We begin our tour of South Africa in the Coastal Region—the birthplace of the South African wine industry. On April 6, 1652, Dutch-born Jan van Riebeeck, South Africa‘s first European settler wrote, “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape Grapes.” The region continued to be a focal point for European wine drinkers, enthralled as they were with the Muscat-based sweet wines being produced, often preferring the luscious wine—simply called “Constantia”—to Tokaji, Madeira, or even Yquem.
Indeed the drink became the stuff of literature: Charles Dickens tells of “…the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit” in Edwin Drood; Jane Austen speaks of Constantia’s “… healing powers on a disappointed heart.”
Though the grapes grown and wine produced are much different than those described by our poets, the Coastal Region is arguably still one of the most popular regions South Africa has to offer. It contains the tourist town, Cape Town—a now shared name with wine district Cape Town District (once Cape Peninsula District)—as well as other well-known districts and wards such as Swartland, Tulbagh, Wellington, and of course Constantia.
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.)
Located on the western coast of the country, the Coastal Region accounts for 45% of all the area under vine in the country (WOW!). BUT, it only produces 25% of all of South Africa’s wine, as yields are typically lower here compared to other regions where high volume production is the main focus.
LABEL FACT: Many wines are simply labelled “Coastal Region” because that means producers can source from across the whole region. My text notes that these are typically “inexpensive” wines. But I recently sat in on a South African wine webinar and learned that this is not necessarily the case; a few quality producers do use the broad labeling terminology.
DISTRICTS AND WARDS WITHIN THE COASTAL REGION
- CAPE TOWN DISTRICT
The World Atlas of Wine (8th edition) refers to Cape Town District as “the gateway to the wine industry.” Partially because of its connection to the country’s wine growing history (for it is here that we find the Constantia Ward), but also because of its modernity—today the city of Cape Town is a hub for tourism, complete with (what the Atlas calls) “ambitious” restaurants, and the immediate surrounding area scattered with wineries.
As mentioned above, the district was once called Cape Peninsula, but in 2017 it was re-established as Cape Town so as to make the connection between the grape growing region and the tourist town (Cape Town).
There are four wards found within Cape Town. Two are discussed here:
- Durbanville Ward is described by the Atlas as “practically in Cape Town suburbs,” but notes that it is “easily underestimated.” The vine growing area is situated within the protection of the Tygerberg Hills, which shield against rainfall and, it’s noted in my text, it receives significantly less moisture than found in Constantia (below). Soils on the foothills of the Tygerberg are predominantly shale and have have high water holding capacity, thus dry farming is possible here.
As the Atlas notes, the proximity to the Atlantic brings in cooling sea breezes during the night time hours, as do winds through the False Bay, and the fact that many vineyards are planted at an altitude of about 100 to 300 m, means the overall temperature remains cool enough to support its most planted variety, Sauvignon Blanc, which when vinified maintains a “style toward the green end of the spectrum.” The Atlas also notes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also produced in a more defined, linear style.
- Constantia Ward, whose history was described above, is described by the Atlas as “a particularly pretty southern suburb of Cape Town,” noting that, in effect, land prices are quite high. The proximity to the town is just one factor contributing to expensive land prices, spacing is the other: vineyard plantings are confined to the steep eastern slopes of Constantiaberg—an extension of the Table Mountains (photo above).
The Table Mountains have an amphitheatre-like opening toward the False bay, which brings in cooling sea breezes and morning fog. The Atlas also notes that the Cape Doctor blows through the ward, “humidity means fungal disease is a common threat. The Doctor helps.”
The soils of Constantia are predominantly a low-vigor granite that sit above layers of sandstone and provide good drainage—an excellent natural resource since rainfall is relatively high. There are just a small number of producers, all of whom focus on high quality grape growing and wine production. Sauvignon Blanc represents about 1/3 of all vineyard planting. Other grapes grown include Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Like in Durbanville (above), the cooler climate allows for those more “greener” characteristics to carry through into the wine flavors and aromas.
FUN FACT: Many wine producers also entertain a side hustle in the tourism business, since the ward is so close to Cape Town.
- STELLENBOSCH DISTRICT
This is the business end of South Africa, where you’ll ind the Agricultural Research Center at Nietvoorbij as well as Stellenbosch University—the only university offering a degree in oenology in the whole country.
“Virtually all of the Cape’s most famous wine estates are in the Stellenbosch district, as well as the majority of the finest wines,” states the Atlas.
I included these three maps so you can see just how mountainous the area immediately surrounding Stellenbosch actually is. When it comes to where vines are planted, growers really have options—from the sandy, more alluvial soils of the valley floor near the False Bay, complete with its cooling breezes, to the cooler mountain slopes of the Simonsberg, Battelary Hills, Stellenbosch Mountain, and Helderberg. As you can see from these maps, topography—and thus specific soil types and climate (including rainfall) all vary.
Chenin Blanc was once the dominant grape, but has since been overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon, and the region is now noted for top-quality Cab Sauvs and Cab Sauv-based blends. Other important grapes include Merlot, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and of course Chenin Blanc.
