The essential guide to South African Wines – Second edition by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit

From Cape to Karoo – an updated guide to South African wine country

By Robyn Lewis
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The Essential Guide to South African Wines (New Edition)

The Essential Guide to South African Wines (New Edition) [©Cheviot Publishing]

The Cape Club is a Sydney based Club and successfully organises Wine Estate Tours to South Africa
South African tour with Matilda Scarfe
The Cape Club is a Sydney based Club and successfully organises Wine Estate Tours to South Africa


It's been too long since I visited South Africa's beautiful Cape, and its nearby wine regions – Stellenbosch, Walker Bay and the Huguenot outpost of Franschhoek. A lot has changed. As in Australia, and around the world, wine travel – along with the search for great food – is hot, and all over the world, wine enthusiasts and foodies are  looking to connect with growers and makers.

The Essential Guide to South African Wines: Terroir & Travel creates "a historical and holistic experience for wine lovers of any level". The authors – one a wine expert, the other an agricultural consultant – together with photographer Japp Scholten, take readers on an armchair excursion through this exciting 'New World' wine region.

However, with a long viticultural history dating back 350 years, South African wines can scarcely be called 'new'. In 1655 grapevines imported by the Dutch were planted on the Cape, but their winemaking skills were limited, and it was not until French Huguenots fleeing persecution following the 1688 Edict of Nantes brought with them the necessary winemaking skills and the knowledge to greatly improve the Cape's wine making.

A dessert wine named after its new home Constantia – now one of the oldest and most expensive suburbs of Cape Town – was exported to Europe, and quickly became famous, fuelling demand for South African wines which continues today.

During the years of apatheid, bans on South African imports stifled production, but even during this period creativity flourished. The hybrid grape named pinotage was developed in the 1925 by crossing pinot noir and cinsault (called heritage in South Africa), and is now the 'official' South African grape variety.

With South Africa's political rebirth, international markets reopened and a flood of exports ensued, some of lesser quality caused in part by the understandable over-excitement and inexperience of winemakers. However, since Nelson Mandela toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Cape wine – and in doing so put the official seal of approval on local produce – the industry has flourished.

The South African wine industry now has over 500 producers, the large majority of whom are privately owned, which according to the authors 'indicate a definite trend towards greater hands-on involvement, increased quality and a definitive deveopment in style'.

The concept of terroir is also being refined – whilst this will always be a journey, not an end point, the soils, climate and styles of each region are now more clearly expressed and marketed. South African terroir is unique and varied, and "is a constant interplay between ancient soils, vally slopes, soaring mountains and coastal breezes", the latter from the Atlantic or Indian Oceans.

Each wine-producing country in the world seems to evolve its own terminology, and the rather quaint expression 'wine pocket' is the English name given to South Africa's 'natural terroir units' – a  far better phrase than the acronym NTUs.

Much more than a tourist guidebook, The essential guide to South African Wines discusses the geology, soils, climate and other special factors affecting viticulture, including the Cape Doctor, a south-easterly rather like the trades of Northern Queensland, but without the humidity. This wind moderates temperature, reduces vine disease and blows away pollution, dust and pollen, and is as therapeutic to grapes as it is to humans.

The book covers the leading grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon is the most abundant red, and amongst whites chenin blanc is almost ubiquitous. However all major varieties are grown and made, some as pure varietals and others as blends, and as the industry has evolved so their suitable terroirs are being claimed.

You will discover the terroir, viticulture, winemaking techniques and the flagship wines of some of the top producers.

The South African viticultural calendar is very similar to that of Southern Australia's – unsurprisingly, given the 34 S latitude is almost identical to that of Adelaide, Sydney and the Margaret River – but a significant difference is the availability of relatively cheap agricultural labour, meaning that the vines can be meticulously tended and mechancial havesting is not necessary.

And so to the wines. From Cape Point pocket to the English-named Darling, Robertson, Wellington and Walker Bay, to Stellenbosch, Swartland, Klein Karoo and the famous Paarl, and in their midst Franschhoek with its French flair and flavour, the authors clearly present regional overviews, driving directions and the major wines of each pocket, all illustrated with the type of photos that make me want to return immediately and see once again the distinctive Cape and African architectures, the colour and light of this most beautiful country – and to try its evolving wines.

Should the visitor be tempted by more than a bottle or a case, there is even a section on investing in South African vineyards, plus some local dining recommendations, points of interest and handy tips – including how to get your wines safely home by road or by air.

For independent adventurers looking to bypass day-tours, it provides detailed GPS waypoints for heading straight to places of interest. It also features tips on 'tasting and understanding wine styles' to enhance any wine tasting experience, and a section on the burgeoning 'garagiste' wine makers (micro-boutique wine makers, often in their garages).

As befits a region that prides itself on its biodiversity; this second edition also focusses on wine growers and makers who practice organic or biodynamic grape cultivation, and energy-efficient practitioners of wine making and packaging.

Members of the 'Biodiversity and Wine Industry Initiative' are identified, a program which sets aside native vegetation (and wildlife) in protected areas. South Africa leads the world in this regard: in the first four years, more ground for long-term conservation was set aside than the entire area under grape cultivation.

South Africa also has the world's first biodiversity wine route, the 'Green Mountain Eco Route', which includes a five-day hiking trail.

In all, an excellent guidebook, unencumbered by advertisements and brimming with useful information. It is easy to why it quickly became a best seller and won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award, and is only one of three South African books to become a 'World's Best Book on New World Wines'.

South African wines and wine country are once again firmly on the world map, thanks to Elmari Swart, Izak Smit and Jaap Scholten.


The Essential Guide to South African Wines by Elmari Swart and Izak Smit was published by Cheviot Publishing (Green Point, South Africa, 2010; released in Australia in 2011;  pb, 248 pp) and is available here from »



  • South Africa - all (SAF)

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