The 411 on South African Sweet Wines

Friday, 4 October, 2013
Lauren Buzzeo, Wine Enthusiast Magazine
In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, was charged with planting vineyards and making wine for Dutch East India Company sailors. The hope was that it would ward off scurvy on long voyages along the spice route.
Thirty years later, another Cape governor, Simon van der Stel, planted vines on his Constantia estate. His high-quality grapes laid the groundwork for what would become one of the world’s most renowned wines.

With admirers like King George IV of England, King Louis-Philippe of France and even Napoleon Bonaparte—who, legend has it, requested a glass on his deathbed—Constantia became one of the world’s most valued and cherished sweet wines.

Although the regal demand has subsided, South Africa continues to make some of the world’s best sweet wines. From fortified reds to straw wines and late-harvest and botrytized selections, the country does them all—and does them all well.
Fortified Wines

Popular in South Africa since the early 18th century, the most common kind of fortified wine from here is traditionally called Cape Port. These Port-style wines can be produced from Portuguese varieties, like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca, or other grapes, like Shiraz or Pinotage.

Grape-based distilled spirit, typically brandy, is added to the wine to halt fermentation before it’s complete. It preserves some of the wine’s residual sugar and raises the alcohol content to between 16.5 and 22 percent.

Before the formation of the South African Port Producers’ Association (now called the Cape Port Producers Association) in 1992, there were no common criteria for the different styles of the wine. Each producer had their own interpretation, leaving consumers wondering what to expect from any given bottle.

The association set style guidelines, which helped producers to define their selections and consumers to identify their preferred styles (see “Don’t Call It Port”).

Other South African fortified wines include jerepigo (or jerepiko) and Muscadel. Jerepigo is a vin de liqueur that may be made from any grape variety. Brandy is added to the must prior to fermentation, which results in wines that are full-bodied and sweet—residual sugar levels are at least 160 g/L. Yet the wines offer fresh, unfermented grape flavors and high alcohols.

Muscadels, produced exclusively from Muscat de Frontignan or Muscat à Petits Grains (Blanc or Rouge), can be made as a jerepigo or as a vin doux naturel, if the brandy is added after fermentation has started.

Hanepoot, a South African synonym for Muscat of Alexandria, can also be produced in a fortified style. Muscadels and Hanepoots often exhibit musk and floral aromas, as well as notes of sweet stone fruit, lychee and gingery spice.

Don’t Call It Port

Effective January 2012, South African producers can no longer use the term “Port” for any wine product made outside of Portugal. So what to call all of these Port-style wines?

The Cape Port Producers Association (previously called the South African Port Producers Association) has outlined the following style guidelines.

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