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South Africa

A common misperception about South African wines is that they're an entirely new phenomenon—yet, wine actually has been made there since the mid-1600s! In fact, centuries ago South Africa was famous for a unique dessert wine that commanded some of the highest prices on the European market.

These days, South African wines are enjoying a long overdue resurgence. Here are some of the reasons why, along with the key regions to watch.

Familiar wine names: Many South African wines are marketed in a way familiar to most American consumers—by grape variety. When Americans see names like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example, they have a good idea of the overall flavor to expect, and won't hesitate to give 'em a try.

Popular varieties: Until fairly recently, up to 85% of all vineyards in South Africa were planted with white wine varieties. Historically, most popular has been Chenin Blanc (known locally as Steen) but today good wines also are being made from varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay, as well.

Popular reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (also called Syrah), Merlot, and a number of blends. Years ago, South Africa created its very own wine grape, Pinotage, by crossing Pinot Noir with the less-well-known French variety Cinsault. At its best, Pinotage can be highly character-filled and satisfying.

Key regions: Most top South African vineyards are in the country's southwest. The large Stellenbosch and Paarl regions are renowned for quality, as is tiny Constantia.

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