For a select group of dialed-in wine professionals, it’s common knowledge that the South African wine industry is booming. Today, the wines aren’t just good, “the wines are some of the greatest values ever,” says Aaron Meeker, the national sales manager for Vine Street Imports in New Jersey. “I firmly believe that South Africa is the most exciting place on the planet making wine.”
Hadley Douglas, the cofounder of The Urban Grape in Boston, agrees. “[South African winemakers] aren’t bound by a lot of rules so they’re able to play with their wine, which means that there are these great, interesting, unique wines coming out of [the country].”
But in the minds of many American wine drinkers, South Africa remains a little-known wine country, or worse, the land of burnt-rubber Pinotage—assuming they can conjure an image of South African wine at all. While other far-off countries like Australia can quickly summon thoughts of cheap and cheerful critter wine, South Africa remains more of a mystery.
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“I think the most obvious reason is proximity, both physically and imaginatively,” says Robert Lozelle, a sommelier at Angler in San Francisco. “Imaginatively, for most of us, myself included, we know very few South African people … and very few [Americans] have traveled there.”
This lack of awareness is also reflected in the data. Compared to other major non-European wine-producing countries, South Africa commands the smallest volume share of imported wine to the U.S. at less than half a percent, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis data from 2022. This is significantly below other major non-European wine countries; the next-smallest volume share is Argentina at four percent.
With South Africa producing such exciting, high-quality, value-driven wines, why aren’t more American wine drinkers—and buyers—paying attention?
A Complex History
“One of the interesting things about selling South African wine is you have to learn a lot about politics,” says Molly Choi, the New York City-based SVP of marketing for Broadbent Selections.
In many ways, the current state of South African wine sales in the U.S. can be traced back to apartheid. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the end of apartheid, but “it is still one of the first things that we think about,” says Douglas.
Apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation, was instituted by the South African government from 1948 to 1994, when the government transitioned to a democracy. In 1986, as a response to South Africa’s political system, the U.S. passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed sanctions on the South African government—and prohibited, among other things, exports of agricultural products to the U.S., including wine.
During that time, South Africa’s wine industry also operated under a heavily regulated system. “The South African wine industry, for a lot of the 20th century, was controlled by the umbrella cooperative organization KWV,” explains Jim Clarke, the U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa. The KWV was founded in 1918 to fix the wine industry’s production problems, but because the organization developed close ties with the government, it became a controlling force in the industry and ultimately stifled its growth (KWV privatized in the 1990s, so today they are a different entity). “In the 1970s, KWV was focused on protecting grower prices. They kept trying to raise prices, whereas South African Breweries aggressively cut prices to attract the South African market. So wine really lost out,” says Clarke.
As a result, the South African wine industry struggled in both domestic and international markets. “Even though there was a very rich history of South African winemaking, everything really fell apart during apartheid,” says Douglas. “The quality of the wine during that time really went down. They just weren’t able to keep up with new techniques, new ways of thinking. They weren’t able to get new grape clones. Everything [was affected].”
Meanwhile in the U.S., “We were supposed to boycott everything from South Africa,” says Douglas. “It takes time to change those buying patterns.”
A Missed Opportunity
Once apartheid ended, the South African wine industry wasted no time returning to the U.S. market—but its reentry was largely unsuccessful.
“In the U.S., we had importers right off the bat taking off at the end of apartheid,” says Clarke. “For example, Cape Classics, which dates to 1992, is our oldest South African specialty importer. There was also some investment from big outside companies like Gallo. There are a few reasons why that didn’t work out so well.”
In the 1990s, 80 percent of South African vineyards were planted to white grapes, like Chenin Blanc and Colombard. But, “the demand in the market at that time was for red wines,” says Clarke. “So, there was a lot of replanting. We shifted, in the course of 10 years, to the balance we have now: 55 percent white grapes, 45 percent red.” The problem? “A lot of winemakers had to learn how to make good red wines because they didn’t have experience with it.”
At the same time, in an effort to reestablish South Africa’s image and fulfill consumer demand for international-style red wines, Pinotage was promoted in the ’90s as being a uniquely South African red grape. “It really bore the brunt of this poor response,” says Clarke.
