The Sweet Wines of South Africa (Updated)

fog-shrouded chapel in Mád

We reported our highly positive evaluations of South Africa's delicious and varied sweet wines in our Report #27: Sweet Wines of the World. During our recent trip to South Africa we had the opportunity to try some new sweet wines and try newer vintages of wines we had already tasted in the US. This updated report reconfirms our earlier findings—South Africa is producing some of the best sweet wines in the the world.

South African sweet wines include botrytis affected Chenin Blanc similar to the Vouvray and Quarts de Chaume of the Loire Valley; straw wine made from partially dried grapes like those made in Italy; fortified reds that often employ the same varietals as those found in the Douro in Portugal; and late harvest Muscat as elegant and pedigreed as any found in Europe. In addition, South Africa makes unusual fortified red and white Muscadel vin de liqueur (sometimes called Hanepoot Jerepigo) made from pressed, partially fermented ripe Muscat de Frontignan and Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains grapes fortified with grape spirit and aged in tank or barrel. We tasted some 40 year old samples of Hanepoot Jerepigo that showed still vibrant caramel and coffee flavors.

The making of wine, especially sweet wine, is very old in South Africa, dating from the 1600s when Simon van der Stel, Commander of the Dutch Cape Colony, established one of the world's most modern wineries at his estate named Constantia on the backside of Table Mountain in what is now Capetown, South Africa. His wine, named after his estate, soon won fame among Europe's royalty. Reportedly, on his death bed Napoleon refused everything offered to him except a glass of Constantia wine. The original Constantia estate was subdivided after van der Stel's death, and today two wineries from the original estate make superb, sweet wines in the style of the original.

South African fortified red wines also have a long and distinguished history dating from the early 19th century, not long after the creation of modern Port in Portugal. Today many of the fortified red producers, concentrated around Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo, use Portuguese varietals and make wines that compete in quality with similar wines made in Australia, California, and even Portugal.

In addition to the wines reported here, South Africa makes red and white vins de liqueur called Jerepigo, which can be made from any kind of grape, and a Muscat de Frontignan based vin de liqueur called Muscadel. Both dry and sweet sherry style wines are also produced. Most of these wines are not exported, but we were able to taste them on our recent trip to South Africa, including some forty year old specimens that resembled cream sherry.

Tasting Notes and Ratings

Botrytis Affected

De Wetshof 2005 Edeloes Noble Late Harvest Robertson 91

A beautiful solid dark gold in color, the Edeloes shows botrytis, diried aprioct and exuberant honeysuckle on the nose and palate. Intensely flavored of ripe stone fruit with excellent balancing acidity. Delicious.

Jardin (Jordan) 2010
Mellifera Noble Late Harvest Stellenbosch (Bottelary) ($26/375ml) 91

This moderately sweet (120 g/l RS), ethereal Riesling based late harvest wine seems almost dry due to the bracingly high acidity. It shows tropical and stone fruit aromas and flavors with a lovely tangy botrytis note.

Importer: World Premiere Wines

Kanu 2005 Kia-Ora Noble Late Harvest Stellenbosch ($22/375ml) 92
The Kanu Kia-Ora is one of the New World’s better sweet wines. Predominantly (95%) Chenin Blanc with a little Sauvignon Blanc, the fruit comes from very low yielding (1 ton/ha) bush vines. The wine has a gorgeous yellow gold color and attractive aromas of tangy dried apricot, pineapple, mango, noticeable botrytis, and vibrant acidity. This is a flamboyant, fruit forward wine that isn’t shy about calling attention to itself. Botrytised grapes are fermented in 225 liter French barriques and aged in barrel for 19 months.
Alc 10.5%, RS 175.5 g/l, TA 9.9 g/l.

Importer: Cape Classics

Ken Forrester 2009 T Noble Late Harvest Stellenbosch ($55/375ml) 93

The Ken Forrester T is made from the low-yielding (2t/ha) 42 year old bush vines of Chenin Blanc. It’s picked in 7-8 passes through the vineyard to obtain fruit that is perfectly ripe and affected by botrytis. Once picked, the grapes are fermented in 400 L barrels and aged 12+ months in new barriques. The 2009 vintage shows dried apricot, ripe mango, and smoke on the nose and palate with a prominent note of pungent botrytis. Superbly balanced, it leaves the palate clean.
RS 140 g/l.

