15 best South African wines you need to try
From crisp sauvigon blanc to plummy shiraz, tap into the huge variety from the country
The eighth biggest wine producer in the world, South Africa offers perhaps more variety and diversity than any other wine-growing country.
All the main wine regions are in the southwestern area of the Cape where conditions are most likely to mirror those of the Mediterranean.
Areas such as Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Walker Bay and Franschhoek have all become synonymous with top quality wines.
The most popular red wines are shiraz (syrah), cabernet sauvignon, along with cinsault (or cinsaut), pinot noir and the homegrown Cape favourite, pinotage.
Chenin blanc remains the white wine of choice although there are plenty of splendid examples of sauvignon blanc too.
Prices vary but it’s still possible to find a very good wine for less than £10, while the more expensive choices offer great value when compared with their European counterparts.
Any survey of South African wines needs to combine tradition and a lengthy wine-making heritage along with new ideas and challenging examples of change and experimentation.
So as well as sampling long-established varieties such as syrah, pinotage, cabernet sauvignon and chenin blanc, we’ve also looked at new blends and imaginative ways of presenting conventional grape varieties.
As with all premier wine-making countries, South Africa is having to adapt – not only to people’s tastes but also changing climatic conditions – and we’ve reflected that here.
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Rhebokskloof vineyard selection pinotage 2016, 14%, 75cl
A grape variety that South Africa can proudly call its own, pinotage was first created there in the 1920s as a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut and has now become the country’s signature red wine. It does have its critics, though, with complaints in the past about a varnish-like, acetone aftertaste. Happily, this example from the renowned Western Cape region of Paarl, simply offers silky, dark-red fruit flavours with an intriguing, slightly smoky aroma. If you like pinot noir, it’s worth taking this step beyond.
Buy now £12.75, Corney & Barrow
Anthonij Rupert optima western Cape 2014, 14%, 75cl
From the west coast district of Swartland, some 25 miles due north of Cape Town, comes a medium-bodied Bordeaux blend of 41 per cent cabernet franc, 30 per cent merlot, 28 per cent cabernet sauvignon and one per cent petit verdot. Complex and structured with lashings of blackcurrant and an underlying spiciness, it’s easy to see why it has become the flagship wine from the historic L’Ormarins winery. Its name pays homage to producer Johann Rupert’s brother Anthonij, who died in a car crash in 2001.
Buy now £22, Berry Bros & Rudd
Lismore pinot noir 2017, 13.5%, 75cl
There’s a sad story behind this striking example of South African pinot noir. Winemaker Samantha O’Keefe moved from California to produce wines that reflected the terroir of Lismore vineyard in the Western Cape. She succeeded brilliantly as this superb wine, with its strawberry and red fruit flavours shows. But then in December 2019 she lost her winery and her home in a wildfire that officials believe was started deliberately. A shipment of this 2017 cool-climate pinot noir was one of the last to leave the winery before the blaze. The public is being urged to buy it to help O’Keefe in her efforts to rebuild.
Buy now £28, Wine Society
Warwick Cape Lady cabernet sauvignon 2017, 13.5%, 75cl
Here’s a Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon from the respected Warwick Estate winery on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in the Stellenbosch wine region. A joyful mouthful of dark fruit and blackberry flavours is complemented by hints of cocoa and licorice and velvet-like tannins. Made from grapes from younger vines, it’s more than ready to drink now and at well under £10 a bottle is the perfect – and not too pricey – accompaniment to any red-meat dish.
Buy now £8.77, Morrisons
Gabrielskloof Syrah on Shale 2017, 14.5%, 75cl
A product of winemaker Peter-Allan Finlayson, whose father-in-law established the Gabrielskloof estate in the cool climate region of Walker Bay in 2001. As its name makes clear this is made from syrah grapes grown on shale in a vineyard that faces the full power of a south-easterly wind, giving the vines the chance to show their full potential. The use of insecticides, weedkillers and fertiliser is also kept to a minimum, leaving a red wine that’s rich in blackcurrant and blackberry flavours, with notes of herbs and spice and a long and plush finish.
Buy now £32, Laithwaite’s
Winemaker Series Marc Kent Swartland red 2017, 14.5%, 75cl
Once you get past the label – winemaker Marc Kent looking like someone’s just pinched his last Rolo – you’ll find an attractive red that’s a blend of five different varieties from the Swartland wine area: shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault and a dash of viognier. Together, and in the capable hands of the aforementioned Mr Kent, they provide a punchy red, exclusive to Majestic, that’s chockablock with dark fruit flavours and pleasing tannins. Just uncork it and let it breathe a little before enjoying it with anything meaty.
Buy now £12.99, Majestic
Tesco Finest Fair Trade Breede River sauvignon blanc 2018, 12.5%. 75cl
Produced specially for Tesco by winemaker Johan Gerber, this is a crisp, refreshing and and flavoursome sauvignon blanc from Breede River, the largest fruit and wine producing valley in the Western Cape. With that characteristic tang of gooseberries and tropical fruits, it’s the ideal partner for salads or light fish dishes. Or you could just enjoy it lightly chilled as appetite-inducing aperitif. It’s also suitable for vegans and is FairTrade certified.
