An Introduction to the Cape

The wines of South Africa can be challenging, but the effort is rewarded
Jan 21, 2015

I'm back in California now after having spent a few weeks touring South Africa. The country caught my fancy out of curiosity in its improving wine industry, its beauty and the opportunity to go on safari.

For years, winemakers and colleagues have offered that if you want to see some of the most beautiful wine country in the world, consider South Africa. It's a big country—almost twice the size of Texas—with a vast array of wine regions amounting to 60 appellations. Yet even the small slices of terrain I observed there on a two-week visit were stunning, many framed by its dramatic mountain ranges.

For a first-time visitor from afar, the wines were more challenging than I expected. Chenin Blanc, the most widely planted white grape on the Cape, is a versatile workhorse grape vinified in a variety of styles—both dry and sweet; old-vine; barrel-fermented; unoaked, low-oaked and well-oaked—each of which has its appeal. Ken Forrester is one of Chenin's truest believers. All of his wines, extending well beyond Chenin, are impressive, reflective of the benefit of a broader range of wines. 

But Chenin has real competition from Sauvignon Blanc and, to a lesser degree, Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc, meantime, is often made in a racy, high-acidity, low-pH style that reminds me of the cool-climate versions made in New Zealand. But Sauvignon Blanc, like Chenin, has its limitations. 

Pinotage, once the country's signature red, is headed in the other direction, seemingly falling out of favor. Many vintners still embrace this wine and I'm still a fan of some versions. There are plenty of Pinotage advocates in South Africa, yet most of the versions I tasted were rustic, tannic and dry—evidence of their declining appeal. Pinot Noir showed more promise.

Gaining entry to the wine world's bigger stages has rightly forced South Africans to broaden their range of wines. There is passion there for Syrah and Rhône-style reds, and the best reds overall were blends that often included Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, a whatever-works-best approach. That too makes learning the wines more challenging. But in the end, if the wines drink well, they're worth discovering.

South Africa

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