Major grape varieties of South Africa

South Africa has a wide range of red and white grape varieties. Most are traditional vinifera grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chenin blanc and riesling. They also have two varieties that originated in South Africa — Cape riesling and pinotage. The newer plantings in South Africa have been of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay — most of these having been established in the late 1980’s.

White wine grapes

Chardonnay


It is currently one of the most popular if not the most popular dry white wine variety in the world. It is planted in almost every wine producing country and is one of the easiest varieties to grow. Chardonnay has only begun to gain in popularity and importance in South Africa in the last ten years.
Chardonnay generally benefits from oak and is especially complex when it is barrel fermented as well as barrel aged. However, over-oaking has been a common fault of some the first Chardonnnays that were produced in the Western Cape. Winemakers in the Western Cape are now careful to not let oak overpower the elegant and zesty citrus characteristics of the wine.

Boschendal Wine Estate, Franschhoek South Africa, by moby_life

Chenin blanc

This grape is the Cape’s most popular white variety with about thirty percent of her vineyards producing Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc in South Africa is also referred to as “Steen”. In South Africa it produces a wide range of wines from sweet to dry, including sparkling and still wines. Its dry wines are fresh and fruity and Chenin Blanc’s sweet wines and botrytis dessert wines are becoming more fashionable.

Colombard

This variety in South Africa makes fresh wines with crisp acidity. They often possess tropical fruit aromas and are a good companion to seafood. Colombard isalso used in South Africa for brandy production.

Rhine riesling

This variety, from German clones, is also referred to as “weisser Riesling” in South Africa. With a little age this wine can develop a resinous or oily character that is accepted as desirable in Europe. It is more complex and scented than Cape Riesling.

Cape riesling

This variety is thought to be related to crouchen blanc a French variety used for table wine production. It tends to be steely and can develop a pleasant honeyed flavour with some maturation.

Sauvignon blanc

South Africa has recently received great attention as a world class producer of Sauvignon Blanc. There are many microclimates in South Africa ideally suited to thegrowing of this variety. The South African Sauvignon Blancs tend to be dry and grassy. Its plantings have increased since the mid 1980’s and continue to do so.

Red wine grapes

Cabernet sauvignon

Most of the great red wines of Bordeaux and some of the finest wines of the New World are based on cabernet sauvignon. It is often blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot and its flavour is reminiscent of blackcurrants or cedarwood. It demands aging in small oak barrels, and the best wines require several years of bottle age to reach their peak.

Pens Party Tokara wine estate, South Africa, by Moron Noodle

Cabernet franc

This variety possesses qualities similar to those of Cabernet Sauvignon, although they are a little less pronounced in cabernet franc. It is an important part of Cape blends and is often blended with cabernet sauvignon.

Cinsaut

Formerly known as Hermitage in the Western Cape of South Africa, it produces light wines and is most often used as a blending wine to increase accessibility at an early age. Cinsaut is one of the parents of Pinotage.

Merlot

This variety takes second place to Cabernet Sauvignon in most premium red wine blends. Merlot is fragrant and usually softer than Cabernet Sauvignon. It also shows best with oak maturation, but usually requires less bottle maturation before it is ready to drink. Some believe that the growing conditions in South Africa do not require Merlot to be blended in with Cabernet. Merlot bottled as a varietal is becoming more and more commonplace in South Africa.

Pinotage

It is a unique South African grape made from a cross of pinot noir and cinsaut. It was developed locally in 1926. It is hardy in the vineyard and generally produces a wine that is full bodied with good fruit flavours and a distinctive spiciness, but often referred to as possessing a “sweetish acetone” flavour. Previously thought to be early maturing, it is now believed that pinotage benefits from extended maturation.

Pinot noir

The grape from which complex and elegant wines are made in Burgundy There are several new vineyards in South Africa making pinot noir that show great promise. The Pinot Noir wines in South Africa are clean and lively with the flavour of ripe cherries.

Shiraz

This grape is also known as Syrah. It makes a soft and rich wine often characterized by smoky and chocolaty aromas. It matures faster than cabernet and is sometimes blended with it to speed accessibility.

Zinfandel

This variety probably originated in Southern Italy as the Primitivo grape. It is planted by only a few Cape wineries, and the first examples have been very good, especially when they receive enough oak maturation.

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5 Responses to “Major grape varieties of South Africa”

  1. Interesting to see your views on SA varietals, just a couple of notes if I may?
    As a member of the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa I must say categorically that “we” do not call chenin “steen”. This is a highly confusing, historical moniker and not any part of the modern day wine vocabulary.
    Also interesting to note your comments on so called “SA Riesling” the general opinion is that this is in fact Crouchen Blanc.
    Kind regards
    Ken

  2. Hello Ken,
    Thank you very much for commenting. Your precisions are very welcome.
    Here is more on Cape riesling (crouchen blanc): ‘Among the first varieties to arrive in the Cape a few centuries ago, Crouchen Blanc was mistaken for German Rhine or Weisser Riesling’. Source: WINEmag.co.za.

  3. Artkins says:

    What is the average temparature for growing grapes and the required soils

  4. Limo Services CA says:

    I will be passing this along to a few friends of mine who are taking off this week for the World Cup. Very timely post!

  5. i am a fan of Chardonnay :)