Our last stop in our tour of South African wine regions takes us to the Cape South Coast Region and its associated districts and wards as well as a quick look at the Klein Karoo Region. If you haven’t read through the South Africa Overview yet, definitely do so before diving in here, as there are a lot of key terms defined that will be integral to your understanding of the specific regions. Also make sure to check out information on South Africa‘s Coastal Region, Breede River Valley and Olifant River Regions as well.
“Cooler climates beckon winemakers around the world. It is hardly surprising that Africa’s southern tip, with its cool Antarctic influence has been colonized by the vine.” (The World Atlas of Wine, 8th edition)
Note: For a simplified look at South African wine information, please see Wine Region Overview: South Africa. (More appropriate for those studying for their Level 3 exams.)
Indeed, the cooling influence that flows in from the ocean means that the climate is suitable to the likes of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and even the picky Pinot Noir, all of which can produce wines of outstanding quality. Interestingly, my text notes that what the Atlas refers to as the “colonization of the vine” is actually quite recent, starting in and around the 1990s and planted acreage is still quite small, making up less than 3% of the national planting, according to the South African Wine Industry Statistics.
- WALKER BAY DISTRICT
Walker Bay District has an overall cool climate due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. However, as the Atlas notes, it becomes progressively continental the further inland one goes, and this is illustrated by the progression of wards that span inland from the seaside (below).
While I began my exploration of South Africa because of my recent fascination with Chenin Blanc, Walker Bay and its associated wards are actually best noted for the grapes I consider myself most familiar with—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (So now I’m thinking I may just have to invest in a few bottles to compare/contrast my California palate with what South Africa has to offer. Stay tuned, we may have to circle back to this region in the future.)
Walker District has been divided into wards, five of which are covered here.
- Hemel-en-Aarde Ward includes three associated wards (listed below) that span from the seaside inward. As mentioned above, the climate changes accordingly. In fact, the Atlas notes that some inland sites experience winter snow. However, in general, the Hemel-en-Aarde Ward receives its cooling influences from the ocean which both reduces risk from over-ripening as well as decreases vigor of the vines. The temperatures are so cool, in fact, that vines tend to be planted facing north (toward the equator) in order to receive ample sunlight and achieve full ripeness. The area does experience adequate rainfall, and the fact that soils tend to be clay dominant (another cooling effect) allows for good water retention and it is possible to dry farm on some sites. However, because summers are quite hot, vineyards further inland (where soils include a higher percentage of sandstone and shale) may require irrigation. My text notes that some growers use of cover crops in order to prevent excess water evaporation. (Which I think is a neat trick.) Hemel-en-Aarde grapes to know: the “big six” (Quick! Name them now!), as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Atlas notes that the “consumers’ favorite, Sauvignon Blanc, has also become increasingly popular with growers and my text notes that FUN FACT: Albariño and Viognier are “experiments” on the rise. Cool.
- Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Ward is the ward lowest in altitude but the closest to the Atlantic, thus experiences a good hit of maritime influence. This valley is sheltered by the Babylonstoren Mountains which my text very descriptively calls a “cloud trap,” meaning moist maritime air is collected in and amongst the vines. Additionally, the mountains provide shade, adding even further cooling influence. With all that cooling influence, it is important that vines are planted toward the north and west to receive adequate sunlight and warmth. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay rule the grape growing game, producing a notably fresher and brighter expression of the two grapes than neighboring, inland wards.
- Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Ward has a slightly higher elevation and, again, vineyard aspects tend to face north and west.
- Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge Ward is the furthest inland and is separated by the other two Hemel-en-Aarde sections by a mountain range. It is also the smallest of the three wards, and the coldest—vineyards sit at high elevations (as high as 400 m) and actually face the cooler aspects of south and east.
- Bot River Ward is slightly warmer than the above Hemel-en-Aarde wards, though notably cooler than Paarl or Stellenbosch. The region, which spans up from the Bot River Lagoon receives cold winds from the body of water (as well as the nearby Walker Bay) which flow up the slopes of the nearby Babylonstoren and Groenlandberg Mountains. Again, these mountains act as a cloud trap, keeping in that cold air and moisture, moderating temperature and lending to a relatively long growing season. Lighter, brighter, fresher styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are produced here; in the warmer areas, Rhone varieties are said to ripen well, as well as the heritage grape, Pinotage.
- ELGIN DISTRICT
Interestingly, the Elgin District has a long history of apple orchards and the wine grape growing situation didn’t come to fruition until about the 1980s. This inland district is situated on a plateau, with vineyards sitting as high as 200 to 420 m in elevation. As such, the climate is notably cooler than other South African wine regions both because of the altitude as well as the prevailing Atlantic winds. Thus, Elgin experiences a long, cool growing season and, according to the Atlas, harvest here is one of the latest in all the Cape.
The district is also known for plentiful rain, but as the Atlas notes, low-vigor shale and sandstone (which are fast-draining) soils help ward off fungal diseases. However, my text notes that because of that moisture, noble rot is possible to maintain, and the region is noted for its botrytized sweet wines.
With the cooler climate, you can imagine that the white wines produced, namely Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling, are able to maintain a high level of acidity, freshness, and brightness in the resulting wines. Pinot Noir has been known to be successful here as well as Merlot and Shiraz.
REGION: KLEIN KAROO REGION
“Inland, semi-desert, ostrich and sheep-farming region,” are the words the Oxford uses to describe this South African wine region. It’s best known for it’s port-style wines coming out of the Calitzdorp district, as well as fortified Muscats, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard for the brandy industry. “A handful of producers” are making table wines, my text notes, predominantly from red wine grapes. Plantings here include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Shiraz—the best of which, it’s noted, come from the cooler site amongst the mountain ranges that receive cooling influence from the Indian Ocean to the south.
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