Buy now £7.50, Tesco
Old Road Wine Company 12 Mile syrah 2017, 13.5%, 75cl
From what the winemakers call a “rugged corner” of the Franschhoek wine region where the vines battle cool afternoon breezes comes a syrah that’s full of juicy and fresh red-fruit flavours. Made from grapes hand picked in small bins when they were perfectly ripe, it’s a great example of how the shiraz (also known as syrah) grape has become one of the stars of the current South African wine scene. Versatile, attractive and oh so drinkable, it’s the wine to watch.
Buy now £16.95, Slurp
De Kleine Wijn Koop Ou Treffer Cinsaut 2017 13%, 75cl
Cinsault (here spelt cinsaut) has in the past been an important grape variety in areas such as France, North Africa and Lebanon. Falling out of favour and reduced to being simply part of a blend it’s made a comeback here in grapes picked from the second-oldest cinsault vineyard in Stellenebosch. Planted in 1952 it’s sparse and very low-yielding, as a result there are only 620 bottles of the 2017 vintage to go around. If you’re lucky enough to get one, you’ll find an elegant and svelte red wine with red fruit flavours and a lengthy and satisfying finish. The label (Ou Treffer means “an old hit”) is a delight, too.
Buy now £28, Red Squirrel
Plume Palace shiraz rose 2018, 12.5%, 75cl
Fancy a bit of variety? South Africa isn’t widely known for its roses, but this unassuming newcomer is brimful of bright summer fruits and strawberry flavours in a beguilingly dry style. It’s produced in what used to be an ostrich farm in the inland Robertson wine-growing area, hence its name. Pair it with seared tuna, risotto or simply a bowl of fresh strawberries and pretend that summer has arrived early.
Buy now £9.49, Laithwaite’s
Swartland limited release carignan 2015, 14%, 75cl
Another traditional Mediterranean grape variety that’s found a new life in South Africa. It’s a difficult grape to cultivate, although it prospers on the low-yield vines found on the heart of the Swartland wine region. A gold medal winner at the South Africa’s 2017 Michelangelo wine awards, it’s a textured and vibrant red wine, that provides a burst of ripe peach and red fruit flavours along with attractive notes of chocolate and coffee.
Buy now £11.50, Strictly Wine
Kleine Zalze vineyard selection chenin blanc 2018, 13.5%, 75cl
Chenin blanc is South Africa’s favoured and favourite white wine accounting for some 18 per cent of the country’s vineyards. Originally from the Loire Valley in France, this versatile grape has adapted to South Africa’s warmer climate by becoming fruitier and more tropical. This example made from premium grapes in the Kleine Zalze vineyards in Stellenbosch is rich in passion fruit, apricot and melon flavours balanced by a healthy minerality. Enjoy it with pork, poultry or a creamy pasta.
Buy now £11.95, Wine Store
Journey’s End The Cape Doctor cabernet sauvignon 2014, 75cl
Comparisons have to be made with the best Bordeaux can offer when considering red wines such as these. From a vineyard overlooking False Bay in the Stellenbosch wine region comes a 100 per cent cabernet sauvignon named after the “Cape Doctor” the southeasterly wind that keeps the sea-facing slopes cool during the summer months. Lush, ripe and fruity with soft tannins and hints of spice, you don’t need a doctor’s note to appreciate this.
Buy now £21.50, Tanners
Remhoogte Reserve Sir Thomas Cullinan 2015, 15%, 75cl
We’re talking diamonds here. The Cullinan, the largest gem-quality diamond ever found was named after mine-owner Sir Thomas who just happens to be the great grandfather of Chris and Rob Boustred who run the Remhoogte estate on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch. A blend of merlot (70 per cent) and cabernet sauvignon (30 per cent) it’s made from grapes grown on the two highest rows of low-yield vines producing intense flavours of dark fruits and blackcurrant with enticing notes of green pepper and spice. Matured for 25 months in French oak barrels it’s a serious wine at a serious price. And, dare we say, a true gem.
Buy now £26.50, Wanderlust
Eekhoring Rooi red blend 2018, 13.5%, 75cl
A debut entry from winemakers involved in “de kleine wijn koop”, or “the small wine cooperative” in Paarl which aims to produce top-quality wines “outside the conventions of the store shelf”. This easy-to-drink red, named after the Afrikaans for squirrel, is a blend of lightly-pressed cinsault, syrah and pinotage grapes, resulting in a bright, fresh medium-bodied wine that delivers all upfront fruit flavours without the trappings associated with more traditional offerings. They ask us to think of it in terms of a lightly-seared steak, which happily enough is just the sort of dish it will go best with.
Buy now £12, Winebuyers
The verdict: South African wines
The best buy is the Rhebokskloof Vineyard Selection Pinotage from Corney & Barrow, an expressive and delicious example of South Africa’s signature red.
For a reasonably priced introduction to Cape wines, go for the Warwick Cape Lady Cabernet Sauvignon, a fruity and vibrant red, while the Swartland Limited Release Carignan offers a fresh look at an often overlooked grape.
At the top end of the scale, you’re spoilt for choice with outstanding syrah/shiraz from Gabriëlskloof, a superbly elegant De Kleine Wijn Koöp Ou Treffer cinsaut and the rich and intense Remhoogte Reserve Sir Thomas Cullinan blended red.
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