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South Africa fine wine
South African wines are much like the country itself. Exciting, laid back, a little bit edgy and always up to try something new. While Europe classes South Africa as a new world wine destination, the country’s winemaking history goes back to the mid 17th century. Apartheid, of course, put a stop to any fine wine production during the latter half of the 20th century and when the country emerged from its political shadow, we found a wine industry that had old world traditionalism but with very new world ideas. Much like the political front, the South Africa fine wine proved itself open to new ideas and reacted with characteristic enthusiasm.

The techniques that the new wave of wine producers employed had a direct influence on the wine, and as such forerunners of the industry began experimenting with new “old” varieties of grape such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir . While South Africa’s own grape, Pinotage, remains popular in the country, it is the smoother Bordeaux style red blends that have the most success overseas (thank you Eben Sadie). On the white side, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc still remain the number one choice, offering a dry or sweet wine alternative to some of those big reds. The white grape Chenin (colloquial name “Cultivar” or “Steen”) is so popular in fact that around 20% of South Africa’s 100,000 hectares of vineyards are planted to it. That’s about 40% of the size of California’s wine production area.

Because of the country’s long winemaking history (much longer than any other new world producer such as the USA or Australia), the terroir is mature and has been properly farmed for centuries to produce wonderfully self-confident, fruity wines - as well as some very inexpensive, less concentrated ones. White wine overall makes up 65% of all exports, but reds are increasingly finding favour, hampered though by the long cellaring and the impatient South Africans. While we all like a Cabernet Sauvignon, the careful vinification and long cellaring it requires in order to produce a deep-coloured, long-lived wine can be off-putting to many producers.

The country has five wine regions overall, the most famous of which are Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia (although cooler regions such as Walker Bay are beginning to attract attention). From an investor point of view however, we want to concentrate our interests on the first three
People consider Stellenbosch to South Africa as Napa Valley to California. Located about 50 kilometres inland from Cape Town, negotiating Stellenbosch’s producers can be challenging in that there are so many. And with quantity comes quality - jaw-droppingly good in some cases. This is by far the benchmark for South Africa wines, home to many of great the estates including The Sadie Family Winery. Vineyards are flanked by mountains and benefit from the cooling maritime breeze; not only does this give the grape potential for long ripening on the vine but also makes it Instagram magic (if you like that type of thing). Seven different subregions (five of which, Blaauwklippen River Valley, Somerset West, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, Banghoek, Jonkershoek Valley, are consistent in their excellence. This is undoubtedly due to the superior gravel, granite terroir of the region, ideal for thier lovely reds. The sandstone soils to the west of the region are perfect for the production of their creamy white wine. Food for thought: the granite mountains are approximately 600 million years old, over 3 times as old as the soil in Napa, so consider that when weighing up the pros and cons and both countries.
Second only to Stellenbosch is Paarl, northeast of Cape Town and home to some of South Africa’s greatest wineries including Veenwouden, Nederburg, Fairview, Glen Carlou and Plaisir de Merle. The region’s huge variety of terroir offers (almost) endless possibilities for the creative wine producer, although the notable grape varieties are fairly sedate, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay being the most commonly grown varieties in the region. The red wines are complex and full-bodied, with a great depth of fruit. The white wines are fruity and can veer towards sweet if not well managed. Paarl’s Mediterranean climate (hotter than Stellenbosch) means that wines that are grown in higher up the Simonsberg mountain (the mountain that separates Paar from Stellenbosch) tend to be better in quality; not only do vines have to dig down further in the nutrient-rich granite and shale soils, but they benefit fomr the cooler evening breezes.
The final of the three important wine producing regions in South Africa is Constantia, located in the suberns of Cape Town. Less well-known than its two superstar neighbours, Constantia is South Africa’ oldest wine region, and best known in the past for its legendary Vin de Constance. Its popularity surged in the 18th century when it was mentioned by both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and quickly became le vin de choix of kings and emperors in Europe. Nowadays Constantia has caught up with the modern style of winemaking and if you're looking for superlative, cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc then you can’t really go wrong with a Constantia.