There’s no doubt that South African (SA) wine should be on your radar if you’re an importer, distributor or retailer looking to expand your portfolio. Wine ranks as the second largest exported SA product ($605 million), making SA a major player in the global wine industry. With a long and rich history of viticulture, SA wines are known for their complexity, depth of flavour and value for money, especially when retailed in international contexts.

We spoke to local food and wine commentator, Michael Olivier, to help shed light on the region’s wines. According to Michael, there are several key reasons why South African wine should be on your radar.

Michael, what are the differences between South African wine and the world’s wines?

“I think it’s an interesting, but strange, question because I think that each wine region is different to every other wine region. People talk about new world wine and old world wine. At the time that the Dutch were draining the swamps at the mouth of the Garonne River in Bordeaux, we were about to start producing wine here in 1659. I think it has a lot to do with soil, climate and grape type. If you take Chenin Blanc, for argument’s sake, it is our largest planted wine grape. It’s six times the size of the Loire Valley plantings in France, which is regarded as the home of Chenin Blanc. And as much as Pinotage is South African wine, I think Chenin Blanc is a South African wine as well. So we’re the same, but different.

“If you look at the Cap Classique, everything that happens in our local cellars is exactly the same as what happens in the cellars in Champagne.”

If you look at the Cap Classique, everything that happens in our local cellars is exactly the same as what happens in the cellars in Champagne, but go out into the vineyards and you’ve got calcareous soils; you’ve got people who have generational experience of making champagne.

I’m unusual in thinking that champagne isn’t any better than what we produce here. My son-in-law opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on Christmas Day and, I must say, I can’t remember when last I’ve been so disappointed in a glass of wine. I would have far rather had drunk something cool, crisp and fresh from Franschhoek or Robertson, or wherever. I think that the wines do differ. I’ve tasted wine from the same varieties that we have here mainly in Australia and Portugal, those are my two benchmarks. (I co-authored a book on Portuguese wine about 12 years ago.) So, they are different and the difference is the climate and the soil, etcetera.

What’s happening here in South African cellars is certainly cutting edge in terms of production. With our younger wine makers, particularly since 1994, going out into the world and doing harvests in France, Australia, New Zealand and California, they came back with international experience and a feel for international standards. So, they are different, but essentially not that different.”

A table showing the most popular South African wine exports by country and cultivar.

What do you think overseas consumers enjoy about South African wines?

“I think the foreign consumers that I came across, more in the past than the present, have thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s so cheap’. I also think they’re very much like what you and I would be like if we were visiting Australia; we certainly wouldn’t sit down and order a bottle of South African wine.

What they like about our wines – and I’m talking top end here, not supermarket – is that they are certainly as good as anything, anywhere else. What non-South African wine drinkers are looking for is that crisp freshness and also some seriousness in the red wines; the bordeaux blends. Yet Pinot Noir wine and Grenache Noir wine and other more southern French-origin grapes are making some really stunning wines; wines that you would probably chill down before you drink them and could happily enjoy with a piece of seared tuna.”

The famous Stellenbosch wine region outside of Cape Town, South Africa.
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The famous Stellenbosch wine region outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

Is South African red wine heavier than European red wine?

“We have tended, and I’m talking about the last forty years, to pick our grapes riper than our European counterparts, which means more sugar that is then converted into alcohol.

In South Africa you’re allowed a leniency of 0,5% so if you see 14,5% alcohol on the bottle you can be pretty damn sure that it’s 15%. Sherry is a fortified wine and that’s only 17%. Saké, which you sort of think of sweaty Japanese men playing cards in a basement somewhere, drinking and saying, “Kanpai!”, is 14% – 16%, but you’ll find it’s a very refined and delicious drink.

So, yes, South African red wine is heavier, certainly in terms of the Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage (to a lesser degree depending on the winemaker and the methods used in the making), but a young Pinotage that hasn’t had any oak maturation and oak casks is delicious. Absolutely delicious.”

“SA Chenin Blancs are a good place to start. Some of our Chardonnays are certainly as good as anything you’d find in Burgundy.”

Which South African wines are good starter wines if you’re new to importing?

“I think SA Chenin Blancs are a good place to start. Some of our Chardonnays are certainly as good as anything you’d find in Burgundy. Particularly from a winery like De Wetshof, for argument’s sake. Chardonnay is universally appealing, as is Sauvignon Blanc. So I would think that Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay would probably be good white starters.

And if you look at the reds, and I’m not alone in thinking this, the South African Shiraz is probably the red wine that best reflects what we do in our vineyards. You know, Stellenbosch Cabernet is something different because I think particularly the Stellenbosch Cabernet collective have done a lot of work punting Stellenbosch Cabernet. I think it does well here and it does well anywhere. And then of course I think Pinotage. You can’t leave that out.

There’s no grey area with it, you either really like it or really hate and I don’t understand the haters, unfortunately. I don’t think you can really have a South African offering without some Pinotage in there.”

South African wine is world class. It’s time to bring Africa to your market.

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