When we talk about South Africa’s wine regions, we’re mostly talking about the Western Cape. It is here that the overall hot-climate country receives cooling influences from both the Southern Ocean—namely from the cold Benguela Current that comes up from the Antarctic—as well as the Cape Doctors, south-easterly summer winds that can reduce the temperatures of the more inland areas as they funnel through the region’s mountains and hillsides. Those mountains and hillsides also mean that grape growers can plant their vines at different aspects, altitudes, and in varying soil types. As a tactic, many growers will plant their vines on the south-facing portion of the slopes, away from the hemisphere and limiting the intensity of the daily sunlight and/or utilizing some of those mountains and hills as shade.
We should also touch on South African Wine Laws, as they use a bit of a different language than I’m sure many of us are used to. The South African GI system is the Wine of Origin Scheme, or W.O.
The term geographical unit is the phrase used to indicate that grapes from several regions or districts were used in the production of the wine. Again, the most important of these geographical units is the Western Cape. About 90% of all the wine produced in South Africa comes from the Western Cape. The other 10% come from Orange River, located in the Northern Cape—this is an extremely hot region that utilizes irrigation to produce high volume, inexpensive white wines that, for the most part, do not leave the country.
Next level in, after geographical unit, is regions—large areas within the unit that have common geological features. The regions of the Western Cape to know: Coastal Region, Breede River Valley, and South Cape Coast. Regions are then further split into districts. The last, smallest unit is wards.
Wines that are labeled as Estate Wines come from a single estate from which all the grapes are grown and produced (including bottling).
Last note about labeling: South Africa has a voluntary sustainable agricultural scheme called Integrated Production of Wine, or IPW. Certified producers can display that credential as part of their W.O. label.
Alright, let’s take a dive into some of those regions within the Western Cape.
When I first connected with Lubanzi, this is the wine that most intrigued me. With a vast array of Rhône wines available to me here in California (and, it seems, that number is increasing based on this year’s Rhône Ranger event), I was quite eager to taste what a South African expression of this French tradition would taste like. Unlike where California’s Rhône grape varieties are planted, there’s not much similar between the soil and the climate between South Africa’s Western Cape and the French Rhône Valley. Though most texts will tell you that this western pocket of Africa does “enjoy a Mediterranean climate,” I would go ahead and edit that to “a Mediterranean-like” climate, as the combination of ocean, dessert, and mountainscape, creates quite a unique terroir situation and, thus, interesting Rhône interpretations.
About the Wine: The Lubanzi 2016 Chenin Blanc is made from 100% Chenin Blanc grapes harvested from the Swartland W.O. in South Africa.
Swartland, located just 40 miles north of Cape Town in the Western Cape WO, was originally a wheat-production region. Today, it is one of the WO’s main grape-growing regions, the most important grapes being Shiraz and Chenin Blanc. Topography here includes varying degrees of elevation, as it sits between the Paardeberg mountain in the south, the Piketberg plains in the north, and the Kasteelberg Moutnain to the east. The dominant soil type here is Malmesbury shale (named after Swartland’s central town of Malmesbury) — a good soil for natural drainage improved even further by the area’s elevation. Because it is somewhat separated from the Atlantic Ocean, Swartland’s climate is actually a hot and dry one, which is a benefit to Chenin Blanc, a tightly clustered grape variety susceptible to mildew and fungal disease when exposed to wet environments.
And, so it is here that Lubanzi sources their Chenin Blanc grapes.
According to Kevin Zraley’s Windows on the World, South Africa has the world’s oldest wine-growing geology, dating back to 1652 when the Dutch settlers planted their first vineyards. But until the mid 1990s, South African wines didn’t travel much — certainly not to America. This was largely due to the massive amount of boycotts around the world on South African products in conjunction with the country’s apartheid system. Once apartheid ended, South Africa’s export trade opened up and wine production received somewhat of a renaissance. Today, the country has just over 600 wineries.
Most of South Africa’s wine regions are located near the coasts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The climate is traditionally Mediterranean with sunny, dry summers, and cold, wet winters that often include snowfall at the higher elevations.