To truly grasp South African wines, one has to understand why wine would be in South Africa. It’s not only a hot, intense climate, but it’s also an area of vast trade and fluctuation in populace and politics. The first vines were planted in the 1650’s in what is now South Africa. Why? Trade and government- of course! The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) used the Southern Cape (Cape of Good Hope) as a port in between its journeys for years. Finally, one of the captains decided that it was ridiculous not to have fresh foods and drink, so they made a “refreshment station” and farm in Constantia. New territory, yet, as with trade, government and agriculture, it likened to awkward teen years for quite a while.
Photo: Ansara vineyards (Stellenbosch)
South Africa is broken into five large geographical areas: Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, and Limpopo. Of the wine producing areas of South Africa, the majority of production is in the Western Cape. The Western Cape is a small area in the southwestern corner of the country. The Mediterranean climate is warm, with sunny growing seasons that are thankfully cooled by the Benguela Current (aka the Cape Doctor) which flows north from Antarctica. The Cape Doctor does more than cool the coast, it also inhibits fungal disease and eases the heat off of the vines in these intensely hot areas.
South Africa’s geology is rich with history and environmental diversity as well as majestic in beauty. The coast is protected by the plutons, dome-like intrusions of igneous magma into the earth’s crust with a coarse crystalline texture, which have eroded into hills (Paarl, Perdeberg Mountains, Darling Hills, Table Mountain and Simonsberg Mountain) that are flat and covered with sandstone. The layers of each region have individual meso-climates allowing for a vast array of varietals and growing environments. This diversity matched with the exposure to wind and ventilation create patches of subtleties such as vineyards “hugging valley floors, clambering over hills, climbing steep mountain slopes, or tucked beneath high peaks”.
Photo: view from Stark-Condé estate (Stellenbosch)
Of the varietals grown in South Africa, we find 26 red varietals (most popular being Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Mourvedré) and 23 white varietals (most popular are Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc (Steen) and Sauvignon Blanc) with a history of a killer dessert wine- the liquid gold of Klein Constainia. Reds are big and bold, with subtle bacon or brine notes. Many have heard of Pinotage- the red varietal that was created from Cinsault (then called Hermitage) and Pinot Noir in the Stellenbosch University Vicultural Center in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold. It is a flagship as well as the somewhat bastard child of South Africa. Whites are full with bright fruits, medium to low acid and spicy qualities. Chardonnay is rich, full and likens to a balance between California Sonoma and Côte Nuit when oaked. Unoaked, it’s very similar to Macon, with a bit more acidity. As South Africa has invested in growth and modern technology, we find excellent examples of Pinotage and award wining wines across the board.
Photo: De Toren estate (Stellenbosch)
For wines that are exported around the world, we find that the Western Cape, specifically the Coastal region with districts of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, Franschhoek, Swartland and Darling are prevalent. Though Stellenbosch and the Western Cape rule the current market, don’t hesitate to adventure into the other four wine region of origins! For more details, check out this great resource.
Happy New Year! Here is to new adventures! Jaci