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  • Tom Firth

The Wild Wines of South Africa


Way back when, when I was getting my start in fine wine (that was back in 1996), South Africa was in a bit of an odd place. Most examples were firmly in the…cheap and cheerful camp, a distressing amount were made from pinotage, a smattering would be classified as high end, and finally, most customers weren’t asking for them.


Since then, the wines have come a long way, buoyed by some stellar importers bringing in excellent brands, but also improved viticultural techniques, vineyard selection, and innovative winemakers, some of which are those infamous “flying” winemakers who work vintages in the northern hemisphere in Europe or North America, and then switch directions, head south and work an alternative vintage in Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa.


Finally, it’s worth addressing South Africa’s flagship grapes – Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. Chenin blanc is a stunner of a grape and in skillful hands (no matter where they are) can make these nuanced, tasty, and exciting whites. Chenin can often have this sort of lemony, wool blanket character which is…awesome. Pinotage…. has less of a magical connection. It’s a crossing of pinot noir and cinsault which can have wonderful fruit and perfume notes, but it can also have a distinct character of burned tires smells. There is some data that suggests that some vineyard diseases can exacerbate the smokiness, but among other things, reducing the temperature during fermentation can also control that.


Is it terroir? Or is that distinctness something to be improved upon?


That said, the wines (including pinotage) are better than ever, and I’m continually pleasantly surprised by the reds each time I try them. The whites? Always good value and always a pleasure to try another chenin blanc!


So, scour the isles for these great values and interesting expressions! Friday, June 18th is also #DrinkChenin Day, so why not shake up that bored palate, and try something new!


Note: All these wines were sent to me by Wines of South Africa, though my selections below represent my choices and comments from the pool (literally) of wines forwarded to me.

Boschendal 2019 Chardonnay, Cape Coast, South Africa

A creamy, bready chardonnay with loads of autolytic and oak characters but still well-balanced bright apple driven fruits, a touch of citrus, and a bit of spicy heat. Big, not too buttery, and with the right amount of fruit presence, this will go nicely with grilled fish or even sushi dishes.

CSPC +594804 About $19-22


Spier 2020 Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa

One of my favourite producers in South Africa, this is the entry level chenin from Spier, who also makes the excellent 21 gables line. Lemony aromas with melon and lime juice on the nose there is a mild note of wax and wooliness too. Tight and fresh on the palate with dominant fruits of lemon and apples with pear and sleek minerals too. A quaffer, and very well priced too.

CSPC +659037 Around $15-18

Juliette 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa

New to me, we also don’t see a lot of sauvignon blanc from South Africa here. Leafy green aromas with citrus and melon, jalapeño and a bit of an almost smoky olive-ness. Treading its own different path from New Zealand and European styles, this has the oomph to deal with strong flavoured fish dishes or salads with creamy dressings.

CSPC +823217 $13-15

The Beach House 2019 Citrus Grove Chenin Blanc, South Africa

For an exceptionally well-priced chenin, this checks off so many of the boxes for this lovely grape. Zesty lemons, a bit of mineral, honey and wool on the nose lead into citrus and honey on the palate with clean, agreeable acids to give it some good balance. A heck of a buy, and a good chenin to try if you are feeling a little hesitant.

CSPC +827616 $13-15

KWV Cathedral Cellars 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Cape, South Africa

A very agreeable, and very quaffable cabernet sauvignon with loads of peppery spices, bell pepper, cassis and cherry fruits and a touch of smoke and dried herbs. A far cry from some of the cooler climate cabernet sauvignons that lack a little ripeness, this is a very well-priced, enjoyable cabernet sauvignon.

CSPC +739661 $16-18

KWV The Legend of Big Bill 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Cape, South Africa

I don’t know exactly who Big Bill was, but he seems to have been big enough to warrant having a tank at KWV named after him (though it might have something to do with his being the first GM of KWV). A rather mellow expression of cabernet sauvignon with good fruits, softer tannin presence, and a bit of spice, this is the right sort of wine for a casual barbecue.

CSPC +790877 $14-17

Distell Inception 2018 Red, Western Cape, South Africa

A blend of shiraz (65percent), petit verdot, and mourvèdre, which has plenty of fruit, but also a clean and generous floral presence on the nose and palate. Medium weight on the palate with good flavours, but an interesting, wild, brambly character to the fruits. Tannins aren’t too much, but the acids will really hum along with some fat, so try to pair with burgers, or sausages.

CSPC +761626 About $12-14

Spier 2019 Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Remarkably floral and showing off plenty of berry-style fruits with just a touch of charred wood and smokiness. Bright, fresh and easy to drink with plenty of food-friendly acids, this should be a good bottle to have on hand if you barbecue anything like I do (maybe a little charred on the outside, but still looking good!). Pair with burgers, saucy ribs, or something smoked.

CSPC +451658 $16-19

Nederburg 2018 The Winemasters Cabernet Sauvignon, South Africa

A completely unapologetic densely laden, old(er) school cabernet. With black fruits, plenty of perfumed notes and loads of bell pepper and olive tones. In the mouth, those big tannins will make themselves known, but same with black cherry and cassis, liquorice, and a lot of spice. A great wine for a great steak.

CSPC +111526 $10-13