The best wines from South Africa

The much maligned South African Pinotage grape is due a renaissance

Drink

26 Dec 2018

‘Pinotage’ is a South African grape variety whose mere mention is enough to make certain wine tasters break out in hives. At its worst it can be by turns jammy, aggressively tannic and alcoholic then rubbery, burnt and green. It is the variety that the wine trade loves to hate, much as many wine drinkers once turned against Chardonnay. Yet while the trade will fall over itself to ‘correct’ any anti-Chardonnay sentiment, it is still perfectly acceptable in wine circles to dismiss Pinotage with utter scorn.

For a long time it was the variety that epitomised a certain sense of disappointment around South African wine.
Despite a viticultural heritage that dates back to the 17th century, while South Africa’s New World counterparts in the Americas and Antipodes romped home with high quality brands and a burgeoning fine wine reputation there was a sense that, with a few exceptions, rather like the Italian rugby team at the Six Nations Cape wines just weren’t showing much sign of progress on a number of levels.

Pinotage has taken a lot of the flak but it’s time attitudes changed. One cannot claim Pinotage’s reputation wasn’t warranted and nor is it a grape entirely reformed but anyone sticking grimly to their guns about all Pinotage being rubbish is like a doctor or lawyer failing to keep up with developments in their field; they’re just not up to date.

Slowly but surely a mix of the old guard and Young Turks in South Africa are dragging Pinotage back into polite society and showing what it’s capable of, which is really rather a lot.

South African wine-making as a whole has been getting not just better but thrillingly delicious over the past few years.
Those keeping tabs on the Cape have been banging this drum for a while and my own more recent forays at trade tastings and various wine shops had piqued my interest considerably.
This September at the invitation of Wines of South Africa I was able to attend the triennial CapeWine show in Cape Town and it was a revelation.

Trade shows, even wine ones, are not as a rule particularly thrilling places but CapeWine crackled with a palpable energy and I tasted hit after hit, helped along by the 2017 vintage which is a cracker.

Much like Chile, South Africa has a diverse ampelographic palette ranging from classic French varieties to some weird and wonderful Portuguese and even Hungarian grapes.
Steely Chenin Blanc and lip-smacking Cinsault are two varieties the Cape does particularly well but there are also super red and white blends, lovely, peppery Syrah, delicious Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and smart Pinot at prices that won’t make you weep.

Anyone with an interest in drinking delicious wine must without fail look in the direction of the Cape. Never has there been a better time to drink South African wine and there has, perhaps, never been a better selection available in the UK.
If ever a country and its wines can be said to have ‘arrived’ for South Africa that time must emphatically be now. To give my own tuppence ha’penny’s worth, I think it is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today for variety, quality and value for money.

Most importantly, these are wines of sheer drinking pleasure that had me seeking them out from the moment I got home and I would urge you (if you haven’t already) to throw away any preconceptions and go in search of them too.


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