Back in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company would stop by Cape Town in South Africa to pick up much needed supplies en route to the subcontinent (AKA India). To keep all those thirsty sailors happy, the locals planted a bunch of vines along the Western Cape, quickly starting the growth of one of the world’s most popular wine regions.
The South African cellar started with an incredibly sweet dessert wine named Constantia and has since gone on to master your everyday varietals, such as pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as the more alternative wines like pinotage and cinsault.
Whether you’re completely new to vino, or an advanced sommelier, South Africa is a wine lover’s nirvana. All you need to know is where, and what, to start drinking.
Where to drink
One of the biggest perks of wine travel in the Cape is proximity. You need only drive thirty minutes out of The Bowl and you’re already in vinous heartland. There are a number of wine regions to choose from, and while you can organise a day tour, it’s just as easy to travel independently. Hire a car, grab a map, and get tasting.
Super close to Cape Town, Constantia is a peaceful wine region tucked into the southern suburbs. It’s also a must-visit, considering it was the first site to be planted back in the sailor days. Situated on the slopes of Constantia Mountain, expect a sea breeze to accompany your afternoon glass of syrah.
This region is pretty small compared to the others, located inland and to the west of Stellenbosch. It’s bordered by the dramatic Drakenstein Mountains and is known for running the gamut of wine styles, thanks to its varied soils and high rainfall. Definitely come here to eat; it’s home to some of the most gourmet restaurants in the winelands.
As South Africa’s most famous wine region, it’s also home to some of South Africa’s leading wineries. You can walk part, or all, of the Stellenbosch wine route, traipsing through vineyards fringed with mountains. Glass in hand, preferably.
Head to the north-west of Cape Town and make tracks for Paarl. This region is quite Mediterranean in climate and, because of this, the best wines coming out of Paarl are white. Producers to look out for include Veenwouden, Plaisir de Merle and Nederburg.
What to drink
Despite a grape-growing history that dates back centuries, South Africa is very much still considered part of the New World of wine, alongside Australia, New Zealand, the United State and Chile (Old World wine regions are recognised as France, Germany, Spain and Italy). That said, the wine that’s produced here definitely straddles Old and New.
You’ve got Bordeaux-style blends, New Zealand-style savvy b and everything that’s drinkable in between, but these are the wine varietals you’ve got to hit up at the tasting bench:
Cinsault is a grape that came over many moons ago from southern France, but has risen and fallen in popularity over the years. We’re not sure why, because it’s delicious. A lighter-skinned, softly perfumed red, it’s often blended with other varietals to make even more epic deliciousness. Currently the 11th most planted grape in the Cape, some people have gone so far as to describe cinsault as South Africa’s malbec.
Chenin Blanc (white)
If you’re going to drink anything on a hot summer’s day in South Africa, it’s got to be chenin blanc. If you’re into pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, you’ll be into chenin blanc. It’s available almost everywhere and for seriously cheap. But that doesn’t mean this wine isn’t quality. Expect it to be dry, with hits of apple and jasmine.
Pinotage is South Africa’s very own style. Born and bred Saffa. It’s a blend of pinot noir and cinsault, and might remind red drinkers of the French stuff like syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Make sure you stop and savour the black cherry, violet and dried tobacco notes. Yep, dried tobacco.
Method Cap Classique (bubbles)
‘Cap Classique’ is the name for the South African method of producing sparkling wines. For those who are interested in vinification, this style gets its bubbles from a second fermentation in bottle. Cap Classique is little bit more difficult to find in your regular bottle shop, so if you come across it at the tasting bench pour yourself a glass of raspberry, red apple and rose petal-tasting bubbles.
A few tips and tricks
- Always ensure you’ve got a designated driver when you hit the wine road.
- If you’re the designated driver, don’t be ashamed to spit!
- The process is always swirl, sniff, swish. Give your glass a little swirl to get air into the wine, give it a sniff (try to pick the aromas) and then swish it around your mouth. The key is to coat your whole mouth.
- Don’t take it too seriously – it’s only wine!
Sip a few top drops with us on a small group adventure through South Africa. Check out our range of tours here.
Feature image by Tayla Gentle.