What Makes South African Red Wine So Special?


South African red wines are renowned for their distinctive character, blending rustic and robust flavours and offering exceptional value. The unique terrain of the region and the diverse grape varieties, including the local Pinotage, contribute to the special allure of South African red wine brands. In this blog, we will explore the history of South African wines, four popular types of red wine in South Africa, and a few interesting facts.

South African Red Wine - Two Glasses of Red Wine

History of South African Vineyards

The origins of winemaking in South Africa can be traced back to 1655 when Jan van Riebeeck planted the first vineyards in an area called Roschheuvel (now known as Bishopscourt in Cape Town). He was entrusted with the establishment and management of vineyards to combat scurvy among sailors. During this early period, planters prioritised grape varieties that yielded high quantities, with Cinsault being a popular choice. On 2 February 1659, the first wine in South Africa was made from these Cape Grapes.

The role of winemaking was then passed onto the Cape’s Governor, Simon van der Stel, who arrived from Holland in 1679. Van der Stel, a wine enthusiast with first-hand experience in winemaking, established Groot Constantia, the oldest winery in South Africa, in 1685, in a lush area behind Table Mountain. This expansive estate produced globally acclaimed wine, which was enjoyed by nobility and royalty worldwide, thereby placing South African wines on the international stage.

Groot Constantia

South Africa’s winemaking industry thrived until the 1880s, when the destructive insect pest Phylloxera decimated almost all the vine roots in the country. The industry suffered a significant blow as there was no cure for the pest, leading to the collapse of many vineyards.

Rebirth and Reform 

It took several decades to find a solution and restore the vineyards; however, many wine producers had already gone bankrupt or were acquired by fruit farms during this period, creating a supply-demand imbalance. This led to the establishment of growers’ cooperatives like KWV, which became the dominant force in the industry, setting standards and prices for the South African wine sector for many generations.

In 1994, at the end of Apartheid in South Africa, wine exports boomed as international sanctions were removed. This allowed many a small South African wine company to emerge and encouraged boutique winemaking, which focuses on growing grapes of exceptional quality and producing smaller quantities that reflect the terrior in which the grapes were grown.

South African Red Wine: The Impact of Terroir

The art of winemaking extends beyond simply planting vineyards and converting the fruit into a much-loved beverage. It involves a multitude of factors, such as climate, topography, soil quality, and more, to create an excellent red wine in South Africa. The concept of ‘terroir,’ which refers to the environmental factors that impact crop production, plays a crucial role in making South Africa an ideal location for vineyard cultivation. Terroir encompasses aspects like growth habitat, farming practices, and the climate.

South Africa’s predominantly Mediterranean climate, its mountainous landscape, and its relative proximity to the sea contribute to the creation of unique red wines. Different regions specialise in certain grape varieties that are particularly suited to that area’s terroir, and they produce incredibly good South African red wine.

South African Red Wine - Red Wine Vineyards

Let us look at the Stellenbosch region, for instance. It features quite a dry and hot climate, with sandstone and granite soils, exposed hills, sheltered valleys, and adequate winter rainfall. This environment is conducive for red grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage, and Shiraz. While these varietals also grow elsewhere, variations in terroir, sun and wind exposure, water availability, soil, and topography result in subtle differences in taste, and this shows just how integral terroir is to good wine production for red wine brands.

Further away from the Cape, in more remote areas like the semi-arid Klein Karoo, a microclimate perfect for fortified, port-style wines and Muscadels exists. Heading towards the southern coasts, you’ll find cooler climate regions such as Stanford, Cape Agulhas and Hermanus. These areas have unique soils and sea breezes that cool the vines, making them more suitable for white wine varieties.

South African Red Wine: 4 Popular Varietals

South African red wine enjoys not just local admiration but also significant international acclaim, with many good South African wine brands winning international awards. The four most popular varietals among South African wine types include Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Below, we take a brief look at each of these and share some interesting information:

Shiraz: The Harmony of Fruit and Spice

Initially, it was thought that Shiraz originated from ancient Persia (now Iran), specifically the city of Shiraz. Some stories even suggested that it was transported from the Middle East to Marseilles, France, around 560 BC. However, these tales turned out to be merely romanticised stories when DNA testing in the late 90s confirmed that Shiraz was a cross between two lesser-known French varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.

Shiraz was only made as a sweet wine up until 1956 when it was bottled for the first time as a single cultivar. This was due to the hard work of an ambitious young couple, Bernard and Fredagh Podlashuk, who bought the run-down Bellingham wine farm in Franschhoek in 1945. They worked tirelessly to restore the manor house and plant vineyards and, 21 years later, bottled the first example of the type of South African red wine Shiraz we know and love today.

Shiraz from South Africa is a robust wine characterised by its high acidity and tannin content. It’s celebrated for its rich, fruit-centric tastes, commonly displaying hints of blackberry and plum coupled with undertones of pepper and various spices.

Pinotage: A Unique South African Red Wine

In 1925, Professor Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University, developed the first unique South African red wine grape cultivar. He crossed Hermitage (today called Cinsaut) with Pinot Noir and planted four vines in his garden at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm.