Importer: Cape Classics.

Miles Mossop 2007 Kika Stellenbosch ($29/375ml) 92

Kika is creamy, rich and packed with ripe stone fruit with bright botrytis notes. Excellent acidity lifts the finish, leaving the sensation of only moderate sweetness. The wine is 100% Chenin Blanc from a vineyard that is always affected by botrytis. Fermented in one year old 400 lt barrels for about 7 months with Sauvignon Blanc lees added when racking to give additional freshness.
RS 158 g/l.

Importer: Cape Classics

Mulderbosch 2007
Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest Stellenbosch ($35/375ml) 91+

This amber yellow 100% Sauvignon Blanc wine shows fabulous sugar-acid balance and a creamy, moderately sweet palate. The nose is effusive of honeysuckle, botrytis and toasted oak, while the palate shows dense flavors of fresh and dried mango with orange zest. Fermented in French oak and left on the lees for six months.
Alc 13.0%, RS 130 g/l.

Importer: Cape Classics

Nederburg 2010 Winemaster’s Noble Late Harvest Western Cape ($NA) 91

The yellow gold Winemaster's Noble Late Harvest shows very ripe, concentrated apricot and pear nectar with light notes of botrytis. Absolutely delicious, with enough acidity to balance the spectacularly high residual sugar. A blend of 80% Chenin Blanc and 20% Semillon and Gewürztraminer, this is an ageworthy wine.
RS 240 g/l.

Neethlingshof Estate 2011 The Maria Stellenbosch ($NA) 92

The medium amber noble late harvest Riesling reveals a complex palate with interesting flavors of pear and dried and fresh apricot with a quite assertive botrytis note. It shows excellent acid balance. Beautiful.

Importer: Worthwhile Wine Co.

Wine from Dried Grapes

Boschendal 2009 Vin d’Or Coastal Region ($NA) 91+

This is gorgeous dessert wine blending Chenin Blanc, Rousssanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier. It has lovely flavors of orange marmalade and dried apricot on the nose with pure apricot jam flavors on the palate, finishing clean. Absolutely deiicious.
RS 160. TA 7.2

De Trafford 2009 Straw Wine Stellenbosch ($49/375ml) 92

The dark yellow gold, Straw Wine is a apricot and butterscotch nectar. Orange and apricot marmalade show on the nose, followed by an unctuous, velvet-like palate of butterscotch, apricot and peach. The 100% Chenin Blanc grapes dry under oak trees for about three weeks, and the wine spends two years in barrel.
RS 250 g/l.

Importer: Boutique Wine Collection

Fairview 2010 La Beryl Blanc Paarl ($34/375 ml) 91

This 100% Chenin Blanc straw wine is surprisingly light and fresh on the palate with aromas and flavors of very ripe pineapple and apricot with secondary notes of coconut and spice. Delicious.
Alc 14% RS 140 g/l.

Importer: Vineyard Brands

Keermont 2010 Fleurfontein Stellenbosch ($NA) 91

High natural acidity gives the Fleurfontein a surprisingly refreshing character despite its sweetness. A honeysuckle, toasted nut, and orange flower bouquet gives way to a semi-dry palate of intense ripe peach, melon and apricot. Made from vine-dried Sauvignon Blanc (60%) and Chenin Blanc (40%).
RS 126 g/l

Importer: Kysela Pere et Fils

Mullineux 2010 Chenin Blanc Straw Wine Swartland ($37/375ml) 94

It's difficult to meet the standards set by the spectacular 2009 vintage, but the 2010 comes very close. The Mullineux Straw Wine continues to be one of the best straw wines we've ever tasted from anywhere. It's made from a special 30 year old block of Chenin Blanc in the shale and schist soils of Riebeek Kasteel Mountain that produces especially high acidity. Honey, ripe stonefruit and marzipan show on the palate. The finish goes on forever, leaving a clean and lively sensation. The grapes dry outdoors for 3 weeks, then pressed whole bunch, and racked to small oak barrels to slowly ferment for about 6 months until fermentation stops naturally and then aged another 12 months in barrel. Some barrels are not topped up to allow for oxidation to contribute complexity to the wine.

