South Africa is the eighth largest wine producing country in the world and offers a huge range and diversity of wine grape varieties (or cultivars as they are also known) than most other wine-growing countries.
Triple the size of California, and surrounded on either side by two separate oceans and the climates that they bring, South Africa is home to a vast array of distinct and different landscapes. One of the most intriguing and beautiful wine-producing countries on earth.
Although South Africa is relatively new to the international wine market, the first South African wine harvest was actually recorded in 1659. Centuries of disease and difficulties plagued the industry, culminating in export restrictions and sanctions until the 1990s.
At this point, the majority of wine grapes were used for brandy and fortified wine, but in the decades since then, winemakers have really put South African wines on the world’s radar.
What wine varieties is South Africa known for?
South Africa is a New World wine producer with great diversity in its style of wine production. The Western Cape is where most of the wine grape cultivars are grown and has a climate that mirrors that of the Mediterranean. Despite this, a range of micro climates in different areas of the wine producing region results in a huge variety of styles of each wine.
With over 91000 hectares of land under vine and around 26 different wine grape varietals (24 red grape varietals and 22 white grape varietals) or cultivars as they are also known, South Africa has a lot to offer! Learn about the difference between wine variety/varietal and wine cultivar.
Many wine producers constantly experiment with new plantings as they try to uncover what does and doesn’t work in their specific terroir.
We’ve made it simple for you as eight grape varieties constitute 80% of South African vineyards.
Top South African white wine varietals
South African white wines range from lively and crisp to fruity, mild, and smooth. There is really something for everyone and every taste can be satisfied!
Cultivars like Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are fresher and crisp contrasted against varieties like Chardonnay and Semillon which are more famous for their smoothness. However, lesser known varieties like Gewürztraminer and Viognier from South Africa are every bit as good as their renowned Old World counterparts.
1. Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is a favourite among South Africans, especially as a crisp and refreshing wine to enjoy on a hot summer’s afternoon or evening while watching the sun set.
The first records of Sauvignon Blanc in the Cape date back to the 1880’s, but a high rate of disease led to most vineyards being ripped out and replanted in the 1940’s. Since then this white wine grape variety has seen steady growth and popularity.
Currently, Sauvignon Blanc is the 3rd most planted white wine cultivar in South Africa and is found throughout the wine producing region resulting in a diverse range of styles from green and grassy through to light and fruity Sauvignon Blancs.
Try Sauvignon Blanc if you like a light and crisp white wine to enjoy on it’s own.
South African Chardonnay is a diverse wine varietal. If we were to generalise, South African Chardonnay tends to be a medium bodied and structured wine, but you can find a wide range of styles. Many producers choose to make Old World style, heavy, and wooded Chardonnay whilst others opt for a lighter unoaked New World style with every possible variation in between. The terroir in which the Chardonnay grapes are grown often influences the style in which the wine maker chooses to produce the wine.
Chardonnay vineyards in South Africa have a rough past as almost all of the plantings were lost to disease in the 1970’s. It has however made a great comeback and since the 1980’s it has grown in popularity especially with higher value wine estates and today Chardonnay makes up about 7.2 % of all vineyard plantings.
Chardonnay is a great white wine varietal for pairing with cheese or food, but also makes a great rose or blush wine when combined with pinot noir. Try this Chardonnay Pinot Noir blend and see if you like it!
3. Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc (or Steen as it is sometimes known) is the most planted wine grape variety in South Africa at 18.6% of wine grapes.
The Chenin Blanc grape has a long history in the Cape as it was one of the first wine grape cultivars introduced to the Cape by Jan van Riebeek in the 1650’s. Since then it has been a firm favourite in the South African wine region as evidenced by its presence in all styles of wine from sparkling wine and white wine blends. Chenin blanc is also used to make sweet South African wines and even fortified wines and brandy. High yields, its incredible versatility and ability to grow on land unsuitable for other white wine grape varieties have contributed to the success of the Chenin Blanc cultivar.
The wine produced from Chenin Blanc grapes is very popular thanks to a balanced acidity, and as is common amongst South African wines, it’s diversity in flavour and style. But don’t take our word for it, try South African Chenin Blanc for yourself.
Colombard, also known as Colombar, is the second most planted white wine varietal in South Africa.
This grape varietal produces a quality wine in the warmer areas with good acid content which ensures fresh, interesting wines with a pleasant fruity flavour. Colombar is also used in white wine blends, however, the majority of Colombar typically finds its way into brandy production.
Top South African red wine varietals
Until recent years, South African vineyards were dominated by white grape varieties. However, due to the steady increase in planting of red wine grape varietals, red wine cultivars have overtaken white wine cultivars and South African red wines have won over the hearts of wine lovers.
