All grapes used to make wine come from a species of vines known as Vinis vinifera, but this species is subdivided into THOUSANDS of distinct varieties (in South Africa also known as cultivars).
Luckily you can ignore about 99.9% of them.
More than half the wine drunk worldwide comes from maybe two dozen grapes varieties. You might come across a further 20 or 30 without needing to be a complete wine geek, but if you can get your head (and your tastebuds) around the following varieties (planted in South Africa, divided here into white and red, and listed alphabetically), you’re more than half your way to a pretty thorough understanding of wine.
Why only half way? Firstly because many wines are blends of two or more grape varieties; secondly because wines can be made in a wide variety of styles; thirdly because a grape grown in one place can taste quite different from the same grape grown elsewhere (and if it’s grown in Europe it’s probably not labelled by variety at all but by wine region).
FOR WHITE WINE (see red wine grapes below)
Actually this wonderful Greek variety is not yet planted in South Africa, but vines are currently in quarantine – an exciting prospect for a country whose climate is arguably better suited to Mediterranean varieties than those from northern France and Germany. South Africa has long battled to get suitable, healthy plant material – at one point even forcing producers to resort to smuggling. Read more about it here.
Thought to have originated in Germany, the word Bukett meaning ‘bouquet’, the variety was first imported in 1967, with South Africa still the only country outside Germany and France to have any plantings.
What does it taste like? A tropical fruit salad of flavours, with dried peach and apricot prominent in semi-sweet and Special Late Harvest wines.
Most at home in Burgundy, France (where Chablis, Meursault and Montrachet are the best-known appellations), this versatile variety is also synonymous with Champagne, both as a blending partner and on its own in Blanc de Blancs bubbly. It only arrived in the Cape in the 1980s, initially smuggled in illegally by producers impatient with industry restrictions.
What does it taste like? Typically displaying citrus notes (mostly lemon or lime), a lot depends on whether the wine has spent time in barrel or not. Unwooded Chardonnay tends to be crisp and zesty, while barrel-fermented/aged wines can acquire a creaminess as well as flavours ranging from toast, butter and nuts to vanilla, butterscotch and caramel.
CHENIN BLANC (Shen-in Blonc)
French in origin, with the Loire Valley regarded as its spiritual home, Chenin is believed to have arrived in South Africa with Jan van Riebeeck. The Cape now accounts for almost two-thirds of the world’s Chenin plantings, historically used for bulk wine and brandy but taken increasingly seriously since the late 1990s. Many top producers believing it has the potential to become South Africa’s ultimate wine offering.
What does it taste like? Making wines ranging in style from bone-dry and delicate to off-dry and powerfully rich (not to mention sparkling wines, dessert wines, sherry-style wines and brandy), Chenin typically displays guava, passionfruit, peach, apricot and/or tropical melon notes, with wooded examples acquiring vanilla or butterscotch complexity.
Originally from south-west France, this crisp and fruity quaffer is best known for being distilled to produce Cognac and Armagnac. Its high natural acidity makes it an important brandy component in South Africa, too, as well as a cheap off-dry white.
What does it taste like? Floral, peach and even candyfloss aromas with off-dry tropical fruit flavours balanced by lively acidity.
CROUCHEN BLANC (Crew-shin Blonc)
Among the first varieties to arrive in the Cape a few centuries ago, Crouchen was long mistaken for Rhine or Weisser Riesling (see RIESLING) even though it tasted nothing like this noble German grape. Sometimes still referred to as Cape Riesling, the variety originated in the Western Pyrenees of France.
What does it taste like? A fresh, fruity and easy-drinking wine, it can have grassy, herbal, guava and geranium notes.
One of the world’s most recognisable wines – white made from pink grapes! – its origins are a little unclear but it is widely accepted as the speciality of Alsace. Best suited to cooler areas, it was planted locally some 40 years ago.
What does it taste like? A highly aromatic wine with distinctive rose, litchi and musky grape notes, the litchi carrying through to the palate along with other tropical fruit flavours, Turkish Delight and spice. Dry styles can have a slightly bitter, pithy finish while sweeter wines are honeyed.
Believed to have originated in ancient Egypt, as its proper name Muscat d’Alexandrie suggests, Hanepoot is best known in its fortified form as Jerepigo and Muscadel – sweet wines believed to have been nicknamed ‘honeypot’ by British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer war.
What does it taste like? Distinctly grapey with muscat, litchi, pineapple, melon, honey and raison notes.
One of the northern Rhône’s three quintessential white grapes, along with Viognier and Roussanne, it doesn’t officially exist in South Africa, though a couple of Swartland producers have unofficially been adding it to their white blends for years…
What does it taste like? Fat, rich and full bodied with peach and nutty (especially blanched-almond) notes, sometimes veering towards honeysuckle and marzipan.
