South Africa

The wine tradition of South Africa is complex and long lived.  Although South African wines have gained notoriety in the USA only recently, vines were cultivated and wine produced in many different styles since the 1600’s, when the Dutch East India Company  began planting vines on the southern tip of this vast Country.

Since the Dutch had almost no wine tradition it was only after the French Huguenots settled at the Cape between 1680 and 1690 that the wine industry began to flourish. With time their culture and skills left a permanent impression on the wine industry and life at the Cape.
Much has happened since the 1600s; a few highlights prior to the 1900 have helped shape the South African wine industry as we know it today. In 1761 the Constantia region began exporting wine to Europe. By 1788, the luscious dessert wines of Constantia won acclaim throughout Europe. However in 1886 a phylloxera infestation destroyed millions of vines at the Cape, bringing wine making to a halt for some time. By the 1900, grapes began to be farmed again by cooperative wineries and wine making resumed. The KWV, a large co-operative, was established in 1918 to create a market for Cape vineyards while regulating prices. Quality was not an issue as the priority was saving the Cape producer. As a result Cape producers are largely co-operative based: of about 4,500 grape-farmers, most take their fruit to one of the 70 co-ops. There are about 90 wine estates (producers growing their own fruit); and about 180 non estate producers buying fruit. In 1925, Professor Perold cross pollinated the Pinot Noir grape, a light fruity finicky varietal with the Cinsaut grape a spicy fuller bodied grape thereby developing South Africa’s indigenous grape Pinotage. This varietal produces a distinct flavor profile, very fruity with an underlying flavor frequently compared with banana. It may be drunk young, to maintain its fruity character however it ages well and as it mellows it produces a wine similar to a mature Bordeaux.
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The first bottling of Pinotage was in 1927, today however Pinotage is not considered South Africa’s most popular wine. With increasing frequency Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are being harvested for South African reds, at times using Pinotage in blends as an interesting component. Among white varieties, Chenin Blanc remains the most widely planted. It has a long history of use in jug wines, however increasingly more serious bottlings are emerging. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are widely planted and are held in high esteem today along side Chenin Blanc. In 1973, a strictly legislated wine of origin system was established to define distinct areas of wine production beginning with the broad designation of “region,” followed by “district” and then “ward.”
Currently, South Africa’s wine production areas are divided into five regions, which are subdivided into 22 districts and 56 wards. Wine bearing the name of a region, district or ward must contain grapes only from that area. Wine bearing a vintage must be made at least 85 percent from grapes of that vintage. A wine whose label bears the name of a variety must contain at least 85 percent that variety. In addition, the Wine and Spirit Board conducts regular inspections of wineries; those that do not adhere to industry regulations are not granted exportation rights. As a wine growing region, the Cape is unique. Two oceans the Atlantic and the Indian influence its weather. In addition, the Cape’s mountainous topography and myriad soil types allow for numerous microclimates, warm and cool and result in a wide range of wines and wine styles.
Some of the Cape’s main wine growing regions are:
Constantia
An historical region that’s tucked away in the smart southern suburbs of Cape Town (this is where the first vineyards were planted in South Africa) is now undergoing a revival. It is a picturesque region with vineyards ideally sited on the slopes of Constantia Mountain cooled by the sea breezes.
Elgin
A new wine growing region east of Stellenbosch, is predominantly a fruit- growing area. Due to its high altitude, it’s cooler than the main wine land regions
Franschoek
The Franschoek valley is a small but significant region, inland (to the west) of Stellenbosch. A wide variety of soils and relatively high rainfall permits production of a wide variety of wine styles.
Paarl
This well known region north-west of Cape Town is home to several leading producers. Traditionally a white wine region, it’s now focusing more on red wines due to its Mediterranean climate and terroirs. It is warmer than Stellenbosch, so the very best wines come from the more elevated vineyards.
Robertson
About 120km east of Cape Town, next to Worcester, this hot region is paradoxically best known for its whites.
Stellenbosch
Just a short distance east of Cape Town, this is the country’s leading wine area and home to many of the country’s leading estates. There are several sub regions, and the geology is quite complex. The granite-based soils in the east are especially suited to the production of fine red wines, whereas the sandstone soils in the west are best for whites.
Swartland
This large region to the north of Cape Town is mostly given over to wheat farming. Rainfall is light, so irrigation is usually needed.
Walker Bay
A cool-climate wine region, on the Whale Coast to the south of Cape Town, is becoming increasingly important: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc dominate.