A beginner's guide to South African wine
People come from all over the world to sample South African wine, for good reason. Many of the best wines in the world are made right here in Cape Town. If you haven’t done a lot of wine tasting before, it might be a little daunting to explore the South African wine scene. If you need a little intro to get you going, look no further than this handy guide. Take a few minutes to read this article and nobody would ever guess that you’re a beginner!
What to expect when you go wine-tasting
Wine-tasting can be a great experience for seasoned connoisseurs and total beginners alike. Many wine estates offer other activities, like picnics, kids’ playgrounds, amazing restaurants, cellar tours, pairings, and much more. Most are located in stunning surrounds, and many (like Groot Constantia) contain beautiful examples of the unique Cape Dutch architecture. Depending where you go, you’ll find gorgeous white-washed manor houses, incredible views, local artwork, and a rich history. Even if you’re not a big wine drinker, or have kids in tow, there’s something for everyone on a day exploring Cape Town’s wine farms.Research the wine route you would like to visit, and plan your day to include a great lunch and other activities. You’re likely to drink a bit of wine on your outing, so it’s a good idea to arrange transport. The City Sightseeing bus connects to both the Franschhoek Wine Tram and Constantia wine route, and is a comfortable and convenient option.
Wine tasting usually happens in the estate’s tasting room. Here, you’ll find knowledgeable staff to guide you through the process, telling you all you need to know about the wines you’re drinking. There is usually a small tasting fee, although many estates waive it if you purchase wines from them. A lot of estates ship internationally, so you can just place an order and your wine will meet you at home. The only really good sweet wines you’ll find are dessert wines and muscat, which are delicious but too heavy for casual drinking, and better kept to pair with a dessert. If you prefer sweet wines, think of this as an opportunity to branch out and find a high quality, world-class dry wine that you like.
Your tasting vocabulary
Before we get into a great deal of detail, here is a helpful little cheat sheet. Learn these few words and what they mean, and you’re about halfway to understanding wine tasting. It’ll also make wine tasting more enjoyable for you, because you’ll understand what the staff are talking about when introducing the wines. Remember that the staff at wine estates are there to help you, and they are accustomed to guiding everyone—from rookie to veteran—through the wine tasting experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! They’re there to help you learn and have a good time.
The word “varietal” simply refers to the type of grape used to make the wine.
“Tannins” are a compound that occurs in wine. They are responsible for the dry taste of red wines. It’s the same kind of taste that you’ll find in strong tea. The word is typically only used to describe the dry mouth-feel of a red wine: most white wines don’t have noticeable tannins on the palate.
Some wine is matured in oak barrels. In white wines, this is responsible for a richer flavour, and will bring out caramel, vanilla, straw, and buttery flavours. It also makes the wine a deeper yellow colour. Not all white wines are matured in wood, but almost all red wines are matured in barrels. The longer the wine is wooded for, the more complex the flavour: you’ll detect spice, smoke, and other rich, deep notes. South African wine is matured in French oak.
Terroir and climate
Wines are affected by the kind of climate the vines grow in. Rainfall and temperature can make a big difference. “Terroir” refers to all the environmental factors that go into the grape, including the soil type, geological factors, climate, elevation, and even what other organisms are growing nearby.
Pay attention to the colour of the wine: it can tell you a lot. In red wines, it is a clear indication of age. Younger reds are a bright red or purple, while aged reds take on a brownish hue. In whites, it can indicate whether the wine was matured in wood or not. The wood gives white wine a yellower colour. Rosé wine colour is affected by how long the skins of the red grape are left on before the liquid is separated. A subtle, pale pink might only have had under an hour of skin contact, while a deeper pink indicates a longer skin contact time.
The “nose” of a wine refers to the scent you can pick up – florals, spices, wood, and any other elements. Once you refine your nose, it’ll tell you a lot about what you’re drinking before you even take a sip.
Types of South African wine
There are many kinds of red grape grown in Cape Town, and you might find some more unusual varietals on some estates. Red wines are most often (but not always) matured in oak barrels, and the skins are left on. The result is a lovely red colouring from the skin, and a richness from the wood. Here are some of the red wines you’re most likely to come across on your wine tasting adventures.
- Pinotage: Pinotage holds a special place in local hearts, because it is the only grape that is unique to South Africa. It was invented at Stellenbosch University in 1925. It is a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault. Pinotage is a bold and complex wine with a deep red colour. Depending on the age of the wine, you may taste notes of red berries, spice, and chocolate or coffee.
