If you’re a wine lover, you’ve undoubtedly tried wines from different regions around the world. If you haven’t tried a bottle of wine from South Africa as yet, then you should definitely put that region on your list.
South Africa is one of the most dynamic regions in the world for the production of wine. Traditionally, and for a long time, it was thought that the climate on the African continent would be too hot for growing wine grapes; however, this is not true for South Africa. There are several regions in the Cape that offer a mild Mediterranean climate that provides favorable conditions for growing wine grapes.History
The first vineyard in the Cape was planted in 1655 by Governor Jan Van Riebeeck, and soon others followed as well. Constantia was the first vineyard to gain some notoriety, but the Dutch were not very well versed in how to maintain a vineyard. When the French Huguenots settled in the Cape in the 1680s, they introduced more refined wine-making techniques improving the quality of wine that came out of the region.
South African wines have a come a long way since then, as they needed to catch up with the rest of the world. During the 18th century, South Africa experienced a shortage of proper oak barrels. Vineyards had yet to match terroirs and climates to the grapes that would be most suited to grow in them. The British occupation of the Cape brought about a lot of changes.
Charles Kohler founded the Ko-operative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Africa Beperkt (KMV) in 1918, to regulate the wine industry, which was a blessing.
Most wine-growing regions in South Africa have a mild climate that resembles that of the Mediterranean. Mountain slopes and valleys get plenty of sunshine and the winters aren’t too cold, which are almost ideal conditions for growing wine grapes.
Most vineyards are located within about 50km of the coast, which means that the temperate climate of the region is more or less maintained.
There are quite a few wine-growing regions in South Africa that have consistently been producing great wines. With the exception of the Orange River wine region, most of the wine in South Africa is produced in the Western Cape region.
South Africa ranks 17th with regards to the total amount of land that is used to grow wine grapes. The total land cultivated adds up to about 110,000 hectares. However, when it comes to the total amount of wine produced, it falls within the top 10, producing over 900 million gross litres of wine on an annual basis.
Let’s have a look at the different wine regions within the country.
With a wine-making history that dates back to 1685 and featuring about 8 award-winning wine estates, Constantia is recognised as Cape Town’s vineyard. Offering breathtaking views of the Constantiaberg and the Table Mountain ranges, it is a great place to visit when you are in Cape Town. The valley is a popular tourist destination and receives visitors from throughout the year. The five estates here are Klein Constantia, Groot Constantia, Buitervenwachting, Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg. All of them are situated within 15 km of each other.
Stellenbosch is not too far from Cape Town and is considered to be one of the leading wine regions in the country. It offers beautiful views of vineyards fringed by mountains and has different trails and wine routes that visitors can explore. The granite-based soil in the east is well suited for the production of red wine while the sandstone soils in the west are predominantly good for the production of white wines.
Apart from vineyards, Stellenbosch also offers interesting hiking trails and art galleries, making it quite an attractive destination for visitors.
Breede River Valley
Completely encircled by mountains of the Cape Fold Belt, the Breede River Valley is responsible for a large section of the country’s wine production. The valley stretches for approximately 130 km in an east-west direction. Vineyards situated here cover a wide range of terrain. On the valley floor along the river banks, you will find grapes that are used in bulk production and for distilling. Premium wines are made in vineyards that are located in the foothills of the mountains. You can find everything from small boutique wineries to more well-known establishments here.
A picturesque setting, featuring lush forests and tall mountain peaks surrounded by fruit orchards, the Elgin valley is known to produce award-winning Sauvignon Blancs. Wines are known to be very fruity and apart from Sauvignon Blancs, you will also find some really good Pinot Noir and Shiraz. The cool climate ensures that the grapes here ripen slowly and the wines have excellent aging potential.
Known as the country’s food and wine capital, Franschhoek boasts of galleries, antique shops, and vineyards that are more than 300 years old. Enjoy activities like trout fishing, hiking and wine-tasting tours. There is a unique Wine Tram hop-on-hop-off tour that you can board to experience all the goodness that the Franschhoek valley has to offer. This is a much more leisurely way to travel and get in-depth information about the region and the vineyards and wines being produced.
The second oldest wine route in the county, the route represents about 70 varied wine producers that range from family-owned estates to large cellars. The largest town in the cape with a population of about 200,000 occupants, Paarl is also the third-oldest European settlement. There are beautiful museums and galleries that will transport you back to the olden days. If you’re a wine lover, you’ll be happy to know that Paarl is home to some of the biggest names in the South African wine industry. Definitely try the different red and white blends available, as well as Methode Cap Classique wines, sherry, tawny and brandy.
Founded in 1983, the Robertson Wine Valley association has been working hard at improving the local wine industry. Situated just two hours away from Cape Town, there are over 50 wineries here. The region is best known for producing great white wines. Look out for wines by De Wetshof, Graham Beck and Springfield who are well-renowned producers.
