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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things South African wine. Beavers explains that South African wine has roots dating back to the 17th century, and is generating growing excitement among in-the-know oenophiles today.
Listeners will learn about the big moments that have impacted South Africa throughout its wine-growing history, such as an outbreak of the vine-eating phylloxera louse, the formation of a government-led cooperative that regulated wine, and the creation of a grape called Pinotage. You will also learn about the distinct differences between the most important wine regions in South Africa.
Tune in to become an expert on the wines of South Africa.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’ve been abstaining from peanut butter for almost two months now. It’s fine, I’m fine!
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 10 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tasting director of VinePair, and how are you?
South Africa. It’s a major player in the wine scene in the world. What’s going on there? What are they growing? What are they making? What can you find from South Africa? South Africa is happening on our market now. Let’s get into it and understand it.
Back in 2003 I wasn’t even into wine yet. Wine wasn’t even a thing I was thinking about, and I had another job. Well, part of the job is we had to work this thing called the Fancy Food Show. It’s this big food convention that happens over a weekend at the Javits Center in Manhattan. It’s a huge convention center, one of the largest you have ever seen. I took a break from the booth I was working in. You just walk around and try food samples, swag, and all this craziness. All the way in the back of one of these big, big rooms, and these rooms are like a football field, there was a wine section. In that wine section, there was a big banner that said “South African wine.” I’ll never forget that. I was like, “What does that mean?” It stuck with me. It never went away.
Later, I think it was in 2005 or 2004, I was at a wine bar in Park Slope in Brooklyn, and this wine bar had a South African wine. I was like, “Oh, cool, let me try that. Wow, OK, so South Africa makes wine. This is cool.” I didn’t know what was going on. Fast-forward to 2007, when we opened up our wine shop in the East Village and we started buying wines for the initial inventory. I said we need to taste as many South African wines as we can and we, sure enough, did. It was just fascinating. It’s so crazy and cool what South Africa is doing.
When we talked about Australia, there is not intensity, but there’s this hunger. Australian winemakers have a hunger there. They’re the original, the flying winemakers that we talked about in that episode, where they finish the harvest down in their hemisphere, and they go to another hemisphere to start another harvest, because they just need to learn more. South Africa is on that level of innovation and experimentation and trying to find things that really jive with their terroir. Like in Australia and New Zealand, in South Africa, we have a loosely controlled appellation system. Like those other two countries we talked about previously, are still planting vines and finding what works in what areas. There’s a lot of successes with a lot of different varieties all over South Africa. It’s not just “this place does this, this place does that.”
We’re going to do another one of these overviews because there are so many wine regions in South Africa today that it’s impossible to go all through all of them. The good news is, even though all of South Africa is not on our market, there is a good amount of South Africa on our market that you can find, and it’s not hard. That’s really cool. I don’t know if you’re getting a sense of this yet, but these newer wine regions like Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, not Europe, you can get a sense that even to this day, they’re still experimenting.
Even in the United States, in a place like Sonoma, winemakers are still exploring. In South Africa, where the wine culture is new, they’re just trying whatever works. I think it’s very exciting because it’s fun. Diversity is great. If multiple varieties thrive in one place, that’s cool. A place doesn’t always have to be known for one grape. That’s also cool when it is, but it doesn’t have to be. We can celebrate places that aren’t known for just one grape, as well as places that are known for one grape, like Napa Cab. In Australia, we know pretty well because of the Shiraz trend back in the day. We’re pretty familiar with New Zealand because of the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, but there’s not one of those things happening in South Africa.
Let’s talk about where the Republic of South Africa is on the continent of Africa. The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent, with about 59 million people. The country is bordered on the west and south by almost 1600 miles of coastline. In the north of South Africa are the countries of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. On the eastern border of this country are Mozambique and Eswatini. What’s really unique is there’s actually a country within the borders of South Africa called Lesotho. There are only two others in the world like this, and they’re both in Italy: the Vatican and San Marino. It’s pretty wild stuff.
Also, like New Zealand, South Africa is a biodiversity hotspot. I’m sure we all are pretty familiar with the history of South Africa and the struggles and the triumphs of the people in South Africa. We’re not going to go into the political, socioeconomic stuff, although it does affect the history of wine. I want to talk to you about where it began, some things that were important, and then get to where we are today. Again, like other new wine regions, I think today is what’s very invigorating and awesome about South Africa. We are going to see more and more South African wine on our market. It’s just going to happen. Let’s talk about what we can see now.
The history of wine in South Africa begins in the 17th century. It involves the massive Dutch trade system of the time. Towards the southern part of the western coastline of South Africa is the Cape of Good Hope. It juts out into the ocean. On that cape is what is now called Constantia, which is a very famous winery. It’s very historical. That right there is where the wine industry of South Africa began.