MUSCAT DE FRONTIGNAN (Moos-cat duh Fron-tea-nyon)
Also known as Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, it is possibly the world’s oldest known wine-grape variety, first planted in France by the Romans at Frontignan, where it became internationally famous. It also has a long and distinguished history in the Cape, having been used in the legendary sweet wines of Constantia. A shy bearer, it has been overshadowed by the lesser Muscat d’Alexandrie (Hanepoot).
What does it taste like? A fragrant wine with spicy, dried peach and apricot undertones, hints of crystallised orange, pineapple and honey.
PINOT GRIS (Pea-no Gree)
Planted in France for centuries, most famously in Alsace, this white grape is a mutation of Pinot Noir that arrived in South Africa in the 1970s with the promise of disease resistance, good yields and wines with deep colour and body. Ripening berries vary in colour from greyish blue to brownish pink, sometimes in the same bunch – hence the name ‘gris’ meaning grey.
What does it taste like? Hints of citrus fruit, peach, spice and smoke – sometimes even apple blossom and Turkish Delight. The Italian name ‘Pinot Grigio’ usually indicates a crisp, easy-drinking style, but the wine is also capable of an oily, almost pork belly-like richness.
Noble Riesling is exceptionally versatile, producing wines ranging from bone dry to lusciously sweet (without losing definition). Yet it never seems to take off properly, perhaps because people are confused by an array of inferior Riesling ‘pretenders’ like Olasz Riesling, Laski Riesling and our very own ‘Cape Riesling’ which is actually Crouchen Blanc. Grown in Germany since at least the 15th century, making wines of great acidity, low alcohol and perfect balance, it first came to South Africa in the 1960s and was commercially planted in 1974. But it still accounts for less than 1% of the total area under vine.
What does it taste like? One of the so-called aromatic varieties, Riesling can smell like flowers or fruits, from apple and lime to peach, apricot and litchi. Spice notes include cinnamon, cloves, even ginger, with kerosene-like terpenes sometimes developing with age.
One of the northern Rhône’s three quintessential white grapes, along with Viognier and Marsanne, there are small plantings of it in the Swartland.
What does it taste like? Lighter and finer grained than Marsanne with delicate floral and peach/apricot notes.
SAUVIGNON BLANC (Sew-vee-nyon Blonc)
In Bordeaux, Sauvignon is traditionally blended with Semillon (often barrel-fermented to produce a rich, food-friendly style of wine, or used to make the lusciously sweet dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac). As a single-variety wine, it first became famous in the Loire, where it can be remarkably fragrant, fresh and flinty. But it has also become the signature grape of New Zealand, with Marlborough producing pungent wines with flavours ranging from ‘herbaceous’ grass, green pepper, tinned pea and asparagus to ‘tropical’ grapefruit, guava, passionfruit and mango. In South Africa, a block was planted as early as 1928 at Twee Jonge Gezellen in Tulbagh but material was really only propagated from the research institute at Nietvoorbij in the 1970s.
What does it taste like? Typically crisp, green and lively, either in a more austere, steely, flinty style or with gooseberry and passionfruit notes in a riper, fruitier style. Aged examples can develop fig-preserve, vegetal or mushroom notes. Wooded Sauvignon is referred to as Flume Blanc or Blanc Fume.
In Bordeaux Semillon is generally blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce dry, barrel-fermented whites or lusciously sweet noble late harvest (e.g. world-famous Chateau d’Yquem is four-fifths Semillon). Semillon is also responsible for some of Australia’s best whites, particularly those from the Hunter Valley. In South Africa it was once so widely planted that it was simply referred to as the ‘groendruif’ (green grape). Thanks to the emergence of premium white blends, it is now experiencing a comeback.
What does it taste like? The cooler the climate, the ‘greener’ the wine. Generally quite citrussy, with more body and richness than Sauvignon Blanc, it becomes more fat, buttery, honeyed and complex if aged in wood (often described as having waxy, lanolin notes).
The best known of the Rhône Valley white grape trio, which includes Marsanne and Roussanne, Viognier also happens to be the only white grape permitted in top-quality red wine by the Apellation Controllée (up to 20% may be added to Syrah for use in Cote Rotie blends). It is a relative newcomer to South Africa, becoming popular on its own, in white blends, and to add perfume to Syrah/Shiraz.
What does it taste like? Aromatic and powerful, Viognier has hallmark spring blossom, jasmine and honeysuckle ‘floral’ scents; and apricot and peach flavours, often with spicy undertones, even a pinch of white pepper. Wooded Viognier can be a toasty, rich and quite exotic alternative to Chardonnay.
FOR RED WINE (see white wine grapes above)
In northern Italy, a late-ripening variety with high acidity levels. Fairly rare in South Africa.
What does it taste like? In warmer conditions (like we have in SA), ripe raspberry fruit balances the piercing natural acidity.
