South African Wines: Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon Take The Lead

Last week’s South African wine tasting organized by Wines of South Africa with the help of the marvelous Aileen Robbins was a really fabulous event. South African wine exports to the US are up 41% in the first quarter of 2010. Many people are looking at South African wines because of its good price to quality ratio. The country is also the host of this year’s World Cup and is therefore a big tourist draw for this summer. Another reason that people are drawn to South African wines is that the entire country adheres, more or less, to principles of sustainable farming, meaning as little intervention as possible in the vineyards. Add to this great expressions of well known varietals and it looks as though the SA industry has a rosy future ahead.

My new strategy at tastings is to go through, where possible, only one grape variety. This worked like a dream at the South African tasting because chenin blanc or steen as it is called in South Africa is one of their preeminent grapes and is, hands down, my favorite white wine grape.

I tried the wines of Spier, two great Chenin blancs, one from the Western Cape and one from Stellenbosch. Very different in style, the first was fresher and had spent months of its lees in stainless steel. The second had spent 11 months in oak and had wonderful complexity and layers of aromas and flavors.

I also stopped by to taste the wines of the Raats Family. Their chenin had from 2007 came from 50 year old vines and was incredible. It too had spent time maturing in oak barrels. I loved this wine which was elegant with good acidity and great balance and complexity.

I also tasted through all of Ken Forrester’s delicious Chenin blancs. Like Spier, he has two different styles, one an entry level that is matured in stainless steel and the other, the famed FMC in oak. This wine was a crowd pleaser and I am sure sells out in a heartbeat in this market. Notes of apples, yeast, minerality and nuts abounded and reminded me of a really well made Chardonnay. Forrester said that the soils in Stellenbosch are decomposed sandstone, gravel and white clay which bring considerable minerality to the wines.

I also had the Kleine Zalza Chenin from 2009. I found it more grassy than the others with great acidity and lovely fruit notes.

According to Raats, 2006 and 2009 are the best vintages in the last 10 years. Many of these producers actually still use bush vines which I found surprising. There is a big debate on about which grape performs better in South Africa, Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc. While I did try some lovely Sauvignon Blancs, hands down, I vote for Chenin Blanc but that is of course just my opinion. Also, in general, I am not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc except from certain countries and in certain styles.

In addition to these two white grapes, South Africa makes a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage. It also makes a tiny percent of another of my favorite grapes – Cabernet Franc. Raats is touted as the leading producer of this varietal so I of course tasted his 2007 CF. It was quite well structured and elegant with spice and pepper. It also had great acidity and I am sure will age for at least 10 years. I’d love to try this wine a few years out to see how it is evolving. Truly a memorable experience.


  1. Interesting that you enjoyed the oaked chenin blancs as much as you did. While it’s my favorite white wine grape, just as it yours, I’ve always enjoyed those fermented in stainless steel more than those that spend time in oak. I guess that’s what makes the world go ’round . . .

    • Howard-
      Thanks for stopping by. I was surprised as well that I liked the oaky chenins because I generally like only stainless steel. I also feel that there are no hard and fast rules. I like to try everything and be open to wines that make me think twice about my prior convictions.

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