“Pinotage was especially handicapped because all of the [winemaking] textbooks were about how to make [Cabernet Sauvignon] or how to make Shiraz,” continues Clarke. “And if you make Pinotage the way you make Cabernet or Shiraz, it’s going to be a disaster. For example, if you harvest Pinotage and Cabernet at the same brix, Pinotage is so nutrient rich that the Cabernet will take a whole week to ferment to dryness, but the Pinotage can ferment to dryness in 24 to 48 hours. When you ferment it that quickly, you can get all sorts of mercaptans and off-aromas.”
By rushing to the market after decades of dwindling quality and a lack of understanding of current market demands, South Africa made a poor first impression in the U.S.—and they are still trying to recover.
A Lack of Powerhouse Producers
After the poor response to many South African red wines, “[big companies] have been reluctant to make that same investment,” says Clarke.
Today, South Africa lacks a powerhouse producer, such as New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay or Argentina’s Catena Zapata, that can put in a large enough investment to significantly move the needle with the U.S. market. “[South Africa] just doesn’t necessarily have the big volume, big money brands that exist in other regions to create that consumer awareness in the Piggly Wiggly, and the Kroger, and the Whole Foods, that just sort of cements the thinking, ‘this must be good because I see it everywhere,’” says Choi.
In many New World wine regions, a few large companies make up the majority of the wine industry. “For South Africa, the top four companies only make up 40 percent of the industry,” explains Clarke. “What this means is that we have very few companies who have true economies of scale in the international sense. Fulfilling things like the bulk market, creating low-budget wines, end up falling on to producers that can’t do it as cheaply as their competitors overseas.”
While a big-budget producer could move the needle with the mass market, it’s an approach that not everyone agrees with. “I think that can get you in trouble,” says Meeker. “If you are so reliant on Casella Wines in Australia to produce Yellowtail—was that good for Australia? I don’t know. It was good for farmers at first, but then farmers can’t make a profit because they’re driving prices down so much.”
“With South Africa, we’ve been able to watch [other wine-producing countries] and see what their pitfalls and mistakes are,” says Choi. “But what we’ve never enjoyed is a budget to really build brand South Africa.”
A Stagnant Image in the U.S.
Without that budget, the image of South African wine in the U.S. hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years. “I’ve traveled to 21 states in the U.S. and more than 60 cities, and today that Pinotage-burnt-rubber is still lingering among Americans,” says Tinashe Nyamudoka, the founder of Kumusha. “Unfortunately, that’s their gauge of what South Africa is as a wine industry.”
That lingering image has stuck with trade professionals as well. “We want to think of wine professionals as professionals,” says Lozelle. “That is to say, they’re up to date, they’re keeping up with trends, they’re widely tasting from emerging regions, but the truth is most people don’t [keep up]. I think a lot of people, especially professionals, formed opinions early on about Pinotage, for example, and then they never really updated that knowledge.”
This outdated view of South African wine often persists where it matters most—national accounts. “The largest companies have the longest institutional memory,” says Clarke. “I know if someone works for a big company or is more gray-haired than me, they are the ones who are going to say ‘Oh Pinotage, rubber, huh!’ Whereas when I talk to a young sommelier or independent retailer, they’re going to be like, ‘What’s up with Pinotage right now?’ They’re curious.”
But today, even South Africa’s biggest champions are steering clear of Pinotage. “We don’t sell a lot of Pinotage,” says Meeker. “I’ve not had many that I liked.” Instead, the South African wine industry, and the folks selling the wines in the U.S., are crafting a new narrative for the country. The new story, however, is not so straightforward, which may—or may not—be a bad thing.
“Nowadays, we’re really focusing on Chenin,” says Clarke. “But we’re also trying to break apart South Africa so I can say Stellenbosch Cabernet, Swartland Chenin, or Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir, so that each [region] is finding its own home, but it doesn’t look like the nation as a whole is desperate to sell anything they can.”
A Slow Burn in the U.S. Market
With greater barriers to entry at the national level, many people are focusing their efforts on independent wine bars and retail shops, where slow—but steady—progress is being made.
When Vine Street Imports started working with South African wine in 2015, they had their work cut out for them. “The first year was, I’m not going to say a struggle, but it was definitely getting people past that conversation of either, one, ‘I don’t need to buy South African wine from you because I get it from whomever else,’ or two, ‘Why would I buy it from you?’” says Meeker. “Year two was when … we started seeing much more consistent successes. I think it was just doing missionary work; It was getting out there, preaching the gospel of South Africa, door to door, account to account, as much as we could.”
