The wine of South Africa may be placed in the category of "New World" wines, however, this exotic country, found in the far expanses of the southern hemisphere, has been making wine for almost 400 years. The first vineyard was located in Constantia in 1659 near Cape Town. At the time, wines from this vineyard were considered to be one of the top-rated wines in the world. Today, vineyards and wine production are found in various parts of the country surrounding Cape Town, with major appellations in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Worcester.
What is Wine of Origin
As with most wine-producing countries in the world, South Africa has created a system of classifying their wines and specifying major wine regions into designated appellations. South Africa's classification system is noted as WO or "Wine of Origin". It began in 1973, dividing the regions from the largest regions to smaller, more specific appellations and sub-regions in the following order: regions, districts and wards. Ward is defined as an area which has a special and unique climate and/or soil composition. These wards are comparable to the sub-regions of appellations in the European wine culture. Under the WO, wines must be made 100% from grapes which are from the designated area. As for single vineyard wines, grapes harvested for these wines must be contained within an area of no larger than six hectares.
Throughout the famous wine regions in the world, each region or country can boast an outstanding varietal which has the ability to produce best wine in the world of that type. For example, Malbec is originally a varietal of France, and although it is grown around the world, it is Argentina where the varietal grows best, has become the signature wine of the region and is known to produce the best Malbecs in the world. When it comes to red wine, the varietal of Pinotage takes center stage in South Africa. It is considered the signature red varietal of the country and is South Africa's second-most cultivated grape. This wine varietal is a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the Stellenbosch University.
The white flagship grape of South Africa would be the varietal Steen. Steen is the local name for Chenin blanc brought to the country in 1685 by people fleeing France following the reversal of the Edict of Nantes. The largest plantings of Steen are found on the Western Cape in Paarl. Here, the white wines are dry, crisp and light-bodied.
Wine of Origin Classes in South Africa
To revisit the classification of wines in South Africa, it helps to understand the concept of "Wine of Origin" (WO). The system was put into place to protect both the producer and the consumer in the wine industry, and under the system, there are two main factors which determine the quality and character of a wine, the first being nature, and the second, the human factor. The climate to include the soils and geographical location creates a natural variation of wines in each region. Each wine producing country has a hierarchy that each wine falls under. As with wines of the European Union, South African wines are classified according to the location, their appellation and/or how the wine is produced. In the production stages, wine is classified according to yield, how the wine is made, from its fermentation stage (types of yeasts utilized, controlled fermentation), to blending, pressing and the final blending and bottling.
The highest quality and most specific of WO certified wines is the designation Single Vineyard wine. As mentioned previously, this wine must be harvested from an area no larger than six hectares, produced and made on-site. The second level from Single Vineyard is Estate Wine. These wines must meet the requirements of harvests from one or more neighboring farms. They must be farmed together and possess its own winemaking cellar. If Estate Wine appears on a wine label, this determines that the wine was made where the fruit was harvested.
Third down from Estate Wine is Ward, which is a term to note a viticultural area that includes farms and regions that do not have to be part of a district or a larger area; this is similar to European sub-regions. A ward is a much larger region than the previously mentioned labels within the WO hierarchy, however, in order to utilize a ward's name on a label, 100% of the grapes used to make the wine must be from that specified ward. The same follows for the next label in the hierarchy, District, which can be equated with "appellation" from European standards. Examples of districts in South Africa are those of Paarl and Stellenbosch. The fifth and final demarcation in the WO quality hierarchy is that of Region. These regions may include the combination of various districts or parts of districts.
The Complete WO South African Wine Classification System
Let's simplify the South African wine classification system with the list below. From highest quality to lowest in the Wine of Origin system, here's what you need to know:
Single Vineyard Wine
- Wines must be harvested from an area no larger than 6 hectares
- 100% of grapes used in the production of the wine must be from the specific site
- Wines made from one or more neighboring farms
- 100% of the grapes used in the production of the wine must be harvested from the farms
- A winemaking cellar must be on site.
- Various farms combined in a region
- A Ward is similar to the European system of sub-region
- 100% of grapes for the wine must be from said ward
- Meaning viticultural districts
- Similar to the appellation standard of European wine laws
- 100% of the grapes in the wine must be from said district; i.e, Boberg (which includes Paar, Franschhoek and Tulbagh), Breede River Valley, Costal Region, Olifants River, Klein Karoo, Cape South Coast, Northern Cape.
- Wine made from 100% of grapes from a mix of one or many other districts
- Similar to a label stating "California Wine".
If you're curious about exploring the wines of South Africa, this information is a good reference for finding wines and learning more about the characteristics of wines from specific regions. Knowing about regional viticulture and how its geological and pedalogical properties affect varietal character and ultimately wine character, can take you a long way when building a preference list.