Blind tastings help calibrate your taste preferences (if you like it, it’s good, no matter what the experts say or how much it costs). This was reinforced recently in a blind tasting of eight wines from South Africa by a panel of 17 veteran tasters and travelers in the Carmel Valley Wine Club, San Diego, which started in 1990 and is approaching its 300th blind tasting.

The eight varieties ranged in price from $36 to $95, vintages 2014 to 2018 and alcohols from 13.5 to 14.5. They came from six different appellations in South Africa. Some are within easy driving distance of Cape Town and worth visiting. Stellenbosch and Paarl remind some of the best of the rolling hills of Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, with impressive wineries, well-tended vineyards and fine estates. Some wineries and regional hubs have restaurants, with expansive views of the vineyards and beyond, such as Franschhoek, which locals say has retained its distinct French Huguenot character.

But I digress. As typically happens in blind tastings, the most expensive wine didn’t score first with the 17 panelists. Here are the group rankings, in order, with notes and personal ranking included:

South Africa Reds

  • No.1 – 2014 Rijk’s Pinotage Private Cellar, Tulbagh, $45. Mid garnet, brick edges; red fruit, herbaceous, cherry, light oak nose (22 months Fr. and Amer. oak); mid-body; balanced; mid-plus tannins; long fruity semi-hot (14.5 alc.) finish. Good example of this cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. 16-16.5 UC Davis scale, 90-91 other scales (My No. 4).
      • (Note: Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known as Hermitage in South Africa in 1925 when the cross was made, hence the name, Pinotage). The variety was created to combine the reliability of Cinsault and its heartier style with the finesse and elegance of Pinot Noir. Download the Pinotage Aroma Wheel here.)
  • No.2 tie – 2017 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon, Helshoogte Pass, Stellenbosch, $40. Mid-dark ruby; ripe grape (14.5 alc.), peppery, cassis, oaky nose; bigger style; deep fruit, tight tannins; long, hot, chewy finish. 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales (My No. 2, tie).
  • No.2 tie – 2018 Bouchard Finlayson Pinot Noir Galpin Peak, Walker Bay, $50. Light ruby; red fruit, cherry, rose petal, light oak nose; mid-body; balanced; soft tannins; good Pinot fruit; long, elegant, red cherry finish. 17 UC Davis scale, 92 other scales (My No. 1).
  • No.4 – 2014 Vilafonté Series M (39% Merlot, 36 Malbec, 25 Cabernet Sauvignon), Paarl, $95 (most expensive in the tasting). Mid-dark garnet; mint, cassis, red fruit, herbaceous nose; mid-body; balanced; good depth, fine Bordeaux blend flavors; long finish. 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales (My No. 2, tie).
  • No.5 – 2017 Delaire Graff Merlot Banghoek Reserve, Stellenbosch, $45. Sharp mid-ruby; raspberry, cocoa, herbaceous, ripe grape nose (14.5 alc.); balanced; mid-level acids, tannins; long semi-lush fruity finish; opens with air. 16.5 UC Davis scale, 91 other scales (My No. 2, tie).

Also tasted:

  • 2014 Fairview Jakkalsfontein Shiraz, Swartland, $48 (No. 6, 14.5/86).
  • 2016 Steenberg Nebbiolo, Constantia, $42 (No. 7, 14/85).
  • 2017 Waterford Estate Grenache Noir, Stellenbosch, $36 (No. 8, 13.5/84).

For relevant SA wine industry statistics, go to Some key data:

Currently 92,067 hectares (228,000 acres; Napa has 400,000 acres) of vines producing wine grapes are under cultivation in South Africa over an area some 800 kilometres in length. White varieties constitute 55.2% of the plantings for wine, with Chenin Blanc comprising 18.6% of the total. Red-wine varieties account for 44.8% of the national vineyard. The most widely planted red variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, accounting for 11.0% of the total. Shiraz accounts for 10.0%, while Merlot accounts for 5.8% and Pinotage, which is indigenous to South Africa, represents 7.2%.

The source for all wines was Cape Ardor Wines, Emeryville, Calif.