- Cabernet sauvignon: Many estates in Cape Town make great cab sav. It is a darker, deeper red than pinotage and often has a more complex flavour. It has bold tannins, and you’ll often pick up black fruits, along with peppery notes and even a tobacco flavour.
- Merlot: This is a little softer on the palate than cab sav. It has gentle tannins, and loads of delicious fruity flavours. It used to be mostly used in blends, but you’ll find 100% merlot at a lot of estates these days.
- Shiraz/syrah: Most South African producers call this wine shiraz, but it’s the same thing as syrah. It’s quite a versatile grape, so the wines vary from place to place. It’s a rich, deep wine with a distinct spiciness, and often a nice chocolate/coffee finish.
- Cape Blend: This is, as the name dictates, a blend of different types of grape. It is local to the Western Cape region. It has to have at least 30% pinotage to be a Cape Blend. Other grapes used include merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, shiraz, or other less common varietals.
White wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, but some are later matured in wood barrels. One of the most notable differences between white wines is the woodiness. Wooded whites are usually yellower and rich, while those bottled straight out of steel tanks are more clear, with a crisp finish. Here are a few of the white wines you’ll find most often.
- Sauvignon blanc: South African sauvignon blanc is world famous. It’s light and crisp, with that distinctive summery acidity that makes it the perfect drink on a sunny day.
- Chardonnay: Chardonnay is usually (but again, not always) wooded. It’s usually rich, yellow, and has notes of caramel, vanilla, and butter. Many estates these days produce unwooded chardonnays, which have a lighter colour and flavour.
- Chenin blanc: Chenin is another great wine to sip on a sunny day. It usually has some wood contact, giving it more complexity than a sauv blanc, but it isn’t as rich as a chardonnay. It’s often a great food wine.
- White blends: Don’t skip the South African white wine blends! They are incredibly diverse, but almost always delicious.
Bubbles are an essential element of any celebration. MCC stands for Méthode Cap Classique, and it is the South African equivalent of champagne. Sparkling wines are carbonated, while MCC develops its own bubbles in the bottle naturally. MCC is usually a little more pricey, but it’s well worth it for the soft bubbly texture and complex flavour palate.
Many estates produce fantastic rosé, although it is not as common as red and white wine. It’s often inexpensive, and makes for great summertime drinking.
Dessert wines are the only high quality sweet wines you’ll taste while exploring the vineyards of Cape Town and its surrounds. There are a few methods of production. Late harvest wines are made by allowing the grapes to become almost raisin-like on the vines before they are picked. The grapes produce tiny amounts of juice, but the little bit they do offer is honey-sweet. Another method is noble late harvest. This refers to “noble rot”: the presence of a fungus called botritys, which infects grapes in moist conditions. The ripe grapes are exposed to the fungus, which causes them to become raisin-like and produce a very sweet nectar. Straw wine is another type, which involves drying the grapes once already picked, typically on straw mats. Whichever the method, these wines are delicious and pair beautifully with desserts.
In fact, it was a very special dessert wine made right here in Cape Town that first made South African wines famous. Groot Constantia‘s Grande Constance is the oldest wine in the country, and it was famously served to Napoleon Bonaparte while exiled in St Helena. Add a taste of Grande Constance to your bucket list!
Where to taste wine
The best South African wine is made right here in Cape Town. There are five main wine routes in or close to Cape Town. Cape Town is unique in that it contains a wine region in the middle of the city: Constantia. Durbanville and Helderberg are also within the city borders, and Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are within 30 minutes to an hour’s drive of the city centre. Your best option is to choose a route that’s convenient for you, and select four or five estates that tickle your fancy.
How to taste wine
So, once you have a glass of wine in your hand, what next? Here’s your step-by-step guide to getting the most out of your sip. First, swirl it around to release the aromas, and take a look at the colour. Then, take a deep sniff, and see what flavours you pick up on the nose. Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: take a sip. To make sure you get the full impact and all the flavours, try swishing it around in your mouth. And then, the final question: spit or swallow? If you’d prefer to pace your alcohol intake, or you’re driving, little buckets are usually available to spit into. It’s pretty widely acceptable (as is chucking the rest of the tasting glass after a small sip). Do whatever suits you best: the most important thing is to have a great time.
History of South African wine
South African wine has a complex and fascinating history. Take a few minutes to explore the history and your wine tasting experience will be all the more interesting. If you want to find out about how South African wine originated and how it got to be so famous, read this article.
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