Travels with George: South African Wines

Travels with George: South African Wines

South African wines have never been on my personal radar.

Throughout much of its long wine making history, most of its production has been driven by government co-ops. Quality was low and production very high. In the past two decades, the industry has gone through a dramatic transformation yielding a talented community of winemakers and owners that have invested heavily in vineyards and facilities that produce wines of distinction and promise. After our journey into the African bush, Paula and I set out to explore this exciting wine region.

Approaching Stellenbosch, the first-time visitor is awestruck by the beauty of the setting. Rugged vertical mountain ranges frame the vineyards in every direction. From our broad experience traveling to international wine destinations, this area is clearly one of the most dramatic settings in the world for the production of quality wines.

Keeping in mind that we only spent five days in the area, I can make some generalizations about the wine culture in the Capelands area.

  • The primary markets for these wines are Europe and Britain. The wines may taste “New World” but the emphasis is on Old World techniques.
  • A lot of international money has entered the market—in fact, two of the properties we visited would impress any Napa Valley billionaire.
  • Every estate we visited offered a hierarchy of wines, from estate down to supermarket offerings. Varietals included chenin blanc (made in a dry style), sauvignon blanc, semillon, viognier, chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, syrah, pinot noir and pinotage, a cross between syrah and cinsault which is unique to South Africa.
  • As in most young wine producing areas, there is a great deal of experimentation going on, with lots of blending and wines that seem almost comical—like a chardonnay/chenin blanc/viognier/sauvignon blanc/semillion blended into one wine. My favorite was a sangiovese/syrah/cabernet/merlot/mourvedre/viognier/pinot noir blend. No one I know could ever pick that one out in a blind tasting

While there are more than 60 appellations in South Africa, the wines from Stellenbosch are considered the quality leaders followed closely by Walker Bay, Elgin and some wineries in Franschhoek. During our tour, we visited wineries in each of these areas. I have made some basic notes about each visit and if you are interested, each of these wineries has a website that tells their story more comprehensively.

Delaire Graff Estate

Lawrence Graff, the Swiss “king of diamonds” has invested tens of millions of dollars in this superb new facility in the hills above Stellenbosch. The winery, a small hotel and an excellent restaurant are all world-class. Their wines are very basic at present. The vineyards have been extensively replanted and they feel that in the next decade the enormous investment in quality materials and people will pay off handsomely for the wines. Check out their website for more pictures of the facility and vineyards—it is mind-blowing.


Try saying that one without some help. It is pronounced boo-ken-huts-kloof. This small operation at the end of the town of Franschhoek reminded us of the early small producers in California before the glitz era. The winemaker, Jean Smits (pictured above with me), spent nearly two hours with us touring and tasting. They began producing in 1993 and make four levels of wine: Wolf Trap, Porcupine Ridge, Chocolate Block and their top bottling labeled simply Boekenhoutskloof. Our favorite wines were the two top end wines: syrah and cabernet sauvignon.


This estate in Stellenbosch is known primarily for their pinotage and their Bordeaux blend called Paul Sauer. We tasted a vertical of each, usually ten years old, and found their aging to be impressive. The pinotage is grown on what they call “bush vines” which are densely planted and look like little gremlins in the vineyards. Another distinctive feature was their 30-year-old open-top concrete fermenters that they punch down 24 hours a day—very old school and labor intensive. Their first vintage was in 1973, so they are considered one of the founders of the modern wine era.

Kleine Zalse

Another impressive facility near the middle of town in Stellenbosch, Kleine Zalse offers four tiers of wines, the Family Selection being the most interesting. They also run a top quality hotel and one of the best restaurants we encountered in all of the country called Terroir. Their marketing director, Ross Sleet, tasted us on so many wines we had a nap in the car on the way back to our hotel. Relatively young, their first vintage was in 1996.


Another eye-popping facility overlooking False Bay on the coast, I can’t describe the beauty of Waterkloof as well as the website photos. The winemaker, Werner Engelbrecht, tasted us on the wines over an impressive lunch at their in-house restaurant. We were amazed when Werner explained that their fermentation process lasts over 10 months in some cases due to their dedication to using only natural yeasts. Their three tiers are Waterkloof, Circumstance and Circle of Life. We loved most of their wines but particularly the rose´ made from mourvedre and the French-style chardonnay.

Bouchard Finlayson

We tasted here with Peter Finlayson, the founder and winemaker, who has been making wine at Bouchard Finlayson since the late 1980s. He is known primarily for his pinot noir called Galvin Peak. He also makes a small production pinot called Tete de Cuvee that is regarded as one of the top wines made in all of South Africa. The chardonnay and sauvignon were also terrific whites. The winery began as a complicated partnership with the Bouchard family from France, Peter, and numerous other partners.