South Africa was lost to the world of fine wine for many years. For most of the twentieth century, grape production centered around the country’s brandy industry. By the time this system was ready to change, South Africa’s path to the world wine market was clapped shut as a result of sanctions having to do with the country’s long standing apartheid system of racial separation. When apartheid ended in 1994, South African winemakers were able to set their sights on international markets and make wines that appealed to those markets. They are still at it.
South Africa’s vineyards hug the Cape of Good Hope in the country’s southwest. Even here, the climate ought to be too hot for quality viticulture, if it were not for the cold Benguela current that streams up from Antarctica. Summers are warm, ripening seasons long and slow. Soil types run the gamut as does the configuration of the land, making for a great deal of vineyard diversity. The Cape, in fact, has some of the oldest geological formations in the world of wine, and tremendous biodiversity. Ninety percent of South Africa’s fine wine qualifies for official sustainability status.
Among white grapes, Chenin Blanc (called Steen) has long been the leader, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and then Colombard, Muscat of Alexandria, Sémillon and Viognier.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most red planted grape, comprising 12% of vineyard area with Shiraz (Syrah) just behind at 10%. Merlot comes next and then Pinotage, South Africa’s own grape. Bred in 1925, Pinotage is a South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. A good Pinotage will have flavors and aromas of bananas and tropical fruit, but some tasters get an acetone effect, a taste of paint. Pinotage is not for everyone. It may well be blended with Syrah or Cabernet.
Legally South Africa’s wine areas divide into Geographical Units, the largest and most meaningful of which is the Western Cape. Western Cape is divided into five Regions: Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo, and Olifants River. The Regions are in turn divided into Districts which in turn divide into Wards. As one example, the famous wine of Constantia fits into this system like this:
- Geographical Unit: Western Cape
- Region: Coastal Region
- District: Cape Peninsula
- Ward: Constantia
If an appellation is mentioned here, assume it is a District unless otherwise indicated.
Constantia, just south of Cape Town (in fact one of the city’s wealthier suburbs), produced a world famous dessert wine from Muscat grapes during the 18th and 19th centuries The wind called the Cape Doctor comes in from the ocean to cool the area. Soils are clayish reddish brown in some areas, with sandy soils in others. Constantia now produces grassy Sauvignon Blanc with smaller plantings of Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, as well as some late harvest Muscat dessert wines. Just north of Cape Town, the gently rolling terrain of cool climate Durbanville also produces grassy Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Pinotage and Merlot.
East of Cape Town, lovely Stellenbosch sits nestled in mountains. It is the Cape’s most famous District and has been producing since the 17th century. Soils vary from alluvial loam in low-lying areas to decomposed granite in the hills. Breezes off False Bay to the south act as air conditioning. So long a Chenin Blanc producer, Stellenbosch now produces Cabernet above all, seconded by Sauvignon Blanc, and then Shiraz and Merlot. Paarl to the immediate north is further away from False Bay and hence warmer. Much of its wine is blended with wines from Stellenbosch and other nearby areas and labeled as “Coastal Region.”
Then name Franschhoek means, literally, “French Corner.” Just east of Stellenbosch, it was settled in the 17th century by French Huguenots and is the locale of a number of historic cellars. Like Stellenbosch it is a major tourist destination. The climate is mild in summer. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sémillon thrive on potassium rich soils of loam and granite shale.
The Cape South Coast is not one of the traditional growing areas, springing up as a wine region only in the final quarter of the 20th century as wine pioneers moved into Benguela Current influenced areas once considered too cool for viticulture. Walker Bay is one of these new areas, known for its insistent Sauvignon Blanc and its Burgundian styled Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Elgin in the 21st century has populated vineyards on high slopes (up to 1300 feet) for maximum exposure to sea breezes. Once again, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lead.
The Elim/Cape Agulhas area at the southern tip of Overberg is also the extreme southern tip of the continent. Climate is harsh, with winds battering the area from three sides—year-round. Vines respond by growing low, producing smaller than usual berries that ripen only slowly, bringing intense fruit and formidable acidity. The soil varies from shale and sandstone to ‘Koffieklip’ (‘coffee stone’), which is used to build local houses. It all combines to create herbaceous and mineral Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. A wine frontier indeed.
North of Cape Town, Durbanville, and Paarl, the large district of Swartland, long a producer of bulk wine, has seen a great deal of quality wine trailblazing since 2000. The land here is rolling plains. Hot and dry conditions reduce the risk of fungal diseases and result in low yields of very concentrated fruit. Tough bush vines predominate in Swartland’s hottest corners. Soils of shale alternate with granite. These soils can often hold enough water to allow dry farming. The tough bush vines dig very deep to attain this hydration, resulting in further concentration of flavors. Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Pinotage are the traditional varieties planted here, but pioneers, attracted by the low cost of land, are not averse to planting alterative varieties. Reds doing the colonizing include Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and the Portuguese Tinta Barocca. Whites include Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Darling, a cool-climate enclave, benefits from Atlantic breezes and is known for Sauvignon Blanc. Tulbagh, east and inland from Swartland, sits in a u-shaped valley that brings in breezes from the south to cool off the evenings and prolong ripening. Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier often go into Rhône blends. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced.
Piketberg is a warm climate region north of Swartland. Most wines are made by cooperative cellars from irrigated vineyards. Olifants River Valley pushes further north to 31 degrees south latitude, stretching toward the limits of the traditional 30 to 50 degree temperate viticulture zone. Cool Atlantic breezes allow this. The coastal areas produce herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc while the interior gives us Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Four hundred miles north of Cape Town, at 28 degrees south latitude, two hundred and fifty miles inland, the Orange River region, just south of the Kalahari Desert, is South Africa’s northern viticultural extreme. It is hot and dry here, but the Orange River helps regulate the temperature. The region is known for bulk production of Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Muscat of Alexandria, all white grapes. Further inland is Douglas, a green oasis where the Orange and Vaal rivers meet.
The Breede River Valley is a large wine region, sheltered on three sides by mountain ranges. This is warm, dry, irrigated country producing mainstream wines from Shiraz, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, much of it vinified by cooperatives. Prominent districts include Worcester, Robertson, Breedekloof, and Swellendam.
To the east of Breede River is the hot climate Region of Klein Karoo, a semi-desert that produces a number of wine types, including fortified wines from Muscat and still wines from Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Portuguese red varieties. High altitudes (up to 2300 feet) and some southerly breezes moderate the heat. Calitzdorp is an enclave within Klein Karoo known for its Port-like fortified wines, made from Portuguese grapes like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barocca. Langeberg-Garcia sits at the southern edge of Klein Karoo and has chalky mountain soils that support Sauvignon Blanc with good structure and minerality. Verdelho, Semillon, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz round out the selection.