In the mid-17th century, the Dutch installed a 33-year-old surgeon by the name of Jan van Riebeeck onto the Cape of Good hope to set up a big garden and put a market around it. This was to help fight scurvy for the sailors that were going back and forth on these trade routes. Of course, a vineyard was part of this big garden. In 1652, Riebeeck recorded in his journal that they pressed the first grapes from harvest, and that is basically what began the wine industry of South Africa. Now, that moment was how grapes got to South Africa from France. The wine that was being made in Constantia on the Cape of Good Hope was a mostly sweet wine. We have an episode coming up this season on fortified wine. These are the wines that could actually survive a trip from South Africa to England.
For a long time, the wines of Constantia in South Africa were some of the most popular wines in the wine-drinking world at the time. It wasn’t until the 19th century that this area became kind of irrelevant. I only say that because of the political stuff that was happening between France, England, and Spain — which has been going on forever — at some point, there is a shift in power, tariffs, and taxes. The British are now able to get wine from France without taxation, so they leave South Africa behind. It’s just easier to get wine from across the English Channel than from all the way down in South Africa. I have this idea that, if it wasn’t for that moment that Bordeaux happened, I wonder what would have happened if that political moment never occurred or occurred later in South Africa. I don’t know, it’s conjecture. That’s a big historical moment.
From the moment that the Dutch colony of Constantia was formed to the 19th century, wine had a presence in this country. Another big moment, like a lot of moments in the wine world, which we’re going to get to, I promise, is phylloxera. Oh, my God, Keith, you keep on bringing up phylloxera. It happened, guys. It was a big deal. When it hit South Africa, it took the country almost 20 years to recuperate from that moment or that horrible scourge, which we’ll get to.
In doing so, they flooded the system. They flooded the land with high-production grapes. They were just getting nervous. They just flooded the zone, and we had a quality issue. This was supposed to be fixed by this huge cooperative company that was created called the Cooperative Wine Growers Association, or KWV in Afrikaans. What’s interesting about this entity is that at one time, it was connected to the government, and it controlled how wine was made and sold in South Africa. At some point, it breaks apart and becomes a company. To this day, it’s still around but it’s not a regulatory body. It’s more of a company supporting cooperatives.
These are big general moments in South African wine history. One that is not as devastating as these is the creation of the grape Pinotage. If you’re in Virginia and you drink red wine, there’s a chance you’ve tried Pinotage. For some reason, it’s happening in Virginia and doing well. But Pinotage is a native South African variety. It was developed by a human, but kind of not really. This is a cool story. Inland from the Cape of Good Hope is a major, major town called Stellenbosch. In that town is a very important university. In 1925, they had just started their viticultural department, and they hired Abraham Izak Perold to be the first professor of their department at the university. In the garden of the university that was set up for him, he actually pollinated Pinot Noir with a grape called Cinsault, which is a variety from southern France and usually used the Provence region for rosé. It was open-air pollination. He just put the plants in the same vicinity, and at some point they cross-pollinated on their own. Then he planted four of those seeds.
In 1927, he left to go work for KWV, which is really wild. A lecturer from the university that knew about those four seeds took the four seeds, brought them to another college. They propagated those seeds, grew some grapes, and chose the best one to use going forward to propagate and make wine from. This was a grape that pollinated from Pinot Noir and a grape called Cinsault.
At the time, in South Africa, the Cinsault grape was actually called Hermitage. The label on the vine was “Pinot Noir x Hermitage.” This is Pinotage. This is how Pinotage was created. It became an indigenous variety to South Africa through open-air pollination by a human. Very cool. To this day, Pinotage is part of the wine scene in South Africa.
Now, South Africa is doing all kinds of stuff. They’re doing Cabernet Sauvignon, they’re doing Syrah. They call it Shiraz sometimes. They’re sometimes doing Chardonnay. They’ve been doing Chenin Blanc for a very long time. They actually call it Stein. They’re doing Merlot, they’re doing Cab Franc. They’re doing everything, but Pinotage is always there. It wasn’t always popular. The Pinotage wines can have a very distinct, almost overpowering smoky aroma to them.
Nowadays, it’s a lot different. The wines being made from Pinotage, they’re being blended. They’re softer, supple, and inky. They’re really, really awesome. You should definitely check them out on the American market, because they’re here. Those are key moments in South African wine history: Constantia, phylloxera, regulatory government-led cooperative, Pinotage.
Now, where South Africa is today in wine is the most exciting time for South Africa. There are dozens of wine-growing regions in South Africa, starting all the way to the north of the country along the coast, going all the way down to the southern part of the country. Not the entire coastline, but a lot of the coastline and a bit inland, you have all these wine-growing regions and we don’t see all of them on the American market. We’re going to and it’s starting to happen. There are places that we see now that I want to tell you about so that when you’re out there in wine markets, you’ll know what you’re looking at.
