About South African Wine
South Africa is the world’s seventh largest wine producer with Chenin Blanc being the most widely planted grape but with significant Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc cultivation. The country also has its own grape variety, Pinotage. This was created by Professor Perold in 1925 at Stellenbosch University, crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault, in an attempt to create a hardier Pinot variety.
The country’s vineyards are mainly situated in the Western Cape near the coast in the area around Cape Town. Vineyards are often influenced by their geographical proximity to the Atlantic or Indian Oceans with Cape Point, Constantia, Durbanville, Elgin, Elim and Walker Bay having a maritime climate. Alternatively cooler climate wines can be produced at higher altitudes in parts of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Cederberg. Hotter climates and therefore different wine styles exist in Wellington, Paarl, Worcester, Tulbagh and Swartland and lower altitude parts of Stellenbosch.
Production areas in the Cape area is divided into regions, districts and wards. There are six main regions in the geographical unit of the Western Cape – Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo, Olifants River and Boberg . Another four geographical units exist: KwaZulu-Natal; Northern Cape (which includes the production areas Hartswater, Douglas, Central Orange River and Rietrivier FS); Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
Wine production areas of South Africa
The Bot River ward is the gateway to Walker Bay and encompasses the Bot River village and valley, stretching from the Bot River lagoon up into the foothills of the Groenlandberg and Babylonstoren mountain ranges, and bordering the Kogelberg Biosphere. The area is renowned for its cool maritime microclimate, which is influenced by its proximity to the lagoon and Walker Bay – cooling afternoon winds blow up the valley off the sea. Soils are mainly homogenous Bokkeveld shale (predominantly Glen Rosa and Klapmuts) and Table Mountain sandstone. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz and other Rhône varietals fare particularly well here.
The Breedekloof district is characterised by vineyards which flourish on alluvial valley soils with adequate drainage as they rest on a bed of river stones. It covers a large proportion of the Breede River Valley and its tributaries. There are marked variations between the soils and mesoclimates in the different river valleys. This district incorporates the Goudini and Slanghoek wards.
Most of these maritime vineyards are situated in the ward of Elim near Africa's southernmost point, Cape Agulhas. The entire picturesque village of Elim, a Moravian mission settlement founded in 1824, is a national monument. Strong, cooling winds are prevalent in summer, ensuring a very cool ripening season, perfect for Sauvignon Blanc and also promising for Semillon and Shiraz.
These maritime vineyards, some of them a mere kilometre from the sea, are situated on the western fringe of the narrow Cape Peninsula. This cool-climate district is recognised for its Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
On the southern slopes of the Table Mountain range and its world-renowned floral kingdom lies the historic Constantia valley, the cradle of winemaking in the Cape. The valley was the site of Simon van der Stel's 17th-century wine farm and the origin of the Constantia dessert wines which became famous throughout Europe during the 18th century. Rooted in ancient soils, the vineyards climb up the east-facing slopes of the Constantiaberg, where the vines benefit from the cool sea breezes blowing in from False Bay. The ward receives about 1 000mm of rain annually, making irrigation unnecessary, and has a mean February temperature of 20.6°C.
The Darling district incorporates the Groenekloof ward, which benefits from being one of the closest to the cooling Atlantic and is known forf its Sauvignon Blanc, the variety which initially spearheaded the viticultural progress of this area.
The vineyards of Durbanville, like those of Constantia, lie very close to Cape Town and border on the northern suburbs. Several estates and wineries, situated mainly on the rolling hill slopes with their various aspects and altitudes, continue to make a wide variety of wine styles. Some of the vineyards grow at altitudes as high as 380 metres above sea level. Wines from this ward attracting attention are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep soils, cooling sea breezes, night-time mists and close proximity to the ocean are a feature of this area.