CABERNET FRANC (Cab-er-nay Fronc)
One of the major Bordeaux grapes, Cab Franc is usually overshadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon (its own offspring, with Cab Sauv’s other ‘parent’ being Sauvignon Blanc). It first came to SA in the early 1980s, with Warwick the first to bottle it as a single-variety wine in 1988.
What does it taste like? Very aromatic with berry fruit and sweet spice whiffs, it is lighter in body with less muscular tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes lean and astringent in its youth, it can soften into a fruity, chewy, plum pudding of a wine.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Cab-er-nay Sew-vee-nyon)
The Big Daddy of the wine world, most famously blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux, this noble red is rather surprisingly the offspring of sometimes weedy Cabernet Franc and in-your-face white variety Sauvignon Blanc. Cultivated throughout the world, for bottling on its own as well as in blends, it has grown in South Africa for over 200 years, blazing the trail for top-quality reds since at least the 1920s.
What does it taste like? Despite great structure and poise, it oozes blackberries, cassis and other forest fruit, full-bodied Cab can also boast a complex range of aromas and flavours from herbaceous green pepper and tobacco leaf, through cedar, sandalwood, cigar box and pencil lead, to liquorice and dark chocolate.
Presumed to be of Spanish origin and the most-planted grape variety in France until overtaken by Merlot in the late 1900s, Carignan is known for quantity rather than quality. But old, low-yielding vines can produce interesting wines, not only in the south of France where it is widely planted but also from tiny pockets in South Africa.
What does it taste like? At its worst sour and astringent due to its big tannins and high acidity, but low yields can result in a deliciously concentrated wine with ripe red berry fruit, rich chocolate and spice notes.
‘Cinsault’ in France, this grape used to be known locally as Hermitage, its greatest claim to fame being one of the parents of Pinotage (the other being Pinot Noir). A big cropper, it was the most widely planted red variety in South Africa until Cabernet Sauvignon overtook it in the late 20th century. It is mostly used in easy-drinking blends.
What does it taste like? Flowery perfume on nose invites sip of smooth, supple, juicy, fruity, fairly light wine (a bit like Grenache, perhaps more capable of freshness and perfume).
Most famous for its use in light, fun, easy-drinking Beaujolais. Not taken at all seriously in SA.
What does it taste like? Red wine flavours (cherry, raspberry) with the texture of a white wine.
The second most widely planted red wine grape variety in the world (after a Spanish white variety named Airen, planted only in Spain!), ‘Garnacha’ originated in northern Spain but is now best known as a dominant blending component in the southern Rhone (typically making up over 80% of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example). South African plantings have been insignificant, but producers of top Rhone-style blends are increasingly excited about tiny pockets of gnarled old bush vines.
What does it taste like? Sometimes capable of greatness, Grenache is mostly used in blends to add juicy fruitiness. Low in tannins and colour, and/but prone to fairly high alcohol, it usually isn’t intended for lengthy maturation. Its choc-raisin notes make it one of the ‘sweetest’ of dry red wines.
One of the relatively ‘minor’ partners in a Bordeaux blend, inky Malbec is used to add colour and density. On its own, it was responsible for the famous ‘black wine of Cahors’ (a sometimes hard and rustic wine from south-west France) but it is now the signature grape of Argentina where it results in a softer, juicier style of red. The grape arrived in South Africa in the 1920s, thriving in the rich soils and warm climate.
What does it taste like? Plummy with intense raspberry and mulberry undertones as well as hints of tar and leather.
If Cab is king, Merlot is queen when it comes to Bordeaux blends. Thinner skinned and earlier ripening, the lusciously plummy flavours and soft tannins of good wines have also made it popular in its own right. Merlot was first planted in the Cape around 1910, but only ‘took off’ as a single variety in the 1980s. However, only very few producers manage to get it right, the wines all too often losing definition and becoming boring, or showing undesirable green notes.
What does it taste like? At its best rich and velvety with red berry flavours enhanced by nuts and spice, giving it a fruitcake character.
A red Rhone variety, it is one of the four varieties permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the others being Syrah, Grenache and Cinsaut. Because of its tolerance for high temperatures, it’s well suited to conditions in Provence, Spain – and of course South Africa, where it was brought in on an experimental basis in the late 1980s and is increasingly making a contribution to serious Rhone-style blends.
What does it taste like? Violets and blackberry aromas, sometimes a little herby/scrub-like, with big tannins and almost gamey flavours, especially when young.
Arguably Italy’s greatest red grape variety, responsible for the great reds of Barolo and Barbaresco, it is one of the world’s most distinctive grape varieties. A tricky grape to grow, it was only imported to South Africa for the first time in 1989.
What does it taste like? Best examples have good acidity and plenty of tannin, with aromas of roses, violets and smoke, and flavours ranging from fennel and liquorice, through black cherries and black plums, to truffle, tobacco and most distinctively tar.