The appellation system in South Africa is pretty unique. Well, it’s basically regions and subregions, but they have different terminology for them. You have geographical units, then within those geographical units, you have wine regions. Then, within those wine regions, you have districts and within those districts, you have wards. It’s wine regions, subregion, subregion, subregion, and subregion. For example, you have a geographical unit called the Western Cape. It’s the Western Cape of South Africa. Within that geographical unit, you have a region that is called Breede River Valley. Within the Breede River Valley are three districts: Breedekloof, Robertson, and Worcester. Within each of those, they have wards. Breedekloof has two wards. Robertson has nine wards. Worcester has three wards.
What we’re seeing here is terroir, right? As you get further down into subregions, this is a wine system and you need to know that there is terroir here. The soils are different, and you can see them being created, which is very cool. The Western Cape is a geographical unit. We’re going to see the majority of wines from that particular geographical unit on the American market. This large geographical unit has three regions in it that you’re going to see on the market. There are three regions in this area. I’m going to break them down but be very brief so we don’t get too convoluted here.
The Breede River Valley, which is what we just talked about, is in this geographical unit called the Western Cape with three districts. Of those three districts I talked about, Robertson is the biggest one. There are nine wards in this district, which is a lot. It’s a warm, dry area. It has a favorite ward, which is called Bonnievale. I’ve had wines from here. I’ve had Chardonnay from here — Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re all really good. This area is inland from the southern tip of South Africa.
From the Breede River, if you start going south towards the coast, you enter another wine region called Cape South Coast. Here, there are about six districts, and two of them we’re going to see on the American market. One is called Elgin, and one is called Walker Bay. These are coastal regions so they are going to be cooler climates. You’re not going to see Shiraz and Cab and stuff like that. You’re going to see more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, because they want to get that acidity up again. Again, all kinds of things are happening in all these places, but these are the varieties you are going to see on the market right now.
Now, it’s the third region in this geographical unit that I’m saving for last because the majority of the stuff we see on the market will be from this chunk of acreage. The coastal region of South Africa has the Cape Peninsula district — this is where the Cape of Good Hope is. This is where the famous Constantia distillery/vineyard is to this day. North of that is a wine district called Darling. We’re not going to see it. We’re not seeing a lot of Darling on the American market, but I want to bring it up because I have had Syrah from Darling, and it was mind-blowing. Yes. Syrah, not Shiraz. It’s back and forth in South Africa, sometimes they call it Shiraz; sometimes to call it Syrah. I believe it’s because of the characteristics. If they’re different, that defines the name. Now, Darling is a wonderful place that proves that South Africa, some people think is hot, but it is close to Antarctica, and there is a wind current coming from Antarctica that goes along the coast of South Africa. It’s called the Benguela Current. It keeps everything nice and cool. That is why you get nice, spicy Syrah from Darling.
North of Darling is a place called Swartland. I’m bringing this up because we’re starting to see those wines pop up. I don’t know, I’ve never had wines from this area. It’s said that up in that region, we’re going to start seeing these funky wines coming from there. I’m not sure why, but that’s happening. Keep an eye out if you like the funky stuff.
In the center of the coastal region, inland from the Cape of Good Hope, is a lot of wine activity. You have the districts of Wellington, Paarl, and Stellenbosch. These three words, you’re going to see on a lot of South African wine that is here in the States. Wellington is still figuring itself out, but there are great red wines coming from out there. There are good white wines as well. I’ve had some awesome red blends from Wellington. Paarl is popular because Paarl is the home of KWV. That’s that huge cooperative company that began as a government regulatory body back in the day. I think I read that over 4,600 growers work with that cooperative. That’s crazy. And because it’s a cooperative, you’re going to see a lot of wines from Paarl on our market. Because wines that are made from a cooperative are not as expensive when it gets to the shelves here in the States.
Last but not least, Stellenbosch. If you’re interested in wine and you’ve heard about South African wine, there’s a very good chance Stellenbosch is the word that you know the most. It’s a university town in South Africa. This is where the viticultural department was formed in the 1920s. To this day, it’s a huge center for research in viticulture and viniculture, and there are vineyards everywhere. Now, Stellenbosch is mainly known for red wines, but you can’t say that, because everything’s being grown in Stellenbosch. It has good sun, it has cooling influences from False Bay, which is the bay just a few miles away. It’s like “Shark Week” Bay. It’s where all the great white sharks are. This is a place with heavy tourism. That’s why we’ve probably heard a lot about it. It has a wine route, it has restaurants, it has tasting rooms, it has the vibe.
But despite all of these vines, it has a very low yield. It is only 9 percent of the national yield of grapes in the country. It’s the fine-wine region that’s developing or has developed in South Africa. There will be more, but this is the one that’s been around for a long time, probably because of the university and the programs that are available there.
As I said, there are dozens of wine regions in South Africa. We’re learning about more and more all the time. More is coming on to our market. We have so much to explore in South Africa. Go out there, find some wines from South Africa, and just pop them and taste them and see what they’re like. Find what you like. Find a winemaker that you like and hold onto that winemaker. Maybe try a region. It’s ready to explore now. If you get into it now, as it develops, you’ll be like an expert in South African wine. What?!
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teater and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.