At The Urban Grape, an independent wine store that dedicates more than 10 percent of their SKUs to South Africa, “anytime that we turn our focus to South Africa, we get a bump [in sales],” says Douglas. “At our September 2022 event, featuring Tinashe Nyamudoka, Rüdger Van Wyk [of Kara-Tara Wines], Berene Sauls [of Tesselaarsdal Wines], and Ntsiki Biyela [of Aslina], we had $35,000 in sales and over 1,080 bottles sold over six hours and two events. We just have to put it in their glass.”
As inflation continues to drive up prices for classic regions like Burgundy and Champagne, South Africa is also seeing more success in the on-premise channel. “We are primarily a Burgundy wine list,” says Lozelle, “but we’re starting to notice that’s becoming unsustainable, especially through your usual restaurant markups. We’re having to find wines that have these characteristics, but are from other regions.”
This is where South Africa really shines. “Show me what you have in your book from France that hits $18 wholesale and drinks like this 40-year-old-vine, delicious, single-vineyard Chenin that’s native-yeast fermented in old wood,” says Meeker. “I’m happy to have that conversation. I think that’s where [buyers] started to understand that if you sell these wines in a different way, you can get results and then eventually have a much larger conversation about South Africa.”
While South Africa can offer the quality and value that any wine drinker—or buyer—hopes for, there’s still a long road toward educating the U.S. market on the true value proposition of these wines. “South Africa is just a tiny drop in the world of wine, especially in America,” says Nyamudoka. “Most Americans don’t even know where South Africa is. You have to teach them where South Africa is first, then introduce them to the wine. I know for a fact that it’s not about quality; it’s just about the perception and it’s about the South African industry making a collective effort to market themselves.”
5 South African Bottles to Try, According to Wine Pros
Lourens Family Wines ‘Howard John’ Red Blend 2021, Western Cape
“Grenache is really showing its potential in specific regions and sites across the Cape. Generally speaking, the variety shows more of a Pinot Noir-like ethereal structure and elegance as opposed to what is found in much of Australia, Spain, and southern France. Franco Lourens is a wizard blending across varieties and is one of the brightest faces in South Africa. This blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah is primed for a lover of Sonoma Coast and Oregon Pinot Noir or the more graceful Grenaches of McLaren Vale and Gigondas.” – Aaron Meeker
Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir 2019, Hemel-en-Aarde
“[This wine] shows the future of the category. This is a $60+ bottle of Pinot Noir from a lesser-known appellation in South Africa, but once customers try it, most find it equal to or even prefer it to Pinot Noir from superstar regions like Burgundy and Sonoma. [Winemaker] Berene Sauls is showing us that South African wine can sell at higher price points and please the most discerning of palates.” – Hadley Douglas
Vilafonte ‘Seriously Old Dirt’ 2021, Western Cape
“Grown on the ancient soils found in the Cape Winelands, and named after the soil type vilafonte, Seriously Old Dirt is a Cabernet-driven red blend that’s a perfect example of what South Africa does so well: using its unique terroir and abundant sunshine to grow amazing grapes, and combining them with judicious, thoughtful winemaking to deliver delightful, fruit-forward but beautifully balanced wines brimming with brightness and life.” – Molly Choi
Craven ‘Karibib Vineyard’ Chenin Blanc 2021, Stellenbosch
“Husband-and-wife duo Mick and Jeanine Craven have produced one of the greatest examples of South Africa’s incommensurate balance of value and price. This is a single-vineyard wine [from grapes] planted in 1981 in the preeminent region of Stellenbosch and it somehow retails in the $30 range. It embraces Chenin Blanc’s savory side—think all things chamomile and ginseng—while confidently asserts its palate presence, showing the deft touch of neutral oak.” – Robert Lozelle
Boschendal Methode Cap Classique ‘Jean le Long’ Prestige Cuvée 2009, Franschhoek
“We can’t keep [this wine] on the shelf. The 2009 Cuvée proves that vintage sparkling wine from South Africa can sell at a high price point [+$100] as long as retailers have done the work to educate our customers.” – Hadley Douglas
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Caitlin A. Miller is a New York-based wine writer and the current associate editor for SevenFifty Daily. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Vinous, and Christie’s International Real Estate Magazine. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and was the recipient of the 2020 Vinous Young Wine Writer Fellowship.