South African and Virginian Wines square off in blind tasting

Wednesday, 26 May, 2004
Mike Potashnik
Expert panel convened at Keswick Hall, Monticello and in Cape Town, South Africa
Charlottesville, VA - In an unprecedented two-part comparative tasting, wine experts, winemakers, and wine dealers from Virginia and South Africa gathered at Keswick Hall, Charlottesville, VA and the Constantia Uitsig Winery in Cape Town, South Africa for a blind tasting of 34 wines produced in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in South Africa.

While their terroir and climates are quite different, both winemaking regions are similar in that they are considered 'up and coming' and neither falls neatly in either the 'New World' or 'Old World' camps. The blind tastings compared some of the best wines that each region produces, subject to availability in the marketplace.

Varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinotage, Meritage, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz were organized into 6 flights by type, with an additional flight of dessert wines.

Organized by the Virginia Wine & Food Society, the expert tasting panel in Virginia included two South Africans who are currently making wine in Virginia as well as a cadre of sommeliers and wine makers from the mid-Atlantic in the United States. The expert tasting panel in South Africa included sommeliers, wine writers, wine marketers, and winemakers from Cape Town as well as a representative from the Virginia Wine & Food Society.

What was learned:
There’s much to like about the wines produced by both regions and they have more in common than one might suppose. Both regions have colorful wine histories, innovative winemakers, and increasing experimentation with new varietals. Winemaking in Virginia dates back to Jamestown and the subsequent attempts by Thomas Jefferson to produce wine at Monticello. However, the wine industry did not really begin to flourish in Virginia until 25 years ago.

South Africa’s winemaking originated some 300 years ago when vines were planted to produce wine demanded by European ships rounding the Cape en route to Asia. New talent, technology, and investment have come to the South African wine industry since the end of apartheid. Each panel learned more about the wines produced by these two disparate regions and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

For example, Virginia has a large number of producers of both viognier and Cabernet Franc where South Africa has few and South Africa produces large quantities of Chenin Blanc and Pinotage and Virginia almost none.

Virginia vintners sometimes struggle with inhospitable climate, while the most serious threat facing South African growers tends to be late summer forest fires which sometimes spill over into the vineyards. 

Virginia vs. South Africa - And the taste preferences?
The Virginian tasters commented favorably on the depth of fruit and prominent minerality found in the South African wines. The South Africans were pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the Virginia wines, noting the Viogniers, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Meritage bottlings. Overall, the top wines in tastings on both sides of the Atlantic were remarkably similar. Virginian wines represented one-quarter of the total ranked one or two in each flight.

The results of the tasting, a list of the wines, and the wine scores for both Part I: Keswick Hall and Part II: Cape Town can be found at the Virginia Wine Guide at 

The tasting panel in Virginia included:
Riaan Russouw, Oakencroft Vineyards; Steven Barnard, Keswick Vineyards; Christine Iezzi, The Country Vintner; Jim Law, Linden Vineyards; JF Legault, Clifton Inn; Michael Shaps, King Family Vineyards/Michael Shaps Wines; Steven Barnard, Keswick Vineyards; Mike Pownall, Keswick Hall; Richard Hewitt, Keswick Hall; Carter Nevil, Cape Classics; Donald Winkler, Virginia Wine Guide; and Mike Potashnik, Virginia Wine Guide.

The tasting panel in South Africa included:
Mike Bampfield-Duggan, co-owner of Wine Concepts; Arnold Vorster, sommelier at Cape Grace hotel; Cathy Marston, owner of The Nose Wine Bar; Melvyn Minnaar, writer for Wineland Magazine; William Crispian, wine marketer from the United Kingdom; Reinette Muir, Manager Wine Concepts, Newlands, Cape Town; Anetha Connan, Constantia Uitsig Winery; Mark Norrish, wine adviser to a large wine retail group, Rebel Licquers; Clive Torr, winemaker and past head of The Cape Wine Academy, and Donald Winkler, Virginia Wine & Food Society.

For more information, go to

Issued by: Rebecca Penovich
Tel: (301) 588-3060