29 July 2014

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South Africa


Take a tour of South Africa with Fiona Sims, who introduces the key grape varieties and regions as well as discovering some distinctive native cuisine


Chenin Blanc

South African wines ‘Chenin has this ability to give you fantastic aromatics and you can eat practically anything with it. What we thought was a donkey is now a thoroughbred,’ declares Bruwer Raats, with a grin. And he should know – the winemaker produces some of the country’s best. South Africa actually grows more Chenin Blanc than the Loire Valley, the grape’s traditional homeland. South Africans call it Steen and they use it for everything, from simple, dry whites, to heady sweet wines and even in brandy. Typical South African Chenins have fruity flavours of peach and apricot, with aged versions developing more honeyed, nutty qualities. The variety does best where coastal influence helps maintain its high natural acidity. ‘I think Chenin Blanc is the best-suited white to our climate,’ says Ken Forrester, another Chenin Blanc master. You heard the man. Others to try include Kleine Zalze, De Trafford and Simonsig.

Sauvignon Blanc

South African Sauvignon Blanc has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and is no longer a poor relation to esteemed examples from France and New Zealand. Styles range from ripe gooseberry-flavoured wines with hints of asparagus to those with a crisp and flinty taste profile. All Sauvignon Blanc benefits hugely from high levels of acidity – which it certainly gets in Elgin, one of the country’s latest grape-growing hot-spots (try those from Iona and Paul Cluver). We’re talking cool climate here – think delicate fruit and flavours a touch more mineral than most in South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc is also the grape of choice in Constantia, South Africa’s most famous, and oldest, wine region. It represents a third of all the region’s vines, and is particularly grassy here (try Steenberg). Others to look out for are Neil Ellis, Sterhuis and Springfield.


South Africa wine Ah Pinotage. It gets people going, does Pinotage. South Africa’s own crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault (developed back in the 1920s), it’s made in a range of styles, from simple and fruity, to showy and oaky. At its worst, it can remind you of nail polish remover. But in the right hands, such as Beyers Truter’s for example, Pinotage makes interesting and rather unusual wines – and in a wine world heading for homogenisation, unusual is good. Characteristics of the Pinotage grape include meaty, savoury notes; and some herbaceous, cheesy, even animal (read funky) flavours. It usually has a sweetness to the nose too. Others to look out for include those from Delheim, Neethlingshof and L’Avenir.


While Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red grape in South Africa, Shiraz (or Syrah, depending on which style winemakers prefer to produce) is catching up fast. And boy, do they vary – from the determinedly peppery and spicy northern Rhône style of Boekenhoutskloof to the richer, brighter, sweeter, oakier (though no less delicious) styles from Fairview. They are now knocking a fair few wines made with Bordeaux grapes off their perch with increasingly regularity. Shiraz is well suited to the climate here – it likes to be warm, and viticulturally the South Africans are now finally getting the hang of it. Others to look out for include those made by Ernie Els, Luddite and the Sadie Family.

South Africa Map 2


Cape Town and the surrounding winelands are now home to some serious cooking. For starters, they have access to some of the best produce in the world – loin of springbok or smoked crocodile, anyone?

South African cooking found its roots in the Dutch pioneers who arrived in the mid-17th century and had already developed a taste for spices, shipped home from their colonies in the East. The slaves and political exiles that arrived from the Spice Islands and south India during the latter part of the 17th century, and well into the next, have made the biggest impact on the Cape kitchen, with a style of cooking known as Cape Malay.

You’ll see dishes such as bobotie; a sort of South African shepherd’s pie (and the country’s national dish), made with spiced minced beef or lamb, then baked and topped with a savoury custard. It’s addictive – and great with South African Shiraz. Bredie is a lamb stew that’s a great match for Cabernet and is made with seasonal vegetables including water hyacinths – also used to make a traditional soup. Ostrich neck potjie, a rib-sticking stew simmered in a black cast-iron pot over low flames, should be washed down with a richer style of Pinotage.

These traditional dishes are now getting a contemporary spin in South Africa’s upscale restaurants, which often fuse them with flavours of the continent and elsewhere, combining Old World techniques with New World innovation.


The most famous wine name in South Africa is Constantia – actually a highly sought-after dessert wine made from Muscat that first shot to fame in the 18th century. These days Constantia is now a proper wine region in its own right, on the eastern flank of the Cape Peninsula. Kept cool in the summer by south-easterly breezes, which whip off the ocean, the grapes like to take a little more time to ripen here. Which grapes, exactly? Well, like the rest of South Africa, it’s a viticultural melting pot, but Constantia is recognised mainly for its whites, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscat.

Drive on a little further north-east and you hit Franschhoek, now one of the world’s most beautiful gastronomic hot spots. With its multi-award winning restaurants, swanky hotels, chic B&Bs and art galleries galore, it draws in day-trippers from Cape Town and holidaying tourists in their hoards. But its wines are the area’s raison d’être. Actually a sub-region of the Paarl wine district, Franschhoek is mainly known for its Cabernet and Semillon, though many other varieties are grown here, from Shiraz and Merlot to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with plantings creeping even further up the slopes of this breathtaking valley.

Some 120km east of Cape Town, Robertson is a hot, dry district rather paradoxically best known for its whites. There are now 58 wine producers here, scattered along the world’s longest wine route (Route 62), many of them nudging up alongside the Breede River, which winds through the valley, providing irrigation and alluvial soils. Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc lead the way, but Robertson is becoming increasingly recognised for
its Shiraz and Cabernet.

Finally in this round-up, there’s Darling, long a source of ace Sauvignon Blancs, though its reds are also now showing promise. Head up through Durbanville, about an hour from Cape Town, and you’ll hit Darling – the wine region surrounds the eponymous town. It boasts a well-developed wine route, called The Darling Wine & Arts Experience. Yup, the locals like to paint, too, and you can view their art alongside their wines. ‘There’s an amazing energy here in the young and old winemakers. You might not be able to taste all of that in a glass but you will get some of it,’ says top South African winemaker, Kevin Arnold. You said it, mate.

For more information on South African wine, visit the Wines of South Africa website.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Restaurants & Bars 2008

« Wine - South Africa