From pinotage to chenin blanc, South Africa shows its wines can take their place among the best in the world. By Adam Lechmere

South Africa has had its biggest-ever haul of gold medals at the International Wine and Spirit Competition – cementing the republic’s position as one of the world’s most exciting wine producing countries.

Winners were announced at a Wines of South Africa event in London. IWSC Judges were delighted by the quality of the wines presented at the judging, which took place last month in Paarl, South Africa, and yielded 53 gold medals, including three gold outstandings.

Pinotage, that most singular of South African grapes, did particularly well, with six golds and a gold outstanding (Spier 21 Gables Pinotage 2014), 17 silver outstanding and more than 30 silvers.

“It was a very, very good three days,” panel chair Lindsay Oram told World Travel Guide. “Pinotage and Chenin Blanc did exceptionally well but there were some brilliant blends as well.”

Pinotage – a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault (or cinsaut, as it can be spelt)– is South Africa’s signature red grape. It has a unique taste and importers have tended to consider it too unusual for the European palate.

It’s a dark, thick-skinned grape which gives inky-black juice. It’s a vigorous grower, and in the bad old days it would be overproduced, and over-extracted during fermentation, with the result that the wines’ distinctive smokey, tarry flavours often turn to burnt rubber or burnt tar aromas.

Pinotage grapes in a vineyard near Cape Town
Pinotage grapes in a vineyard near Cape Town by Magdalena Paluchowska / Shutterstock

Some producers still pour scorn on pinotage. Andre van Rensburg, the renowned and pugnacious director of Vergelegen, can hardly bear to have it mentioned in his presence. “I won’t plant or make pinotage in your lifetime or mine,” he told Decanter magazine.

South Africa exports a lot of its production – some 15m litres a year – but it’s not widely understood, despite huge improvements over the last decade.

But, “These were serious wines,” Oram said of the pinotages on her panel. “And there were vintages going back to 2009, showing how well Pinotage can age.”

She singled out the Stellenbosch producer Kanonkop for particular praise. “We were all very enthusiastic about their wines. They were very well made – powerful but not clumsy, ripe but not jammy, concentrated with layers of complexity.”

Chenin blanc, South Africa’s most-planted white variety also did well, with three golds and a gold outstanding (Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2013 late harvest), 13 silver outstanding and over 40 silvers. “It’s a superb variety,” said another judge, Kristina Beuthner, principal educator at the Cape Wine Academy. “The chenin being produced nowadays is meticulous, uplifted.”

The two critics pointed out how South African winemaking is “coming of age” (both used that phrase). The wines that are aimed at the world stage, they are more elegant, and there is “deft use of oak”.

“We need to grasp the nettle and say how good the wine is,” Oram said. “For too long we’ve been hiding our light under a bushel – we’ve always had the view that South African wine is cheap.”

Beuthner agreed, noting that South Africa is the eighth-largest wine producer in the world (after Italy, France, Spain, USA, Australia, China and Chile). “We now need to be careful how we portray our wines. Our Cabernet Sauvignon is incredibly reliable and a hell of a good buy, for example. We need to be more on it. Show what we can do.”

IWSC Winners - top pinotage and chenin blanc

Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2013

Producer: Kanonkop Wine Estate
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Simonberg-Stellenbosch - 2014-2012
Tasting notes: Dense youthful looking purple ruby colour with an enticing perfumed nose packed with summer fruit compote and flowers. Very elegant palate with fine youthful tannins, silky body and an opulent texture. Finish is supremely balanced, long and generous. Drinking wonderfully now, but set for a long life due to a firm structure and backbone of acidity.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2009

Producer: Kanonkop Wine Estate
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Simonberg-Stellenbosch - 2011-2009
Tasting notes: Evolved ruby garnet, with a beautiful complex nose packed with blueberry and mulberry overlaid with spicy complexity from tertiary earth and tobacco. Rich and powerful, yet supremely elegant . Lovely palate , with fruit, oak and alcohol beautifully integrated all leading to a very long senseous finish. Very concentrated , drinkiing perfectly now and with structure and backbone to continue over many years.

Vineyard Selection Pinotage 2015

Producer: Rhebokskloof Wine Estate
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Paarl - 2015-2014

Windmeul Pinotage Reserve 2015

Producer: Windmeul Koop Wynkelder Bpk
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Paarl - 2015-2014

Spier 21 Gables Pinotage 2014

Producer: Spier Wines
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Stellenbosch - 2016-2014
Tasting notes: Big and bold packed with loads of dark berry fruit, intense with muscular supple tannins, strapping structure. The unflagging finish features a hint of earthy truffle. Powerful and made for aging and grilled meats.

Carpe Diem Pinotage 2015

Producer: Diemersfontein Wines
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Wellington - 2017-2014
Tasting notes: Dark black berries and bright ripe plums wrapped in a cloak of rich vanilla oak. Great tannin structure and balance, lovely grip on the finish. Built to last.

Zonnebloem Pinotage 2015

Producer: Distell Ltd
Tasting Category: Pinotage - WO Stellenbosch - 2016-2014
Tasting notes: Concentrated and intense red berry fruit is in perfect harmony with firm vanilla oak flavours. Great depth and layers of berry and spice flavours that linger and unfold as time passes. Classic pinotage that will give joy for years to come.

Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2012

Producer: Nederburg Wines (Pty) Ltd
Tasting Category: Noble Late Harvest - Chenin Blanc - WO Western Cape - 2013-2012
Tasting notes: Light orange marmalade, honey and roasted almond flavours combine to serve a perfect drop of heaven: full-bodied, mouth-filling elegant with a smooth clean finish. Age for future enjoyment.

The Dry Land Collection Longevity Natural Sweet Chenin Blanc 2016

Producer: Perdeberg Wines (Pty) Ltd
Tasting Category: Sweet - Chenin Blanc - Coastal Region - 2016
Tasting notes: Grand and impressive with great depth. Sweetness showing through in the first sip with melon and honey flavours. The wine goes on and on, with a wonderful mouthfeel.

Stellenrust 52 Barrel fermented Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch Manor) 2016

Producer: StellenRust Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Gold with rich complex nose packed with tropical fruit and intense vanilla spice from the classy oak . Dry with a lovely fruit richness, silky texture, beautifully balanced with crisp apple acidity and underlying savoury notes all adding layers to the long finish. Delicious!

Stellenrust Old Bushvine Chenin blanc 2016

Producer: StellenRust Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Golden colour. Reined in, complex and intense aromas of savoury brioche, perfumed nectarines and vanilla custard. All elements of the palate, oak, fruit and lees are extremely well integrated. A richly textured satisfying wine, shot through with rapier acidity which sustains the seamless finish. Benchmark South African Chenin Blanc.

Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2013

Producer: Nederburg Wines (Pty) Ltd
Tasting Category: Noble Late Harvest - Chenin Blanc - WO Western Cape - 2013-2012
Tasting notes: A Cape Classic! Chenin Blanc at its best with rich marmalade, roasted nuts and soft dried apricots. The palate is viscose, but so elegant, rounded and just seamless as the acidity is perfectly judged for an unflagging fresh spice finish. Terrific aging potential.

Bergsig Chenin Blanc Reserve 2015

Producer: Bergsig Estate
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Breedekloof - 2016- 2015
Tasting notes: Tropical fruit, baked apple, vanilla oak and exotic spice flavours on bold expression of the variety. Broad and complex with balanced smooth acidity and savoury finish.

DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2016

Producer: De Morgenzon
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Limpid gold, packed with concentrated apple compote and a whiff of tobacco and honey overlaid with nuts. Rich ripe palate shot through with razor acidity. Wood tannins add firmness and structure to this extremely balanced wine.

Fleur Du Cap Unfiltered Chenin Blanc 2016

Producer: Distell Ltd
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Coastal Regions - 2017-2015

Nederburg Private Bin Edelkeur 2005

Producer: Nederburg Wines (Pty) Ltd
Tasting Category: Noble Late Harvest - Chenin Blanc - 2009-2005
Tasting notes: Mid brown copper colour, caramel, raisin, and dried prunes, nutty apricots fill the mouth dancing with layers on the tongue, what a charming old lady.

Nederburg Heritage Heroes The Anchorman Chenin Blanc 2016

Producer: Nederburg Wines (Pty) Ltd
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Western Cape - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Quince, warm honey, ripe red apple and spice flavours on complex mouthfeel. Full-bodied, creamy and long - made to age.

The Forrester Meinert Chenin 2015

Producer: Ken Forrester Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: With pronounced apple blossom with a whiff of liquorice allsorts and a nutty savoury character. Enlivened by vibrant acidity, which is balanced and supported by great fruit concentration. A very well crafted wine with generous use of new vanilla spiced oak.

KWV The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2015

Producer: Warshay Investment (Pty) Ltd ta KWV
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - W O Paarl - 2016-2014

Morrison’s The Best Chenin Blanc 2016

Producer: Riebeek Cellars
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Swartland & Wards - 2016-2015
Tasting notes: Attractive honeysuckle & bees wax nose. Broad, generous & layered palate with crisp red apple acidity balancing polished wax texture. Long savoury finish.

Simonsig Chenin Avec Chne 2016

Producer: Simonsig Wine Estate.
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Enticing and powerful smoky nose which leads to a palate packed with tropical fruit. The oak adds structure and is extremely well managed, allowing the fruit centre stage. The high acidity is well integrated with the rich body. Long finish.

Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015

Producer: Spier Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Golden hue. Nose is packed with marzipan and Christmas cake icing. Strong underlying savoury note, baked up with Galia melon and ripe pear. Charming rich full palate gives a silky mouth feel. Backed up with creamy oak and a lovely twist of acidity on the finish.

Stellenrust Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch Manor) 2017

Producer: StellenRust Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Vibrant youthful lemon green colour bursting with primary tree pear fruits. Vigorous acidity and fruit purity define the palate. Balanced, delicious and pleasing rather than complex. A lively very enjoyable wine.

Stellenrust 51 Barrel fermented Chenin Blanc 2015

Producer: StellenRust Wines
Tasting Category: Chenin Blanc - WO Stellenbosch - 2017-2015
Tasting notes: Limpid gold, showing tertiary petrol notes with hints of candied lemon curd on buttered croissants. Palate is taut with zesty acidity. Great concentration of flavours; the oak is seamlessly integrated into the rich satin body. Finish is elegant and very persistent. Fabulous now and with the structure to develop further complexity.
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