09/18/13 – South African Wines

By xander on September 14, 2013

To RSVP, click here.

Jesse compared the last winos meeting to Van Halen’s last concert with David Lee Roth before Sammy Hagar took over. But, as a staunch Van Halen fan, I can’t help but feel that equivocating YoungWinos 2.0 to Van Hagar is akin to ditching our bottles of wine aside to chug a liter of Cabo Wabo, also known as Sammy Hagar’s personal brand tequila (which he presumably created to have a constant source of booze to forget how he could never live up to David Lee Roth). Actually, that sounds pretty good. We should have a tequila tasting soon. But Van Hagar still sucks. I digress.

Filling in for Jesse, who has profound knowledge of wine and an exceptionally discerning palate, is no small task. However, just as he learned over the last several years through regular tastings I hope to learn and grow my knowledge of wine with you all as well. In spirit of starting entirely anew, for the first tasting that I’ll moderate I’ve picked a “New World” region that I am very unfamiliar with: South Africa.


The history of South African wine goes back to the 17th century, when the dutchman Jan Van Riebeeck, the first regional governor of South Africa, arrived in 1652. At the time, the province was used as a stopping point for ships en route to Asia, and Van Riebeeck was tasked with, among other things, setting up vineyard plantings and wine production. This continued on for some time, when in the 1860’s the UK lifted a pre-existing tariff on French wine, making French wine cheaper to import than South African wines. This, plus the spread of Phlloxera in 1886, set the South African wine industry back substantially.

Following the Phylloxera epidemic, the country attempted to compensate by planting an immense amount of vines, resulting in massive overproduction in the early 20th century that led to a significant decline in quality. To respond to this issue a giant ruling wine co-op named “Kooperatiewe Wijnbuwers Vereniging” (KWV) was established with the explicit goal to stabilize the sales and prices of wine. In 1957 KWV implemented a strict quota system, which limited attempts to plant vines in new places and placed restraints on which vines could be imported.

Finally, the serious political challenges that South Africa saw in the 1980’s (namely the brutal apartheid government) led to countries around the world placing economic sanctions on the regime, further stunting progress in the South African wine industry. The abolition of the apartheid regime in 1991 paved the way for producers to begin exporting wines, resulting in an increase in production quality that was required to meet global demand.

Current State of South African Wine Industry

Since 1991 South Africa has reduced agricultural area devoted to vineyards and is focusing on improving the quality of its wine. Currently, South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 wine-producing countries in the world in terms of wine production by volume (~264 million US gallons). The country produces wine on approximately 250,000 of acres of land.

Grape varietals and styles

Like many other “new world” wine producing countries, South Africa has learned to adapt. Much of South Africa’s plantings have been driven by global demand rather than tradition. Formerly, much of the country’s plantings were devoted towards white wine (currently, production mix is ~56% white wine, 44% red wine). However, over the past two decades the mix has been shifting towards an increasing amount of red wine, including plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and the country’s unique Pinotage, which is a hybrid varietal of Cinsault and Pinot Noir that was cross developed in South Africa in 1925 and continues to be (from what I can tell) a uniquely South African offering (learn more about Pinotage from the Pinotage Association, www.pinotage.co.za). Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are also making inroads.


Chenin Blanc – South Africa’s most widely planted grape, makes up approximately 18% of total vineyard area


Colombard – Locally spelled Colombar, which is used primarily for brandy


Palomino – the grape variety of Spanish Sherry

Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc)


Muscta Blanc a Petits Grains


Cabernet Sauvignon





Gamay – often made in the style of Beaujolais wine with carbonic maceration. This would be great to try if someone can find one!

Petit Verdot

Cabernet Franc

Ruby Cabernet

Tinta Barroca

Zinfandel – This would be interesting to try, as the only other places in the world that I know of that plant Zinfandel are California and Italy (where it is known as Primitivo)

Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most widely grown grape variety, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard (a brandy variety), Shiraz, Pinotage, Sauvgnon Blanc, Merlot and Chardonnay.

Styles now cover the range from sparkling to fortified (such as the Cape port-style wine, made similarly to Portuguese port that can be made from either Shiraz and Pinotage or an array of Portuguese varieties like Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Souzao and Fernao Pires), although some wine experts say that a truly “South African style” has not yet emerged.

In addition to Port wines, South Africa also produces “sherry-style” wines using the solera method (traditionally used to make Spanish Sherry). South Africa also produces sparkling wines in both the Charmat and traditional champagne method, as well as dessert wines.


There are five primary appellations in South Africa that were established by the 1973 “Wine of Origin” system. These are Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo and Olifants River. The majority of quality export wines come from the Coastal Region, which includes the towns of Stellenbosch, Paarl-Wellington and Tygerberg.  The Olifants river valley is exceptionally hot and accounts primarily for mass-produced grapes meant for distilling.

While Stellenbosch only produces ~8% of the country’s volume of wine it is South Africa’s best-known wine district and is widely exported. Paarl-Wellington is responsible for ~13% of the country’s wines, and has been a long-term producer of fortified wines (this would be interesting to try if someone can find one!). Now, however, the Paarl-Wellington region is increasingly offering quality dry white and red wines.

This week’s meeting/RSVP details

Feel free to bring a bottle of wine made from any of the grape varietals or regions listed above. Or if there’s something I missed that you feel strongly about us all drinking, bring that instead! If you’re daring, see if you can find some of those fortified wines that have been produced in South Africa for so long. As always, you’re welcome to bring a nice crisp $10 bill in lieu of a bottle. We’ll be meeting at Layla’s place in Glendale, and this week’s meeting starts at 8pm.

The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions), and I’ll send you a confirmation e-mail with the address. Once you’ve received your confirmation e-mail, go find an interesting bottle of wine from South Africa — or simply bring ten dollars. Looking forward to exploring a new wine with everyone on Wednesday at 8pm.