Most wine geeks talk split producers into Old World and New World categories. Generally speaking, think of "Old World" as Europe and "New World" as Oceania and the Americas.
Which leaves poor South Africa out in the cold. In the lexicon of explorers and cartographers from centuries ago, Africa is part of the Old World. But as it relates to wine, South Africa's global history as we know it only started in the late 1980s/early 1990s, giving it far more of a kinship with countries such as Chile and Argentina.
South Africa's viticultural history is fascinating. Winemaking goes back as far back as the mid-17th century, when Jan van Riebeeck, a surgeon with the Dutch East India Company, began planting vineyards at a supply station near what is now Cape Town.
Eventually, many farmers started turning their attention to other crops, while those that contnued with grapes planted higher-yield varieties. This often resulted in excess juice that couldn't be used for anything remotely drinkable, and much was simply poured into rivers and streams. (Much of the excess wine began was eventually used to make brandy, spirits and liqueurs.)
In 1918, the Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging (or KWV) was formed. This growers' co-op was established to regulate supply and demand through annual quotas, the creation of guidelines for production areas and setting minimum prices. Almost all growers signed up, and in time the government allowed KWV to fix prices. It had essentially become a monopoly.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that KWV transformed from regulative co-operative to a company, allowing smaller, independent producers to flourish. The quality of South African wines were on the rise.
Not that many outside of the country would have noticed. South African wines had a low profile globally, in large part due to sanctions imposed because of apartheid. KWV was still the major player at the time apartheid was abolished and goods began flowing between South Africa and the rest of the world.
Today, many smaller South African wines make it to our shores, although many of my wine-writing cohorts who have been to the country swear they still keep the best stuff inside their borders.
Most South African vineyards are in close enough proximity to either/both the Indian or Atlantic oceans to enjoy a moderate, Mediterranean-style climate: long growing seasons with little rainfall and plenty of sun and heat.
Grape-wise, South Africa's white-wine strong suit is Chenin Blanc. When unoaked, this grape is crisp and fresh, with red apple, pear and lemon notes; when oaked, the grape's complexity comes to life. South Africa also makes plenty of excellent Chardonnay and some serviceable Sauvignon Blanc.
As for the reds, most of what we see here is Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, or some blend based on one of those two grapes. Some grapes such as Cinsault used to be produced in mass quantities back in the lower-quality days, and still work well as blending grapes in Rhone Valley-style reds.
And then there's Pinotage. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, this grape is indigenous to South Africa, and much of what we see on our shelves is love-it-or-hate-it stuff. Typical Pinotage characteristics in the wines we get here include smoke, sausage, earth, tart blackberry and vanilla (if aged in oak).
South African producers continue to step up their game, producing a greater number of world-class wines. Entry-level, value-priced wines are consistent, while spending $25 and up can result in some great finds.
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