[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
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.
A NOTE ABOUT GRAPES
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted black variety, produced as a varietal wine or as part of a blend along with Merlot (which can also produced a single-varietal wine) and Syrah (which here, given the heat, will be a rich, high alcohol wine with black fruit and meaty flavors).
However it is Chenin Blanc that is the most widely planted variety of either color. Today, Chenin Blanc can be produced in both dry and sweet styles. The best examples are those that come from the region’s old bush vines (take note of Swartland), producing concentrated wines with complex flavors and rich mouthfeel. And while it may seem counterintuitive, these wines can withstand the use of barrel fermentation and oak aging, thus adding to that richness.
But when we think of South African wine, we no doubt think of its heritage grape, Pinotage. Indeed, this Pinot Noir-Cinsault crossing was developed in South Africa, and though you may find some plantings in other parts of the world (like California), South Africa is still where the majority of the Pinotage grape is planted. For those of you unfamiliar with the grape, the wines produced from it can be both light and fruity with red berry flavors, or very full-bodied, rich, and spicy. It is usually produced with oak influence and, when done so, takes on a kind of trademark tasting note of coffee and/or chocolate. Note, this wine is also often blended with international varieties (such as Cabernet Franc), referred to as a Cape Blend.
Other Key Grapes to Know:
- Pinot Noir—produced in small amounts and planted in the coolest of the coastal areas
- Colombard—the second most-planted white grape variety, predominantly used in the production of brandy
- Sauvignon Blanc—again, predominantly produced in the coolest regions, with the wines maintaining a good amount of natural acidity and herbaceous notes
- Muscat of Alexandria—here called Hanepoot; it’s not widely planted, but is used to produce a late harvest dessert wine made from rapes that have raisined on the vine, often including noble rot influence.
- White Blends—often based around the king of white grapes, Chenin Blanc, along with Rhône varieties including Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier
WESTERN CAPE WINE REGIONS
We’ll start with Stellenbosch district, considered “the hub of fine wine production in South Africa. The climate here is moderate to warm, depending on the exact vineyard location, with rainfall in the winter and moderated summer temperatures due to those cooling winds coming up from the Antarctic. Not to mention the False Bay is right there. Here those winds are also funneled through the mountains and cool off the inland areas as well. But it’s noted that the real success of Stellenbosch district viticulture comes from the variety of altitude, aspects and soils available from those same mountains. The district is divided into wards that define these geological features. The best wines come from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, producing Bordeaux-like blends, single-varietal Syrah, and Cape Blends. The coolest sites are known to produce Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
Moving inland to the north and east, we find Paarl district. The temperature here is overall warmer, due to less direct influence from the ocean, but this is moderated by the cooler night time temperatures. The area is still home to some of those mountainous areas, thus a variety of grapes can be grown and wine styles produced. Grapes to know: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinotage for the reds; Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites.
Hanging out right in the throws of the Southern Ocean is the Cape Peninsula district, home to the Constantia ward—which is planted to some of the oldest vineyards in the Western Cape that lie on the “eastern flanks” of the Table Mountain. Here, that Cape Doctor wind blows through the mountains and significantly chills the area, so the wine region is noted for its production of Sauvignon Blanc. Vineyards planted south of the mountain, closer to the ocean are, of course, cooled by the ocean and shaded by the mountain. Here, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the major successes, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah being produced from some of the warmer areas.
Just north of Cape Peninsula, we find that huge area of Swartland. Indeed, it used to be considered a source of high-yield, inexpensive grapes and wines, but, according to WSET, “has recently undergone a considerable transformation…and is now the center of innovation and premium wine production.” Way to rally, Swartland. Grapes to know: Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Cape Blends, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Breede River Valley
The district to know here: Worcester district. Here the climate is hot and dry, thus irrigated from the river. With its fertile soil, Worcester district is responsible for a significant portion of South Africa’s overall wine production, mainly high-volume, inexpensive white wine blends made from Chenin Blanc and Colombard.
The Robertson district, just to the east of Worcester, has a similar but slightly cooler climate. Thus, while it is still responsible for those high-volume wines, it can also produce Syrah and full-bodied Chardonnay successfully.
Cape South Coast
As the name implies, this is the southern-most region of the Western Cape. As it is well-exposed to the oceanic influences, it is noted as a source for some of the country’s best fruit and wines.
Walker Bay district, which is right there on the southern tip of the country, literally kissing the ocean, is noted for being one of the most established vineyard areas, home to the various wards of Hemel-en-Aarde, which produces some of the country’s beset Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as successful Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah.
Elgin district is influenced by altitude, as it’s further inland, and is noted for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Last but not least we have Cape Agulhas district, slightly closer to the ocean than Elgin, is home to the Elim ward—noted for Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
Another lightening-fast round, that one. Did I do ok? I can’t say I’ve ever had a South African wine, have you? What variety? What district and ward did it come from? Any tasting notes you can share with the class? Many thanks once again for hanging out with me. The countdown is on to my WSET Level 3 test date, so I encourage any and all input. Cheers.
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Stacy, I have traveled to South Africa many times and the last time there I had the chance to spend some time in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Franschhoek is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to wine taste I have been to. They sit at a higher altitude and are a very small area set in a hole surrounded by mountains and the place is unbelievable. I would not be so bold as to say their wine rivals California or Oregon for quality but they do have some nice wines and good varietals and it is real joy to travel and taste there. Franschhoek just happens to have a restaurant that is ranked the #1 restaurant in all of Africa or so I am told. If you ever get the chance, do not hesitate to go there for a trip.
All the best,
I could send you some pics if that would be helpful!
Hey Terry, that sounds like an amazing experience. I must admit, I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting wines out of South Africa outside of the Lubanzi wines I wrote about almost three years ago! (http://briscoebites.com/lubanzi-rhone-red-blend/ and http://briscoebites.com/lubanzi-chenin-blanc/). If you have pics you’d like to share please do…I think you know how/where to reach me 😉 Cheers!