Importer: Kysela Pere et Fils

Orange River Cellars Straw Wine Northern Cape ($NA) 91

Beautiful golden amber in color, this is a creamy smooth, beautifully balanced wine with lots of ripe sultanas and stone fruit and just a hint of creme brulee. Air-dried Colombard grapes are fermented and aged in used barriques. Best served well chilled.

Rustenberg 2010 Straw Wine Coastal Region ($NA) 90+

The Straw Wine is very lush and full with good balance and finishing off-dry. Dried apricots and sultanas show on the nose and palate. A blend of mostly Viognier (56%), Chenin Blanc (41%) and Crouchen (3%). The Viognier fruit comes from Simonsberg.
RS 227 g/l.

GrootLate Harvest Wines

Groot Constantia 2008 Grand Constance Constantia ($60) 92
The amber-orange topaz Grand Constance is a refined, fragrant, and beautifully balanced wine that is restrained in its sweetness. Aromas of apricot and rose petals give way to a rich palate of ripe apricot, strawberry and orange marmalade with good levels of acidity. It’s a knockout with white cheese and fresh figs. 
Alc 13.2%, RS 157 g/l, TA 8 gl.

Importer: Indigo Wine Group

Klein Constantia 2005 Vin de Constance Constantia ($50/500ml) 94
Deep yellow gold. Made of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (Frontignan), Vin de Constance is a rich, powerful wine both aromatically and palate-wise with excellent balancing acidity and an invigorating and persistent finish. Pineapple, mango, peach jam and dried apricot all make their appearance. Fermented in a combination of stainless steel and oak and aged in 500 liter barrels for four years.
Alc 12.2%, RS 157 g/l, TA 7.5 g/l.

Importer: Cape Classics

Fortified Reds

Boplaas 2005 Cape Vintage Reserve Port Klein Karoo Calitzdorp ($NA) 91

The 2005 Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve Port from the Calitzdorp district is a beautiful wine showing dark chocolate and bacon fat on the nose. The medium weight palate is balanced and delicious with rich, ripe red plum and blackberry fruit and ripe, chalky tannins on the finish. Winemaker Carel Nel makes some of South Africa's very best Port. The wine is a blend of 75% Touriga Nacional, 20% Tinta Barocca, and 5% Souzão aged 12 months in Portuguese oak barrels.
Alc 18.6%, RS 89.4 g/l, TA 5.3 g/l.

Importer: Knauth & Visser

Riebeek Cellars 2005 Cape Vintage Port Style Swartland ($48) 91

This is vintage Port done in a leaner, more elegant style. It has a dried fruit nose with some barrel notes and a harmonious, soft attack of a melange of dried fruit. It's a delicious wine made of Touriga Nacional, Pontac, and Shiraz that tastes a bit older than its age. Ready to drink now.
Alc 18.5%.

Importer: Kysela Pere et Fils

Rietvallei 2008 Muscadel 1908 Robertson 91

Dark copper red in hue, this Muscat based wine shows dried cherries and raisin aromas and a multi-faceted palate that doesn't taste very sweet considering the high residual sugar. A unique and very flavorful wine. Made from 100 year old bush vines.
RS 241 g/l. Alc 16%.

Rietvallei 2010 Red Muscadel Robertson 88

This unusual fortified, dark salmon colored sweet wine shows wild strawberry and dried rose aromas. Cinammon, rose water and fresh strawberry also show on the palate. finishing long, moderately sweet and a bit hot from the 16% alcohol. Made from 80 year old bush vines. Served over ice with a twist of lemon, it’s a refreshing summer drink.
RS 222 g/l.

Michael Potashnik and Donald Winkler
International Wine Review

February, 2012