Professor Perold forgot about the cuttings and moved away from the University for a new job opportunity at KWV. The garden soon became overgrown and a team was soon sent to clear the garden. Luckily, Charlie Niehaus, a young lecturer, noticed the vines in time and saved them. He then planted them at the Elsenburg Agricultural College, where they were propagated.

Pinotage Vineyard Sign

Today, the South African red wine Pinotage is renowned for its substantial tannin levels and bold, intense flavours. However, the taste profile can significantly differ based on its production process, with some typical flavours encompassing smoke, mocha, chocolate and earthy richness coupled with an energetic fruitiness of red berries.

Merlot: Silky Red Fruit Forward Magic

Merlot was first introduced to South Africa in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that its production truly began to flourish. Overgaauw wine estate is recognised for producing the first single-varietal Merlot wine in the country, using grapes from the 1982 harvest. In 1979, Merlot occupied only one hectare of South African vineyards, but by 2020, it had expanded to cover 5,387 hectares, ranking it as the eighth most commonly planted grape variety.

South African red wine like Merlot is recognised by its refined red fruit flavours, blueberry, strawberry, red cherry, blackberry, and a luscious, silky mouth feel complemented by delicate tannins. The type of wood used for ageing can introduce additional flavours like mild black pepper and roasted or smoked nuances.

South African Red Wine - Merlot

Cabernet Sauvignon: A Popular South African Red Wine

The exact origins of Cabernet Sauvignon were long unknown, with some speculating that its history might stretch back to ancient or even Roman times. Yet, these theories were definitively disproved in the latter part of the 20th century.

In 1996, a DNA profiling study carried out at the University of California, Davis, revealed that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new grape variety. The research determined that this highly respected grape is the progeny of two other varieties: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grape Harvest

Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtedly one of the best South African red wine types. It typically produces full-bodied wines with high tannins and noticeable acidity, contributing to its ageing potential. Its popularity can often be traced back to its cultivation ease, thick skins and robust vines, naturally low yielding, and resistance to common vineyard issues like rot and insects.

5 Interesting Facts About South African Red Wine and The Wine Industry

1. SA is the 8th Largest Wine Producer: South Africa is currently the 8th largest producer of wine in the world, from 7th place to 1st place being Argentina, Chile, Australia, USA, Spain, France and Italy.

2. 45% of their vineyards are planted with red grapes: The percentage of South African Red Wine vineyards are planted with approximately 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah/Shiraz, 7.5% Pinotage and 6% Merlot.

3. SA has just over 525 officially registered wineries: Among these, approximately 225 are recognised as producers of “estate wines”, which means the entire wine production process, from grape growing to bottling, occurs in one specific estate.

4. The SA Wine Industry exported 368.5 million litres of wine in 2022: The South African wine industry has gone from strength to strength over the last few decades, and SA wines are growing in popularity worldwide.

5. 269 096 people are employed in the SA wine industry: The South African Wine Industry helps provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of South Africans both directly and indirectly.

HER Wine Collective

The HER Wine Collection is a trailblazer in the wine industry of South Africa. We take pride in being the first business to be entirely owned and operated by black women. Every phase of our process, from the carefully nurtured vineyard to the fine bottle and through to production, marketing, and distribution, is managed with love by black women. We understand the inherent worth of idea sharing, encouraging each other, and expanding our connections across the various communities throughout South Africa.

South African Red Wine Varieties Available at HER Wines

HER Pinotage

HER Wine Collection Pinotage 2022 captivates wine lovers with its lush, mature red berry fruitiness, accentuated by fragrant, spicy undertones. It’s a substantial wine that leaves a lasting impression on the palate. Its medium-bodied composition is characterised by tender, plush tannins that enhance the intensity of the juicy fruit flavours.

Her Wine Pinotage being held

HER Shiraz

The HER Wine Collection Shiraz 2022 is the perfect balance of deep dark berry fruit and nuances of vanilla and spice to craft an appealing wine. This medium-bodied wine leaves a lasting impression on the palate, making it one of the best red wines in South Africa.

South African Red Wine - HER Wine Shiraz near fire

HER Bursary

Our all-women team at the HER Wine Collective recognises the hurdles that must be overcome to achieve professional success. We understand the steep struggle that young individuals encounter in creating their own way in this world, and this shared journey has ignited in us a passion to give a hand up. That’s why we’ve committed to donate 2% of our profits to a scholarship fund dedicated to nurturing the dreams of ambitious young individuals, aiding them in making their aspirations a reality.

All candidates who qualify for this remarkable scholarship come from families who labour in the vineyards that provide grapes for the HER Wine Collective. The selected beneficiaries will receive financial support for their education, as well as mentorship, to help them navigate through the complexities of studying at a tertiary institution and building a career.

Buy South African Red Wine Online with HER Wines

If you are looking for a good red wine in South Africa, you can buy our wine online, or you can buy our wines at various retailers. Stay updated on all the thrilling happenings at HER wines by joining our community on Instagram and Facebook. For any additional information on our South African red wine or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out via email at info@herwinecollection.co.za or give us a call at 021 873 3170.