Welcome back to the fourth instalment of our blogs series that accompanies the Wine School Tour of the worlds wine regions, where today we start to look at the wine regions of South Africa. In part one, we look at a bit of the history of wine in the rainbow nation as well as explore the West Coast regions that include Swartland, Constantia and Stellenbosch.
Known for producing trusted varieties of Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrah’s, and Chardonnay’s, it's very own Pinotage (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) developed by a South African Professor is also a staple of South African wines. Chenin Blanc dominates the White wine sector with it first labelled as Steen but is now labelled according to the variety bottled.
South Africa’s soils are some of the most ancient soils in the world but are also naturally quite varied. Some granite-based soils are too acidic, causing the need to add lime, but because grapes grow best under stress, granite's low fertility characteristics offer a perfect place to plant. The warm climate of the region and the temperature controlling Benguela current from Antarctica create an even more ideal place to grow grapes.
Being categorised as a New World region, South Africa actually had its first plantings back in the 1650s, which predates the Bordeaux we know today. First Governor Jan Van Riebeeck initially planted vines to meet the domestic and export demand for fruit and vegetables. Later in 1952, it produced the country’s first wine, with the next Governor following suit in the region we knew as Constantia in 1685. Trade flourished when French refugees brought over their vines and knowledge, but in the late 19th century, phylloxera devastated the vineyards, causing Chenin Blanc and Cinsault's replanting. With many vineyards controlled by the huge co-operative KWV, the fragile industry stayed alive through maintaining permitted yields and a minimum price. After the end of the Apartheid, tourism grew massively for South African wine as it offered something new to the New World wine regions. The country now has 28 wine districts and 77 wards within them, but it is the long-established vineyard areas of the Western Cape that we will look at.
We start off at Olifant’s River in the north, where most vineyards are found near the coast due to increased temperature. Producing high volumes of Chenin Blanc’s, Sauvignon’s, Cabernet’s, and Pinotage’s, it is actually the smaller boutique regions of Cederburg Piekenierskloof that are getting more recognition. Sourcing some lovely old vine Chenin Blanc’s and Grenache’s, winemakers are flocking like gold prospectors.
North-East of Cape Town is Swartland, an area known for supply grapes for fortification and distillation also has some superb old bush vine Chenin’s, Cabernet’s, and Syrah’s. As a hub for new artisan wineries, investment in the area from established producers such as Boekenhootskloof are helping the wines gain stature. The ward of Darling uses its location to the coast to produce some great Sauvignons as well as utilising its proximity to Cape Town to grow in the tourism sector.
South of Cape Town is one of the oldest areas and home to sweet wine known as Constantia. With its Vin de Constance being made of Muscat grapes, it is lovely when young but can also age for more than 20 years. As a prestigious suburb of Cape Town, the region is in a natural amphitheatre backed by Table Mountain and cooled by the south-easterly winds call Cape Doctor, which helps with the damp climate and controlling fungal issues. Sauvignon Blanc dominates here as the climate retains the flavour compounds that gives the wine a mown grass characteristic.
Across False Bay, we find Waterkloof Winery that produces some fantastic cool climate Sauvignon’s, Syrah’s and Cinsault’s. The Waterkloof Circumstance Sauvignon has the characteristics of lovely mown grass, gooseberries and tonnes of acidity while not being sharp and pairs great with the locally caught oysters.
In the foothills of the Hottentot Mountains lies the district of Stellenbosch. The cool westerlies help balance the ripe fruit with the acidity, which can be seen in our example here, Journey’s End Haystack Chardonnay. With one or two years of ageing in the bottle, it lends a slightly bruised apple note with a hint of oak on the finish. A wine like this goes lovely with a Lobster Thermidor or a Prawn Cocktail or even a Chicken and Ham Pie.
Famous for whale watching, the suburb of Hermanus sits right across from Mossel Bay and holds some great cool vineyards. Considered too cool, vineyards only started to pop up around the 1970s.
The first area is Elgin. A superb producer of Sauvignon Blanc, most wineries ship their grapes back to Stellenbosch. Often last to harvest due to the altitude and temperature, the whites here share a tingling acidity found in a Loire Sauvignon.
The second area is Walker Bay, an area rare of vines until Hamilton Russel started to plant in the 1970s in the Hemel en Aarde (meaning Heaven and Earth in Afrikaans) valleys. Now filled with wineries, most operate at the premium end of the scale producing elegant Chardonnay’s on the south-facing slopes and Pinot Noir’s on the north-facing slopes. The winds also prevent fungal issues much like the Constantia region, benefiting from the sea breeze to keep the acidity.
Being relatively young, the Ataraxia region has a great reputation for Chardonnay’s and Pinot Noir’s. Located high on the ridge, here you find some of the highest vineyards in the area reflected in the wine style.
Right across to Mossel bay are a scattering of small vineyards; however, none have yet reached the same league you see those that surround Cape Town.
Join us next time as we explore the second half of South African wine regions, where we pick up in the more northern region of Klein Karoo.