According to the Atlas, so varied is the topography of Stellenbosch, that experts have actually analyzed soils and climates in detail and have separated the larger district area into seven distinct wards. The most widely recognized is
- Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Ward, located on the lower slopes of the south-west side of the Simonsberg Mountains, where it’s actually slightly warmer than sites closer to False Bay, but is still open to the cooling influence of the ocean breezes, thus providing higher diurnal range than those vineyards on flatter sties. Key grapes to know from this ward: Cabernet Sauvignon (along with Cab Sauv- based blends) and Pinotage, which can maintain enough acidity for quality wine production here (compared to the aforementioned warmer, flatter sites).
- PAARL DISTRICT
Further inland, Paarl does not receive as much maritime influence as its western neighbors. But my text does note that the district does enjoy many microclimates, soils and aspects, thus there are a variety of grapes grown and wine styles produced. Importantly, the Berg River flows right through, providing much needed water for irrigation. Being further inland, the wines will express a distinct ripeness and fuller body (compared to Stellenbosch wines). Key grapes grown include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage (most widely planted), Viognier and, on the warmest sites, Mourvedre.
FUN FACT: This is where the KWV‘s headquarters are located.
- Simonsberg-Paarl Ward, not to be confused with Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Ward (above), is in fact on the exact opposite side of the Simonsberg Mountain as the Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Ward. Though the location is the “warmer” side of the mountain, vines planted in this area are at a much higher elevation than the rest of Paarl, thus enjoys a higher diurnal range and a longer, cooler ripening season than the rest of the broader district area. Chardonnay is the name of the grape game for whites; Shiraz for reds. (PS for a good visual of this, I highly recommend investing in the Atlas.)
- FRANSCHHOEK VALLEY DISTRICT
Home to many historic cellars established in the late 17th century by French Huguenots, the name Franschhoek translates to “French quarter.” This district is wrapped around three sides by mountains, again offering varied topography as well as acting as shelter from wind and rain and providing warmth.
Folks in Franschhoek Valley are increasingly planting at altitude (up to 600m), meaning cooler climate and higher diurnal range. As such, the “fresher” style of the wines produced are often used as blending components in other Regional wines. The soils (which are not named in any of my books) are said to be fast draining, so irrigation is usually needed. Franschhoek Valley grapes to know: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and FUN FACT: old vine Semillon.
- DARLING DISTRICT
The Darling District includes a range of hills that growers can take advantage of, utilizing different aspects in order to benefit from the breezes off the Atlantic. Soils are primarily weathered granite that have a high water-holding capacity, so dry-farming is possible and my text notes that bush vines are quite common here. Supposedly, again, according to my text, the wines can rival those of Durbanville Ward (above) regarding the freshness of the wines produced from the same list of grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.
- SWARTLAND DISTRICT
“In this century, this swathe of land north of Cape Town has become the source of some of South Africa’s best wines from a new wave of eager winemakers,” states the Atlas. Clearly, this huge area, which was once seen as a source of ingredients for co-ops, is now something to get excited about. I know I am—especially when I read that this is home of old Chenin bush vines. “Old vines and dry farming are the signatures of the district.” (the Atlas)
Swartland district has an overall warm, dry climate; rainfall is low, but most falls during the growing season. For those growers looking for higher yields (typically older cooperative wine businesses), irrigation is definitely essential. But, as stated, Swartland is noted for its lower yielding bush vines. Soils, as can be expected with the varying topography, are quite diverse, but are mainly comprised of low fertile granite and shale.
FUN FACT: The new generation of winemakers (starting in the early 2000s) are making headwinds in regards to low yield dry farming, utilizing old vines, practicing organic or biodynamic vineyard management and working with ambient yeasts in the cellar. In fact, the Atlas elaborates that many are drawn to “natural” winemaking and have formed the Swartland Independent Producers organization, which “imposes AOC-like rules on production and has its own seal.” (above and below)
Swartland grapes to know: the “big six” (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz) as well as several other red and whites, including Cinsault, Mourvedre, Masanne, Roussanne, Semillon, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier.
- TULBAGH DISTRICT
WEIRD FACT: This is part of the Coastal Region, but has no physical contact with the coast and no coastal influence on its climate. The opposite: the climate is warm, dry, as it is a valley land sitting in a bowl surrounded by mountain ranges: the Obiqua Mountains to the west, the Winterhoek Mountains to the north and the Witzenberg Mountains to the east. Thus any cooling influences come from altitude as well as mountain shade and the trapping of cold morning air inside said bowl, which I believe, flows in from the southern side where, Tulbagh Wine Route says the valley opens to “south-east winds during the hot summer months.”
IRRIGATION FACT: The region contains soils with good water holding capacity, but growers also utilize a water management system in which they collect rainfall on the upper slopes of the mountain ranges inside a series of ponds that they can then use as a source for irrigation water.
Key Tulbagh grapes to know: Chenin, Shiraz and Colombard, are the most widely planted. Pinotage is also grown and produced to create Cape Blends.
- WELLINGTON DISTRICT
Above Paarl and below Tulbagh on the map, Wellington seems like a tiny little region, but supposedly has a reputation for powerful red blends and varietal Shiraz. The topography is again varied with some vineyards planted along alluvial terraces toward Swartland and others along the foothills of the Hawequa Mountains.
The FUN FACT about this region is that it is home to several nurseries that collectively supply over 85% of the country’s vine cuttings.
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