PETIT VERDOT (Pet-ee Ver-dough)
This thick-skinned Bordeaux variety is usually added in small proportions to Médoc reds. Producing intense, richly concentrated red wines, it doesn’t always get ripe in marginal climates but in sunny South Africa is gaining popularity as a single-cultivar wine.
What does it taste like? Dense, dark fruit (blackberries, black cherries and plums) with vanilla, molasses, smoke, sometimes tar.
This South African cross of noble Pinot Noir and hardy Cinsaut was engineered in 1925 at the University of Stellenbosch by Professor Abraham Perold. The first commercial bottling was a Lanzerac 1959 released in 1961, but Kanonkop is famous for having pioneered the heavily oaked, show-stopper style that put Pinotage on the map. There are now small plantings worldwide, from Australia and New Zealand to California and Canada.
What does it taste like? Red berry fruits with spicy plum flavours, sometimes becoming jammy if very ripe. Hints of banana are less common than they used to be, with nasty acetone notes almost entirely eliminated. Currently very popular is ‘coffee Pinotage’, a style that results from maturing the wine in heavily toasted/charred barrels.
PINOT NOIR (Pea-no Nwaar)
This is red Burgundy, grown in the Cote d’Or since the fourth century AD. It also grows in Champagne, where it is traditionally blended with Chardonnay to make bubbly. Tricky to grow, the so-called ‘heartbreak grape’ requires warm sun, cold nights and very careful handling in the cellar. In South Africa, the BK5 clone was first planted at Muratie in the 1920s. Newer, better clones have been introduced since the 1990s, resulting in wines with greater purity of fruit. Pinot is also an important component of méthode champenoise bubbly.
What does it taste like? Intense cherry, raspberry, strawberry, cranberry flavours – and some earthy/savoury/vegetal flavours, sometimes described as a forest floor or barnyard character.
RUBY CABERNET (Roo-bee Cab-er-nay)
Quite widely planted in warmer parts of South Africa for budget blends (producing up to four times more per hectare than Cabernet Sauvignon!) this is a cross of Cab with Carignan, engineered at the University of California at Davis in the 1940s.
What does it taste like? A soft, medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine with fleshy green plum aromas and a strong berry character tending toward strawberry cordial.
Meaning Blood of Jove, or Jupiter, Sangiovese is the Chianti grape par excellence, also responsible in Tuscany for Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobilo de Montpulciano. It was imported to SA for the first time in 1989.
What does it taste like? A fussy grape to grow, with lots of acid and lots of tannin but not much richness, it can nonetheless produce lively young reds with juicy, sweet-sour, cherry flavours, as well as more concentrated, oak-matured, ageworthy reds with savoury, herb and spice flavours (its acidity making it an excellent food match).
SHIRAZ/SYRAH (Shih-raz or See-rah)
Syrah is the great red grape of the northern Rhône, where famous examples include the intense, long-lived wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. It is also a component of southern Rhône reds and the fastest growing grape in France’s Languedoc region. It is Australia’s most important red variety, known there as Shiraz – a name which has come to indicate a bigger, fruitier, ‘blockbuster’ style of wine than the more elegant, peppery, spicy style of cooler climates. In South Africa, early plantings of ‘Syrah’ actually turned out to be Cinsaut, with serious Cape plantings having only started after the end of political isolation in the early 1990s. It is grown throughout the main wine-producing areas.
What does it taste like? Red berry fruit intensity with hints of flowers, wild herbs, smoke, pepper and spice. Acidity is usually prominent, with riper, fruitier examples capable of developing sweet chocolate notes, while smoky/spicy versions tending towards tar and leather with age.
TOURIGA NACIONAL (Too-ree-guh Nuh-see-oh-nal)
Perhaps the greatest of all Port varieties, brought to South Africa in the 1950s for use in the Cape’s port-style fortifieds.
What does it taste like? Capable of making dry wines with great tannic concentration and black fruit flavours.
TINTA BAROCCA (Tin-tuh Ba-rock-uh)
This is a robust Portuguese variety used as a blender in Port, brought to South Africa in the 1950s. As well as being used in the Cape’s port-style fortifieds, it is sometimes used in dry red blends to add colour and structure, and also on its own.
What does it taste like? Less tannic than other traditional port varieties, it is robust yet relatively accessible/well-rounded with red berries, plums and prunes as well as pepper and an earthiness reminiscent of Nebbiolo.
This quintessentially ‘Californian’ grape is in fact none other than Italy’s Primitivo, not to mention a Croatian variety called Crljenak Kastelanski. In South Africa the first vines were planted at Blaauklippen in the late 1970s, and it remains more or less unique to this Stellenbosch farm.
What does it taste like? Potentially makes spicy reds with intense brambly, raspberry and blackberry flavours, sometimes with savoury notes.