The finest South African red wines are often lauded for the fact that they seem to elegantly straddle the Old World and the New; their character tends to bring together the fruit-forward characteristics we associate with countries such as Chile and Argentina, with the complexity, earthiness and restraint of classic regions such as Burgundy in France.
5. Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon was first recorded in South Africa in the late 1800’s and by the 1980’s it made up just 2.8% of vineyards. Since then it’s become an increasingly significant variety in the Cape and today it constitutes around 11% of vineyards and is the most widely planted red grape varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon produces top-class wines that develop well with age into spicy, full, complex wines. Depending on the terroir, South African Cabernet Sauvignon can range from intense and perfumey to spicey and herbaceous or soft and well rounded with more berry notes. Cabernet Sauvignon is also often used in Bordeaux style blends.
If you are a fan of complex and full red wines, give a South African Cabernet Sauvignon a try!
The first records of Shiraz (or Syrah as it is also known) in South Africa date back to the 1890’s, however, it is suspected that the true origin in the Cape dates back to the time of Simon van der Stel.
Today Shiraz is the second most planted red grape variety at 10% of red wine grape plantings spurred on by the Australian Shiraz popularity of the 1990’s.
South African Shiraz or Syrah is produced in a variety of climates from hot to cool resulting in a variety of wine styles but typically yielding purple, smokey, and spicey wines that develop a complex character over time. Shiraz is often included in Rhône style blends.
Shiraz vs syrah
Syrah and Shiraz are different names for the same red wine grape variety. Syrah derives from France’s Rhône Valley, and Shiraz is what winemakers in Australia typically call it.
The use of Shiraz or Syrah has taken on more meaning, and producers might choose one name or the other to indicate the style of their wine.
If you are looking for a spicy wine to pair with food or enjoy on a cold winter evening, give a South African Shiraz a try.
The Merlot red wine grape variety in South Africa began as a single hectare vineyard in 1977. It has since grown to cover around 6% of the red wine vineyards today, especially in warmer regions of the Cape.
This early ripening, thin-skinned grape varietal is highly sensitive to drought and can be a little tricky to produce, but it is worth the effort. Merlot is traditionally used in Rhône style blends to add softness and breadth to Cabernet Sauvignon. In New World wine regions Merlot is growing in popularity, and is increasingly being bottled, as a single varietal wine, with some superb results locally.
South African Merlot is usually medium to light-bodied in style and often has a touch of herbal freshness as part of their flavour spectrum. If you are trying to transition into drinking red wine or looking for an easier to drink varietal, give Merlot a try.
A uniquely South African cultivar, Pinotage is a cross of Pinot Noir and Hermitage (also known as cinsault) that was developed in 1925. Planting popularity has grown steadily in South Africa from 1.7% in 1974 to 7.3 % today.
Due to many years of sub-standard quality exports, Pinotage was largely unpopular in export markets, however, it is a firm favourite in South Africa and is slowly finding favour worldwide as better South African Pinotage wines are being produced both as a single grape varietal and in blends.
Pinotage grapes can produce complex and fruity wines with age but are also often very drinkable when young. It is made into the full range of styles, from easy-drinking and rosé to sparkling wine. Pinotage also forms the main component of the ‘Cape blend’, an evolving term which generally denotes a red blend with Pinotage making up 30 to 70 percent of the wine.
South African Pinotage is a versatile varietal that really does have something for everyone!
Wine grape variety vs varietal vs cultivar
Three terms that are used a lot, but what do they mean?
What is a wine grape variety?
Grape variety is the term used to describe a specific, naturally occurring, sub species of grape used to produce wine. The term variety is commonly used to describe different types of wine (e.g. red, white, sparkling), as well as different grapes (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon).
What is a wine cultivar?
A cultivar is a grape or plant that has been bred, selected for desirable characteristics, and propagated by humans. Technically, all modern wine producing vines have had human interference (through cloning, selection, or hybridisation), hence they should be referred to as cultivars. In common use, however, the terms variety and cultivar are used interchangeably.
What is a wine varietal?
A wine varietal is a wine made from a single variety of grape, and as such typically has the name of that variety on the wine label. For example, grape varieties commonly used in varietal wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot.
Which is the most widely planted wine grape variety in South Africa?
Chenin Blanc also known as Steen is the most planted wine grape variety in South Africa accounting for around 18% of wine grape plantings. In terms of red grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red wine varietal at 11% of total plantings.
What grape variety is unique to South Africa?/What wine is unique to South Africa?
Pinotage is a proudly South African wine grape cultivar. It represents a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Hermitage) wine grape varieties and was created by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925. Pinotage produces complex and fruity wines and is popular as a varietal wine as well as in blends such as the ‘Cape blend’.