The Quality of South African Wine: Whites vs. Reds

South Africa is white wine country. As recently as 1990 84% of all vineyard plantings were white wine varieties. (That percentage has decreased to 54% today.) South Africa is increasingly recognized, both in country and in Europe, for the quality of its white wines. Cape Point Vineyards in Noordhoek near the Atlantic ocean has rapidly climbed the ranks of South Africa’s best wineries—yet it produces only white wines. South Africa’s premier wine tasting—the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, including judges Jancis Robinson and Steven Spurrier—gave white wines its highest honors.

At the same time, South Africa’s red wines are frequently denigrated by the critics. MW Tim Atkins said of South Africa’s red wines in the July 2007 edition of Wine & Spirits: “the basic problem is that too may of them achieve the unusual distinction of being both green and baked a the same time, with sugar ripeness out-pacing phenolic ripeness.”

What’s the problem with red wines? The experts offer five possible explanations. The first possibility is the high incidence of leaf roll virus, which adversely affects red grapes much more than white grapes. A second possible explanation is physiologically unripe grapes, which results in green or herbaceous characteristics that are more acceptable in white than red grapes. A third explanation may be that white wine vineyards are significantly older than red wine vineyards: 42% of white varieties are over 15 years old compared to 13% of red varieties. As a result, some vineyards may overwork the fruit of young red grape vines, resulting in wines of more power than elegance. A fourth possible explanation is that winemaking is simply better for whites than reds, which can suffer from over-oaking. The fifth possible explanation is that South Africa’s relatively hot climate adversely affects reds more than whites, which are often grown in cool climate regions and picked early before the worst of the summer heat.

There is one other possible explanation for the criticism of South African reds A growing number of wine lovers, both in and out of South Africa, believe the most important problem is that South African wine is being judged against an international benchmark which doesn’t adequately recognize regional variations in wine styles. If, 350 years ago, South African instead of French wine was drunk in London, the experts today might be judging French wine by a South African benchmark and find it wanting.

Whatever the case, South Africa has dual challenges facing it. One challenge is to improve viticultural practices to produce higher quality, phenolically ripe, red and black grapes. The other challenge is to develop a marketing strategy that successfully exploits its growing reputation for high quality white wines. In a recent Wine magazine article, Jancis Robinson forcefully makes the argument for South Africa doing just that — aggressively marketing its distinctive white wines before this “window of opportunity” is lost to Argentina and Chile.

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4 Responses to The Quality of South African Wine: Whites vs. Reds

  1. Jeremy says:

    I have had several very good South African reds. Overgaauw and Rijk’s are two producers that do a very nice job in crafting reds, and I think both are fairly well distributed throughout the United States.

    From an unique varietal standpoint, I think the Pinotage grape is uniquely South African. It is a combination of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, the Cinsault is very heat tolerant so it balances out some of the sensitivity that PN typically has. I have found several very good (and some not as good) examples of this wine. One of my favorites is the Rijk Pinotage. Additionally, I have had several good Syrah’s from South Africa.

    I agree with others opinions that it might be a prejudice issue and an unfamiliarity with the properties of the wines.

  2. Don Winkler says:

    You won’t be disappointed by South African Sauvignon Blanc or South African sparkling wine. Unfortunately, only a very tiny percentage reaches American shores. For reds, I like the blends best. Goats do Roam, for example, is widely available, tasty, and good value. And Pinotage–South Africa’s unique red– is always worth a try, especially that most producers have learned how to tame its wild character.

  3. Anonymous says:

    What are some of the distinctive types of wines I should look for at my local wine shops; not the specific vineyard, but specific grape varieties that are “distinctively” good from South Africa? thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    There is a sixth possible reason for the poor showing of SA reds in some circles – prejudice.

    A recent Decanter interview with Vergelegen winemaker André van Rensburg noted he “is baffled by the commonly voiced accusation that South African red wines smell of burnt rubber. 'It's not unique to South Africa. Winemakers all over the world have to deal with it, which we know how to do.'

    Van Rensburg claims there are only a handful of offenders, yet the whole country has been tarred with the same brush. 'We're being damned for poor quality, but no one will be specific and name the offending wines.'”

    At the November launch of his V flagship blend he commented on anti-SA prejudice at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. “Wines are judged blind, but in geographic groups. ‘The number of SA golds is disappointing. But when all the golds are tasted blind and origin is unknown, SA wins an unbelievable number of trophies.’”

    There are two UK wine writers in particular who write extensively about this perceived burnt rubber problem. The issue is addressed in a recent book Sour Grapes (Tafelberg, 2008) by Neil Pendock in a chapter entitled the Boer War continued by other means.

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