In the week that he received his Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela was doing the rounds in Britain, preaching the gospel of the new South Africa with a glass of Cape wine in his hand. The message that South African wine is at last politically correct, may still be hard for some to swallow; apartheid leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, even if it is Mr Mandela and not F W de Klerk telling us it is now OK to drink the stuff.

For most of Britain's wine drinkers, conscience has already surrendered to the more pressing criteria of cost and availability. The attractive prices of South African wines have helped them to take off like Australian wines did in the mid-Eighties. From fewer than 200,000 cases sold in 1990, they are well on the way to one million this year, which would place them ahead of New Zealand and Chile, and level with the United States.

There is no good reason why South African wine should not match, or even surpass, the success of some of its new world counterparts. The breezy hillside vineyards of the Cape are well suited to deliver the ripe fruit flavours that are increasingly finding favour in Britain. South Africa speaks the same language, too, a major factor in giving a leg-up to emerging new world wine producers. And thanks to temperature-controlled equipment and savoir-faire, not to mention cheap labour, it can produce the most affordable quality wines in the world, albeit at a basic level.

Some of the best-value wines on supermarket shelves are cool-fermented, aromatic, zingy dry South African whites, such as the 1993 Vredendal Co-op Sauvignon Blanc, Olifantsriver (pounds 3.49, Safeway) with its typical gooseberry flavours, and the 1992 Colombard (pounds 3.25, Sainsbury's), with perfumed, tobacco-leaf aromas, refreshing spritz and a grapefruity tang.

South African wine has not matched its competitors in the middle and higher price ranges. Belatedly it embraced the premium French-grape variety route, but without consistent success as yet.

But chardonnay is starting to show promise. The remarkably stylish 1992 Dieu Donne Chardonnay, Franschock (pounds 8.58, Tanners, Shrewsbury; 0743 232400; pounds 95 special case offer soon on new stock arriving) combines toasted oak and rich fruit in a wine of such intense flavour and elegant poise that it outclassed the gold medallists from Burgundy, California and Australia to take the Wine Challenge trophy this year. And Danie de Wet has an array of excellent, mid- priced chardonnays.

Quality red South African wines veer in two general directions: there are the affordable, fruit-driven styles such as the minty, claret-type 1992 Avontuur Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Stellenbosch (pounds 3.99, Waitrose); then there are the more serious, hand-made estate wines, such as the distinguished, vanilla-tinged 1986 Meerlust Merlot (pounds 9.50, Barwell & Jones, Ipswich; 0473 232322) and Gyles Webb's outstanding, minty 1989 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 10.13, Averys of Bristol; 0272 214141). In between lies much aggressively rustic and overoaked dross.

The South African Pinotage grape, a pinot noir/cinsault cross, has a distinctive character. In the hands of a consummate winemaker such as Beyers Truter, it can be sumptuously fruity, as in the spicy, succulent, rhone-like 1991 Kanonkop Pinotage (pounds 6.99, Tesco, from late next week).

The new early ripening clones of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot show promise. South African fizz and, on a smaller scale, its sweet wines may yet take the old world by storm.

As this slumbering giant of the new world of wine wakes up, it could learn a more outgoing, friendly style of presentation from Australia and New Zealand. With Mr Mandela having given the go-ahead, South Africa needs to show it can live down apartheid's ugly legacy and live up to the picture-postcard promise of its winelands.



1992 Neil Ellis Whitehall Sauvignon Blanc, Elgin, pounds 6.25, Lea and Sandeman, London SW10 (071-376 4767). A pungently catty, cool-climate sauvignon blanc with a grapefruit-zest fruitiness by one of South Africa's rising stars.

1991 Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 5.97, Averys of Bristol (0272 214141). A fine, grassy, rich sancerre-like wine.

1992 Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay, pounds 7.27, Averys of Bristol (and Sainsbury's, pounds 6.95, mid-Nov). Stylish burgundian chardonnay with an emphasis on rich fruit, youthful acidity and background oak toastiness.

1992 Bateleur Chardonnay Danie de Wet, pounds 7.49, Safeway, Adnams, Southwold (0502 724 222); pounds 9.50, Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1 (071-396 9600). Subtle, spice-oak aromas and fruit from South Africa's top commercial chardonnay maker.

1993 Danie de Wet Chardonnay sur lie, pounds 4.39, Oddbins; pounds 4.49, Safeway. Modern chardonnay with nutty fruit and fresh acidity.

1992 Tesco South African Chardonnay Green Label, Robertson, pounds 3.99. Crisp, lemony, a touch of oak; one of the best value Cape chardonnays.


1991 Beyerskloof Pinotage, pounds 4.99, Oddbins. Concentrated strawberry richness with robust tannin and acidity.

1992 Kleindal Pinotage, Robertson, pounds 3.95, Safeway. Modern, ripe, jam-like juicy fruitiness with an earthy twang.

1993 Cape View Cinsault/Shiraz, pounds 3.39, Victoria Wine. Fresh, beaujolais aromas and juicy sweet fruitiness.

1990 Fairview Estate Shiraz, pounds 4.99, Asda. Smoky flavour with mint and cinnamon ripeness.

(Photograph omitted)