Located towards the north of Cape Town, Swartland is a popular wine destination for travelers and tourists. The vineyards benefit from cool breeze that blows off the Atlantic Ocean while the dry land conditions have been ideal for the growing of wine grapes.
Grapes here are cultivated in the traditional bush vine style and are left to grow naturally. The soil here produces smaller berries that have a more concentrated flavor producing wines with ripe tannins and bold flavours.
Walker Bay has one of the coolest climates in South Africa. Situated about 95km from Cape Town, the soil here has a high clay content and is perfect for cultivating premium grapes. The most prominent vineyards can be found in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley which is located in an east-west direction from the coast. The Walker Bay wine route is best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production.
Vineyards in the Worcester wine route are known for producing nationally acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc and Columbar wines. The Worcester district is home to 20% of the national vineyards and produces about 27% of the total volume of wine in South Africa. It is also known for producing good-quality brandy. Surrounded by Slanghoek, Elandskloof, Du Toitskloof and Little Drakenstei mountains, the climate here is a tad more extreme than other regions. Summers are very hot and winters are cold and wet and sometimes even get snow. Some popular wineries in this region that you should check out are De Wet, Slanghoek, KWV Brandy, Brandvlei, Opsta and Du ToitsKloof.
Now that you’ve learned about the various wine routes and regions to visit, let’s learn a bit more about the different types of wines that are produced in South Africa.
White Chenin Blanc and Red Pinotage are the most famous grapes in South Africa. The Chenins are almost always dry, ripe and full of flavor and very different from those found in the Loire. The Pinotage however is a South African creation and was developed in 1926. Some of the best wines you will find in South Africa might be blends.
Known as ‘Steen’ by South African winemakers, it was discovered that this floral grape was actually Chenin Blanc in the 1960s. This light-bodied wine tastes amazing as a sweet or dry wine. It is a zesty wine that goes really well with Mediterranean cuisine. You could also pair it with sushi or a hearty meat like veal.
It is sometimes blended with Viognier, Semillon and Marsanne to add more richness. It can also be blended with Sauvignon Blanc to create a fresh and zesty dry wine. Because it has a bite of acidity coupled with an inherent sweetness, it goes well with meals that feature a sweet and sour element.
An exclusively South African variety, Pinotage is a red wine grape that was cultivated in 1925 and has since become the signature grape of its homeland. It was originally a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut and produces a deep red wine. Even though the grape is technically related to Pinot Noir, it tastes more like a Shiraz.
Pinotage grapes are very dark in colour and the wines are high in tannin and anthocyanin. It is used to create low-quality wine for commercial purposes. It features notes of plum, tobacco, blackberry, tar and licorice.
Shiraz / Syrah
Shiraz and Syrah wines are made from the same grape varietal. They are full-bodied, bold and packed with flavor. These wines have an earthiness and the richness of ripe blackberry and blueberry flavors.
The Syrahs from the Swartland region come highly recommended particularly the Secateurs 2012 Red Blend from Badenhorst Family Wines which is a medium-bodied wine featuring flavours of anise and strawberry.
Chardonnay produced in South Africa is known for its fruity flavours of peach and citrus. This dry white wine has an oaky flavor owing to the barrels it is fermented in. It is very easy to drink and is a popular wine among wine lovers. South African Chardonnay has a full-bodied texture and is a high-quality wine. It is also a versatile wine that can be paired with a variety of meats like chicken and turkey, or seafood as well.
Considered to be one of the best red wines in the world, there is a high demand for Pinot Noir both in the domestic South African and international markets. While this is a popular wine to drink, it has a reputation of being difficult to cultivate. Not a lot of Pinot Noir is cultivated in South Africa, but the ones that are, are of good quality.
Méthode Cap Classique
Traditionally produced sparkling wines are referred to as Cap Classique in South Africa. The sparkle is derived by fermenting the wine for a second time in the bottle just like you would with Champagne. While there is a growing demand for sparkling wines, it isn’t as popular as the other wines and occupies less shelf space in a store.
The South African wine business has undergone many changes in recent years, and now there are nearly 500 private wineries producing wines for local and international markets. Wine farmers are encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming methods and appreciate the diverse conditions that the country has to offer. Wines produced here are also focused on matching the more international styles of wine that would readily appeal to a global consumer. The quality of wine has improved over the years, and South Africa has now firmly established itself on the map as a producer of premium wines that can be exported and can also succeed in the domestic market.
So, the next time you visit a wine shop or restaurant, do check out their collection of South African wines and decide the quality for yourself. Or better yet, head to South Africa and take a tour of some of the picturesque wine regions they have on offer.
What's your favourite South African wine? Let us know in the comments!