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  • Writer's pictureClaire @ fromthegrapevine

Wines from South Africa

South Africa sign in the vines

Every year, on the second Saturday of October, South Africa celebrates Pinotage Day; this annual day celebrates South Africa’s home grown grape varietal. In its homeland, numerous Pinotage stakeholders are planning exciting events, tastings, campaigns and promotions, but here in Swindon.... well, we’ll write a blog post about Pinotage and other South African specialties.


So, let's start with Pinotage. It's a grape crossing of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir, which was first crossed in South Africa in 1925 in the gardens of scientist Abraham Perold. Perold observed how Pinot Noir struggled in South Africa’s climate (Pinot Noir prefers a cooler climate), so he crossed it with a very productive species: Cinsaut (then called Hermitage). Perold’s goal was to create a wine that was as delicious as Pinot Noir but grew as well as Cinsaut.

Poor old Mr Perold never got to taste his creation. The plants, grown from four seeds in his garden, were saved from oblivion by Dr Charles Niehaus, a young lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, in 1927. It wasn’t until 1941, the year of Perold’s death, that the first Pinotage was vinified at Elsenburg Agricultural College.

The resulting wine polarises opinion and is either a love it or hate it wine. Even in South Africa it divides opinion. For every winemaker who considers it a USP, there are just as many who think that it’s a second division variety at best.​ The Pinotage grapes are extremely dark in colour and the wine they create is bold and high in tannin and anthocyanin —nothing like its progenitors.

The case for the prosecution

The fact that Pinotage is barely grown outside the Cape confirms what a lot of people think: the variety isn’t up to much The main charge levelled against Pinotage is that it smells of nail polish remover – or over ripe banana if you’re being more polite. Besides the sharp smell, some of the wines can become over-extracted which is a process where the wine spends too long on the skins and seeds. Over-extracting Pinotage will make the wine taste like burnt tar.

The case for the defence

It’s certainly true that Pinotage is distinctive: just a small percentage can have a marked impact on a Cape red blend – but the chemical note tends to fade with age. There are Pinotage specialists that will tell you that it’s a sign of bad winemaking, rather than an inherent characteristic of the grape.

Pinotage is capable of making very tasty wines, especially if the vines are old and it’s handled with care. Never forget that one of its parents is the temperamental, thin skinned Pinot Noir. What’s more, it’s able to be made in of a range of styles, from light and juicy to concentrated, ageworthy and profound.

There’s a good reason that Pinotage is the third most planted red variety in South Africa after Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with 7.4% of the country’s hectares given over to it: it’s well adapted to the Cape’s range of climates, and is capable of producing very good reds in diverse regions of South Africa.

A great Pinotage can taste of plum sauce, tobacco, blackberry, tar and liquorice. Tannin will be high, as the skins are so rich, but the grape is naturally low in acidity so some wine makers will increase the acidity as part of the winemaking process.

Our Wine for the Weekend

Beliingham Pinotage

We have chosen Bellingham Pinotage 2017 from Asda (£10) / Tesco (£11)

Bellingham was established in 1693, when visionary couple Bernard and Fredagh Podlashuk transformed a neglected Franschhoek farm into a winery that would pioneer many firsts in the South African wine industry. They are one of the biggest players in the South African wine industry today.

The Pinotage is a medium to full bodied wine. It has a strong ruby colour and brings some notes of black ripe fruits (blackberry) as well as some smells of spices and smoked meats. The tannins and acidity are very well balanced.

This good value wine would be great with a steak!

Chenin Blanc

While the Loire Valley may be the viticultural birthplace of Chenin Blanc, the grape variety has found a second home in South Africa. Representing 18% of the country’s total acreage under vine, Chenin Blanc is currently the country’s most widely planted grape.

Chenin’s popularity in the New World originally stemmed from its vigorous, high-yielding vines. It is also highly versatile, and in South Africa it can be made in many styles from dry to sweet, oaked to fruity and fresh. If you browse the supermarket shelves you will have a wide choice of Chenin Blancs, and most will present great value for money.

Bottle of Vinologist chenin blanc

Our Wine for the Weekend

The "Vinologist" Chenin Blanc (Majestic Wine, £9.99) is made by Marc Kent in the Swartland.

On the nose, it is delicate yet complex. There are aromas of figs, apples, pears and melon with some stone fruits such as nectarine and peach. It's fruit dominated, with floral whiffs of blossom, jasmine and chamomile. The wine has great acidity but there’s also a complexity to this wine which you don’t often see from Chenins at this price.

This can be enjoyed with salads, vegetable dishes, and creamy sauces, or goat's cheese.

Sparkling wines

The majority of sparkling wine made in South Africa is by cheap tank-fermented or carbon dioxide-injected methods. These wines are rarely worth seeking out.

The ones you want to look for are labeled "Methode Cap Classique (MCC)". These are made in the traditional method, like champagne — in-bottle secondary fermentation — with many of the best examples focusing on traditional Champagne grape varieties.

The other similarities to champagne production include

  • whole-cluster fermentation (meaning whole bunches of grapes are used, not single grapes. This means they are hand picked, and undamaged)

  • nine months of fermentation on the lees (dead yeast cells),which is expected to increase to 12 months in 2020.

  • standard OIV labeling scheme for residual sugar left in the wine

All grape varities are permitted, though many of the best producers focus on the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Standout producers include Graham Beck, Colmant, Le Lude, Simonsig and Charles Fox. Although there are nearly 250 MCC producers, the industry is quite concentrated. Seven of the largest producers dominate around the £12 price point, accounting for over 80 percent of total volume. That means you should be able to track down good value sparkling wine without the elevated champagne price tag.

Bottle of Graham Beck sparkling rosé

Our Wine for the Weekend

There isn't a great deal of South African sparkling wines to be found on our supermarket shelves, but Waitrose and Majestic both sell Graham Beck.

We chose the sparkling rosé as something a little different on Wines for the Weekend. Made in the traditional fashion, as discussed above, this example has more strawberry flavours coming through, whilst retaining the yeasty-ness you'd expect from a wine with lees ageing.

It's bubbles are fine and lively, fast flowing to the top of the glass (a good sign!) - at £11.99, this really is great value for money!

It can be enjoyed with a chicken salad or on its own for a celebration.

South African wine map


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