Unforgettable Travel Company

Guide to South African Wines

The Cape Winelands is about an hour from Cape Town and includes the areas of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. This area is the main wine growing region in Africa and produces wines that are multi award winning. The most famous of these areas is Franschhoek (translates to French Corner).

In the 1600s, Cape Town was just a small port run by the Dutch East India Company where ships docked to pick up fresh produce on their way to India. At the time, it was widely believed that wine had medicinal properties and could prevent scurvy. As a result, the Cape, having ideal soil and weather conditions, started to produce wine, with the first wine bottled in 1659. Later, in 1688, the Huguenots from France made their way to the Western Cape fleeing persecution in Europe. The French settlers brought with them their vines and wine making skills and many of those families are still growing grapes there today.

Explore the Cape Winelands on our Cape Town & Sabi Sands suggested itinerary >>

Cape Dutch Wine
Wine Tasting Istock sized

Interview with a wine guide

We sat down to talk wine and food with our Cape Town Tour Guide extraordinaire, Pam McOnie. Pam founded her company in 2003, offering incredible tours of Cape Town and the surrounding areas. Pam’s big passion in life is food and wine!

Which wine is unique to South Africa?
Pinotage. It is a national favourite, a full-bodied red wine which is a cross pollination between pinot noir and cinsault grape varieties. We enjoy it with our BBQ’s every weekend! It was first engineered by Stellenbosch University’s first viticulture professor, Abraham Perold, in 1925. The first commercial bottling took place in 1961. Today, Pinotage is the seventh most widely planted variety in South Africa, making up 7.2% of the total area under vineyard at the end of 2019. This versatile wine has become globally popular and now boasts its very own International Pinotage Day which takes place on the 2nd Saturday of October every year!

Background on South African wine varieties:
Prior to 1990, we had approximately 70% white wine grapes planted compared with 30% red wine. Chenin blanc was by far the dominant white wine variety, most widely consumed by South Africans. Chenin has the advantage of being a very versatile grape and can be made into a variety of styles from unoaked to semisweet through to champagne style and dessert wine. However, most of this wine was grown and produced on a large scale, and tended to lack finesse. On the other hand, red wine producers, often growing on a much smaller scale, produced high quality red wines which regularly won awards. However, we have also been guilty of producing bulk red wine for the market, sold in unattractive 5L wine boxes!

When we opened up to the world again in 1994 after apartheid ended, it became apparent that there was no overseas demand for our chenin blanc. It was replaced by more popular wine varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. As a result, you are likely to find a mix of these varieties on many of the estates that you visit (the mix very much dependent on the terroir of each region). But chenin blanc started to make a comeback! Wine makers began experimenting with producing high quality chenin blanc in a variety of styles, tracking down many of the old grape vines they had used. The results have been phenomenal.

Where should you go to wine taste?
Our first wine regions were Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Robertson and Franschhoek. Over time, the “new winemakers” started experimenting and planting vines in regions that had not been used for wine making before. As a result, these regions were later recognized as “new” wine regions and, having completely different microclimates, we are able to produce wine varietals that reflected their specific terrain. It is really important for our guests to tell us what types of wine they enjoy and the level of their wine knowledge, as this guides our choices on estates and regions that we explore. Our advice for your first visit is to always start with our oldest regions as these offer so much more than just wine. They are historic with beautiful architecture, boast wonderful winelands towns and some of our best restaurants in the country.

Wine Tasting Credit Kanonkop
Image Credit Warwick Wines

Our Favourite Wines

Here are a few of our favourite wines from South Africa that are available internationally. The best part of this list, is that all these wine estates are open to the public for you to visit on your trip to South Africa.

Warwick Cape Lady Cabernet Sauvignon

Warwick Wine Estate is located in the Stellenbosch Wine Region just outside of Cape Town. They do great picnics, wine tastings and a vineyard ‘safari’ out into the vines. This is the perfect wine for a red meat dish, it has flavours of blackberry, chocolate and liquorice. The Chardonnay is very good also!

Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage

Pinotage is a grape variety that was created in South Africa in 1925 and Kanonkop Wine Estate in Stellenbosch is making some of the best Pinotage in the country.  This is a complex wine with hints of mocha and notes of dark red fruit.

Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc

Klein (Afrikaans for small) Constantia is one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa, located in the heart of Cape Town. It has a lovely bistro and a great place for lunch, followed by some wine tasting.  This wine is filled with citrus and stone fruit, Sauvignon Blanc is widely grown in the area.

Creation Chardonnay

Creation Wine Estate is in the Hemel en Aarde Valley just outside the small town of Hermanus, about 90 minutes up the coast from Cape Town. They do an outstanding food and wine pairing and well worth a visit. This is buttery chardonnay with hints of butterscotch as well as apple and pear undertones.

Delaire Graff Restaurant terrace
Wine Cellar Istock

Wine Tours

Our wine tours are completely tailor made, nothing is generic. When you book, your consultant will ask for details of your favourite wines and what type of food you enjoy. Our wine guide will then plan the perfect day of touring for you including a lunch stop at one of the many award winning restaurants in the Wine Region.

Explore Food & Wine Tours >>

Image credit (left): Delaire Graff

Ready to Start Planning?

Gemma is our African safari specialist and is happy to design the perfect trip for you. Please feel free to get in touch today

Other trips you may be interested in