Only an hour east of Cape Town, the high-lying cool-climate Elgin district, cradled in the ancient sandstone Hottentots Holland mountains, was traditionally an apple-growing region. Now award-winning wine showing exceptional fruit and elegance are produced here, with Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz doing particularly well in this later-ripening, cooler terroir.
The district of Franschhoek, the 'gourmet capital' of the Cape as a result of its French Huguenot influence. The Franschhoek valley lies to the southeast of Paarl and is enclosed on three sides by mountains: the Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains which meet at the top of the valley and the Klein Drakenstein and Simonsberg mountains, found further down towards Paarl.
This semi-arid, elongated region stretches from Montagu, via higher-lying Barrydale towards Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn and the Langkloof. It's known for relative extremes when it comes to soils and climate. Viticulture takes place mainly in kloofs, valleys and riverine sites in a rugged mountainous landscape. Muscat varieties flourish here and the area is known for its sweet wines.
This geographical unit stretches from Greytown to Oribi Flats and the Midlands, where altitudes are up to 1 500 metres, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The most northerly winegrowing area in the Cape, it's also the fourth largest, totalling in excess of 17 000 hectares, which stretch in close proximity to the Orange River. Predominantly a white grape area, reds are being increasingly planted. The wine grape varieties grown here are Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Muscadel (both red and white) and Muscat d'Alexandrie.
This region stretches in a belt from north to south along the broad valley of the Olifants River. The summers in this valley range from relatively warm to cool compared with some of South Africa's other wine areas and rainfall is low. Soils vary from sandy to red clay loams. With careful canopy management, which ensures grapes are shaded by the vines' leaves, combined with modern winemaking techniques, the Olifants River is proving to be a source of quality, affordable wines. The region incorporates the wards of Koekenaap, Vredendal and Spruitdrift as well as Bamboes Bay on the West Coast, which is becoming known for its Sauvignon Blanc.
The predominantly citrus-producing Citrusdal valley lies in the southern reaches of the Olifants River valley. The soils are mainly sandy alluvial soils from the surrounding Table Mountain sandstone mountains in the southern part of the valley up until Clanwilliam. Irrigation is obtained from the Clanwilliam dam where the water is of an excellent quality. The area incorporates the higher-lying ward of Piekenierskloof.
Newer viticultural areas have opened up in the southerly Overberg district, with award-winning wines emerging from the Klein River ward near Stanford.
The Paarl wine district lies to the north of Stellenbosch, and is bordered by the town of Wellington to the north-east, and the mountains of the Groot and Klein Drakenstein and Franschhoek ranges to the south-east. The Berg River, flanked by the majestic Groot Drakenstein and Wemmershoek mountains, runs through Paarl and is the life-giving artery of this wine-producing area. The valley land requires supplementary irrigation in the hot growing season before the harvest, but vineyards on the eastern slopes, having better water retention, frequently need none at all.
A large variety of grapes are grown in Paarl, of which Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc have the best potential. The Paarl district includes the wards of Simonsberg-Paarl, on the prime foothills of the Simonsberg, and Voor Paardeberg.
A newer ward north of Durbanville, Philadelphia also benefits from cooling Atlantic influences. The hilly terrain of this area means some of the vineyards are higher than usual, up to 260m above sea level. This facilitates a significant difference in day-night temperature and results in slower ripening.
The cool coastal climate – vineyards are some three kilometres from the sea – and high carbon content of the soils are proving ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.
Dubbed the 'valley of vines and roses', the Robertson district's lime-rich soils make the area eminently suitable for racehorse stud farming and also, of course, winegrowing. Situated in the Breede River valley, the river is the lifeblood of this lower rainfall region. Although summer temperatures can be high, cooling south-easterly winds channel moisture-laden air into the valley.
Robertson is renowned for the quality of its wines and while traditionally considered white wine territory and known mainly for its Chardonnays and more recently for the quality of its Sauvignon Blanc, it is also the source of some of the Cape's finest red wines, particularly Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the distinctive fortified dessert wines for which it was originally famed continue to be produced. The district of Robertson incorporates several wards, including Bonnievale.
