Red wine varieties grown in South Africa

Pour yourself a glass of wine and be at peace!

“How many red wine cultivars are grown in South Africa?” I asked members of a small wine club recently. They looked at each other, questioningly, then at me, and then a few started counting on their fingers.

Their answers ranged from 7 to 14.

Well, there are at least 24 red wine varieties currently planted in the winelands of South Africa. And here they are, alphabetically:

Barbera - Piedmont grape with natural high acidity suited to warm climates. Low tannins find favour too. Small footprint in South Africa.

Cabernet Franc - Related to Cabernet Sauvignon, this variety is usually softer, has a lower sugar content and contains less alcohol. Used as a component in classic, Bordeaux-style blends but also for varietal wines. Small but increasing vineyard area. Unless specified, 'Cabernet' refers to the Sauvignon and not the Franc variety.

Cabernet Sauvignon - An increasingly significant variety at the Cape, it's the foremost variety of the Bordeaux region of France. Cabernet Sauvignon produces top-class wines that develop well with age into spicy, full, complex wines. As in Bordeaux, it may be blended with Merlot or its relative, Cabernet Franc.

Carignan - Flourishes well in warm, dry areas. Originated in Spain, also widely planted in the south of France and grown in North Africa. Insignificant plantings in South Africa. Produces a light dry wine or is used as a blending component, particularly in Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.

Cinsaut (Noir) - Previously known as Hermitage. A strong bearer and very versatile variety - it can be used to blend with Cabernet, to produce reasonably priced early drinking wines, or as quality wine for brandy distilling. It is also often used for rosé, port-style and jerepigo wines. Once South Africa's most widely planted red variety, vineyard area has decreased as it has been replaced by more noble varieties.

Gamay Noir - Mainly light red wines in the nouveau style are made of this grape in France's Beaujolais region. Several reds are made locally in a similar early drinking style.


Grenache (Noir) - One of Spain's most important varieties where it’s known as Garnacha, this hardy grape is resistant to drought, wind and sun. Typically used for blending with Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Malbec - Once a significant component of Bordeaux’s blend but no longer found in the region’s best vineyards, this spicy variety is now mainly grown in Cahors in western France where it’s known as 'Cot’. Argentina’s signature variety, it’s also grown in Chile. Very small plantings in SA, varietal and blended bottlings.

Merlot - An early ripening variety, traditionally used as a blending partner to add softness and breadth to Cabernet Sauvignon but now increasingly being bottled as a varietal wine, with some superb results locally. Planted in increasing quantities, particularly in the Stellenbosch and Paarl regions.

Mourvèdre - Originated from Spain, where it's known as Monastrell (in California and Australia it's known as Mataro). The spicy notes make it a good blending partner with cultivars like Shiraz. Small vineyard area locally.

Muscadel - This variety produces a very popular sweet red wine, particularly in the Little Karoo. Miniscule plantings in South Africa.

Nebbiolo - Big, tannic wines with lengthy ageing potential are made from this grape in its home terroir of Piedmont in Italy. Tiny plantings here.

Petit Sirah (Durif) - A cross of Peloursin and Syrah (Shiraz) originating from southern France that produces densely fruited, tannic wines. Planted on a boutique scale in South Africa.

Petit Verdot - This superb variety is used in small percentages in Bordeaux-style blends and can also be made into cultivar wines. Limited plantings locally.

Pinot Noir - The king of Burgundy but notoriously difficult to grow elsewhere. Although not yet widely planted, this variety is now producing excellent wines in the cooler viticultural areas of South Africa. Wines tend to be lighter in colour with distinct vegetal flavours and aromas. A large proportion is used in Cap Classique sparkling wines.

Pinotage - A local cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Hermitage), created by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925, this variety combines the noble characteristics of the former with the reliability of the latter. Unique to South Africa, it can produce complex and fruity wines with age but is also often very drinkable when young. With great strides made in the making of Pinotage, South Africa’s own variety is rapidly gaining increasing acceptance and finding favour worldwide both as a varietal bottling and in blends. The ‘Cape blend’ is an evolving term which generally denotes a red blend with Pinotage as a component making up 30 to 70 percent of the wine. Download the Pinotage Aroma Wheel here.


Roobernet - A 1960s local cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet, it has an unusual (for reds) grassy character. Withstands diseases particularly well. Can be made into a cultivar wine, also a good blending partner, particularly in combination with Pinotage for a uniquely South African blend.

Ruby Cabernet - A Californian cross between Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, this prolific producer is suited to warmer areas.

Sangiovese - Tuscany’s principal black grape; requires meticulous vineyard management. Small planting in South Africa.

Shiraz - A noble variety of French origin. Better known as Syrah elsewhere, the largest production of Shiraz is now found in Australia but local plantings have increased strongly. Made in several different styles here, it yields deep purple smoky and spicy wines which develop a complex character with age.

Souzào - Originally from Portugal, this is one of the traditional port varieties. Its high fruit sugar content and strongly pigmented skin give taste and colour.

Tinta Barocca - Considered one of the best varieties for the production of port-style wines in South Africa. It produces earthy, organic red wines and is excellent for blending.

Touriga Nacional - Regarded as the best variety for port, it's one of the oldest cultivars in the Douro area of Portugal. Produces varietal wines with a very dark colour and a strong ripe berry character with around 13% alcohol.

Zinfandel - This leading Californian grape variety (the same as Italy’s Primitivo) is planted on a limited scale in South Africa.

(Source: WOSA)

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