Winemaking in South Africa dates back to the 1650s when Jan van Riebeeck planted vines from France, the Rhineland, and Spain on his farm in the Cape. The country’s winegrowing region is concentrated in the southwestern tip of the country in the Western Cape province, home to some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world with rich biodiversity and unique maritime winds, thanks to its location where the warm Indian Ocean and cold Atlantic meet.
“The history of the vineyards brought me to the vineyards of France or Italy,” says Hai Tran, sommelier at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, recalling his first visit to South Africa. “But the beauty, atmosphere, and culture reminded me more of California, Oregon, or New Zealand.” Tran often includes South African wines as a tasting menu pairing and offers glass pours to encourage diners to try something new. South Africa labels wine by varietal, which is a helpful starting point when introducing a new wine if it’s a grape that guests are already familiar with.
Faith Fulginiti, wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in San Diego remembers trying South African wine for the first time a few years ago and being impressed with the estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Hamilton Russell Vineyards. “The wines were fresh, opulent, and zesty,” she says. “I can sell South African wine with confidence because the quality is there for the price point guests are looking for. I like to provide a fun alternative to the stereotypical selections from the U.S. that can stand up to a palate that wants something fruit forward with balanced acidity.”
Internationally, Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most planted variety, accounting for almost half of the world’s production. It has become the country’s signature variety and several top American sommeliers consider Alheit Vineyards to be one of the benchmarks, with tones of jasmine blossom and melon underlined with honeycomb. At Barclay Prime, Tran pairs Alheit’s Chenin Blanc with scallops with maple-bacon jam and fried green tomatoes. Fulginiti recommends the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc with a seafood tower.
“These wines can stand up to meaty fish dishes like a whole grilled branzino or even grilled shark,” says Matthew Kaner, sommelier and partner at Good Measure, Bar Covell, and Augustine in the Los Angeles area. “I also like them with pork because of its layers of texture and mouthwatering acidity.” From meat to oysters, Chenin Blanc is versatile, easy to drink and a great value. An easy gateway to South African wines for newbies.
If a guest prefers bubbles, oysters are also a natural match for South Africa’s méthode cap classique wines, traditional method sparkling wines that are comparable to a Champagne. Graham Beck is the largest exporter of MCC to the U.S., and Kaner enjoys Beck’s brut rosé with lobster bisque. “Even in the lighter-bodied cuvées or in the reserve wines with more body, the acid is there,” he says. It’s the terroir and Graham Beck’s understanding of preserving acidity in the wines that make the winery stand out.
Kaner loves the diversity of South African Cinsault, too, from the “badass light and fresh” Natte Valleij Cinsault he serves chilled with a persimmon, burrata, and speck salad during Los Angeles’ hot summers to Badenhorst Ramnasgras Cinsault from the Swartland paired with elk loin or lamb belly. “The savory quality of the wine really does well with game meats,” he says.
When it comes to red, Tran is most excited by South African Syrah, which he says speaks to his Northern Rhone-loving palate. “To me, Syrah is the ultimate steak wine, even more so than Cabernet,” he says. “I would want Mullineux & Leeu’s Syrah with a beautiful dry-aged ribeye to complement the flavor and richness that this cut offers.”
Michaël Engelmann, master sommelier and wine director at The Modern in New York City has a wide variety of South African wines on his list and pours Mullineux’s straw wine by the glass for dessert. “It’s one of the very best new world sweet wines I’ve ever had,” he says. “I’ll serve it on its own, after the meal as a discovery.”
However, South Africa’s most iconic sweet wine is Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance, produced since 1685 and beloved by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. To this day, it consistently ranks in lists as one of the top wines in the world and is sweet proof of South Africa’s lasting wine prowess.