The mountainous terrain, good rainfall, deep well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs make this a sought-after viticultural area. The area is known for the quality of its blended reds.
The intensively farmed Stellenbosch district has been divided up into several smaller viticultural pockets including Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch.
Traditionally a grain-producing area, in summer the Swartland district is marked by green pockets of vineyards clambering up the foothills of the mountains (Piketberg, Porterville, Riebeek, Perdeberg) and along the banks of the Berg River. In the past, the region was planted mainly to bushvines but trellising is increasingly being adopted due to advances in management strategies and quality considerations.
The Swartland literally translated means ‘the black land’ and the area takes its name from the indigenous renosterbos (rhino bush) which still turns the landscape a dark colour at certain times of the year. The district was traditionally a source of robust, full-bodied red wines and high quality, fortified wines.
Surrounded on three sides by the Groot Winterhoek, Witsenberg and Obiekwaberg mountains, the vineyards of the Tulbagh district grow alongside orchards and fields of wheat. Soils in the valley are extremely variable. The area is characterised by extreme differences in day and night temperatures. Mountainous terrain creates numerous different mesoclimates which can be used to great advantage.
Unique to the valley's geographical composition is the 'cold trap', a phenomenon which occurs as a result of the encapsulating mountains, shaped like a horseshoe, with Tulbagh situated at the north of the 'bowl'. Within this bowl, once a prehistoric lake, the cold air of the previous night lies undisturbed. With no air movement from the sides, this cold bubble is trapped under the warming air above as the sun makes its way from east to west. The result is relatively cool average daily temperatures.
This district, surrounding the seaside town of Hermanus, is reputed for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines which emanate from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – this encompasses the wards of Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Sunday’s Glen and Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (see separate entry for the Bot River ward). The area is also being noticed for the outstanding and consistent quality of its Pinotage. Fine examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Shiraz are also being produced here. The cool climate is the sought-after attribute in this area where vineyards benefit from persistent cooling winds from the nearby ocean. The soils – predominantly weathered shales – and terroir are also ideal for cool-climate loving varieties.
The Worcester district, in conjunction with the Breedekloof district, is the largest in terms of winegrowing area and volume, with the historical town of Worcester the hub of the valley. With around 19 560 ha planted, it accounts for nearly 20% of the national vineyards and produces close on 27% of South Africa's total volume of wine and spirits. It's also the most important brandy producing area and home to the KWV Brandy Cellar, the largest of its kind in the world.
The area is 45 minutes from Cape Town, stretching over alluvial terraces towards the Swartland's rolling hills and wheat fields, while others are found in the foothills of the towering Hawequa mountains, where folds and valleys create unique mesoclimates.
Recommended South African wines to try
The most elegant syrah based South African wines are from Constantia, Elgin, Cederberg, Malgas, Cape Agulhas. But there are some excellent examples from Stellenbosch, Tulbagh, Paarl, Franschhoek, Wellington and Swartland though with a richer, fruitier style.
Waterkloof, Circumstance Syrah 2012, Stellenbosch
A cool site, biodynamic vineyard overlooking False bay. This is a single site, 100% whole bunches.
Mullineux Syrah 2013, Swartland
The entry point wine from the Mullineux winery, with four single vineyard releases.
Sijnn Syrah 2012, Malgas
This cool climate wine produced by David Trafford comes from a remote vineyard near the Brede River.
Saronsberg Shiraz 2013, Tulbagh
Located at the base of the mountain after which it is named, Saronsberg wine was formed late in 2002 when Waveren and Welgegund – two farm portions of the historic Twee Jonge Gezellen were purchased and combined to create a unique location . 90% new oak and a bigger Shiraz style.
Eagle's Nest Shiraz 2012, Constantia
Located at the top of the Constantia neck, in a white wine area and produced by Stuart Botha. Big, interesting and refreshing.