pix

South African wine is in great demand right now. Why? Because the region produces some of the best bottles out there at incredible prices — bottles so good, even some of the most expensive wines of Burgundy couldn’t beat them in a recent blind tasting. 

Winemaking has a very long history in South Africa — and the quality continues to rise. If you haven’t yet tried their wines, now is definitely the time.

An incredible turnaround

South Africa’s been growing vines since the 1650s, when Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company brought grapes to the Western Cape from France. Winemaking expanded through the 17th century, such that by the late 18th century, European glasses were full of South African wine. 

But new tariff laws in 1861 hiked prices. Then came phylloxera in the 1880s, which destroyed about a quarter of the Cape’s vines. Growers eventually replanted, but they overdid it, causing a surplus of wine and a fall in quality. And, because of apartheid, many countries refused to buy South African wines — it wasn’t until their first democratic elections in 1994 that the export door opened again. Even then, barely 30% of the country’s wine grapes were used for bottled wine. Most grapes were used for brandy or were sold as grape juice and table grapes. 

Today, however, the entire wine sector has been transformed from top to bottom, as ambitious winemakers have found ways to express the country’s extraordinary climate and terroir to its fullest potential.

Regions to know

Many of South Africa’s vineyards can be found in the spectacular Western Cape, the southernmost point of Africa itself. One of the most important regions is Stellenbosch, home to flagship wineries like Kanonkop Wine Estate, Reyneke Wines, and Glenelly Estate. It’s also the birthplace of South Africa’s signature red grape, Pinotage, a thick-skinned cross-breed between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, born in 1925. 

Head north to reach Paarl, while to the east lies Franschhoek Valley, now a tourist destination full of ritzy hotels and trendy restaurants, Hugh Johnson notes in “The World Atlas of Wine.”

Swartland, where the hot and dry climate is cooled by the Atlantic Ocean breeze, has been put on the wine map by a wave of pioneering and energetic winemakers.

And these are only a few of the places where wine is made.

What about the grapes?

Chenin Blanc reigns supreme. Also referred to as Steen, Chenin Blanc is made in styles ranging from sweet dessert wines to sparkling wines to dry still whites. 

South Africa’s production of Sauvignon Blanc may be the next big thing for the increasingly popular variety. With a looming shortage of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the horizon, South Africa is poised to take New Zealand’s place. 

Other whites to be on the lookout for? Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Semillon, Muscat, and Chardonnay, which is often used in blends for Cap Classique sparkling wine.

As for the reds, Pinotage may be the country’s native grape, but the ruling red is Cabernet Sauvignon, according to jancisrobinson.com, followed by Shiraz and Merlot. 

The best way to explore the country is to visit it. The next best is to try the wines themselves.

5 South African wines to try for under $20:

bottle of Kaapzicht Estate Stellenbosch Pinotage 2018

Kaapzicht Estate Stellenbosch Pinotage 2018 (~$19)

Kaapzicht Estate has produced wine in Stellenbosch since 1946. Turn to this bottle when you’re in the mood for something with body and structure, says Robert Hayes, a sommelier in New Orleans. “This Pinotage is extremely full-bodied with notes of black plum, cherry, mulberry, and stewed plum. There are also subtle layers of oak and spice,” he says, noting that drinkers should decant for at least 30 minutes before enjoying.

bottle of Babylonstoren Babel South Africa Red 2020

Babylonstoren Babel South Africa Red 2020 (~$18)

Babylonstoren is one of the oldest wineries in the Franschhoek Valley. The big, bold red blend is made with estate-grown Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Pinotage. “The intense aroma of sweet and smoky leads to red berries with a kiss of chocolate on the palate. Babel is silky and spicy, perfect for any fan of big body reds. I love this wine — something about it reminds me of the warmth and lushness of my grandmother’s cobbler,” says Whitney Pope, wine educator behind Whit & Wine in Washington D.C.

bottle of Kumusha Wines Western Cape Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Kumusha Wines Western Cape Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$19)

Zimbabwe-born Tinashe Nyumudoka founded his South African winery Kumusha in 2017. Though Nyumudoka produces a range of wines with grapes sourced from growers across the country, it’s the Cabernet Sauvignon that certified sommelier and wine educator Brianne Cohen keeps returning to. With enticing fruity aromas, red berry flavors, and a silky texture, this young wine is totally crushable, according to Cohen. Pro tip: Serve it slightly chilled for a Cabernet Sauvignon that is surprisingly easy-drinking and thoroughly delicious. 

bottle of Graham Beck Western Cape Brut NV

Graham Beck Western Cape Brut NV (~$18)

Since 1983, the name Graham Beck has been synonymous with Cap Classique, and this particular bottle has long been considered a South African icon. It was served at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration and is known as the President’s Choice. The nose is bursting with fresh lime fruit and biscuit aromas. The palate is creamy and rich with persistent bubbles. “It’s a stellar bubbly for the price,” says Cohen.

bottle of Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2020

Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2020 (~$15)

This is more than just a crisp white wine, Kristen Eliopoulos says of Terre Brûlée’s signature Chenin Blanc. Bright and refreshing with “flavors of citrus fruit, green apples, juicy pear, and honeysuckle,” this Swartland Chenin Blanc is mineral-driven with mouthwatering acidity. “It’s a great wine to always have on hand,” Eliopoulos, the certified sommelier behind the wine education Instagram, The Complex Grape, says.