The Renaissance of South Africa Wines

By Jim Seder – Editor and publisher of the Wine Inquirer – Arizona

When it comes to wine, chances are that South Africa does not come to mind.  What most do not appreciate, however, is that the country has been producing wine since the 1659 and serving the spirit to European nobility since the 18th century.  While the economic sanctions imposed by apartheid suppressed the industry, it was the political reform of the system and the advent of democracy that once again opened the door to progress.  With the end of apartheid came a surge in financial and intellectual capital that spilled over to the wine industry.  This allowed for rapid development of plant materials, search for new winegrowing geography, improved winemaking techniques and new applied technologies.

Today, the modern South Africa wine industry is only in its infancy, just 15 years of age.  Despite its youth, it has made astounding progress, receiving deserved attention and winning awards from several international events.  As of this writing, the country boasts over 600 wine producers, double the number year 2000.  Wine exports surged over 300% between 1995 and 2007 placing the country in the overall ninth in international wine production.  Nearly 4000 farmers cultivate almost 102,000 hectares of land.

With South Africa home to as many as 9600 plant species in the very small Cape Floral Kingdom, more than the entire Northern Hemisphere, the local wine industry has created the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) to minimize losses that could otherwise threaten the Kingdom.  This initiative aims to reduce CFK losses through biodiversity best practices such as preventing loss to any micro-habitat in critical sites and increased total area set aside as natural habitat in contractual protected areas.  By creating such a focus on biodiversity, South Africa is positioning itself as a unique wine producing entity.  In 2006, over 90% of the harvest was said to be compliant with an environmentally sustainable system of wine production called the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW).

While the wine industry in still quite young, the country’s geology speaks of a very distant past, yielding some of the most ancient vitacultural soils on the planet.  The Precambrian deposits of shale and schist are dated back some 550-1,000 million years.  Massive geological upheavals has resulted in one of the most scenic wine producing regions in the world, offering majestic mountain ranges interspersed with deep valleys, all creating a myriad of mesoclimates and soils.

Soils in the region, as you might expect, can be quite diverse due to differences in topography and geology.  The coastal regions have sandstone mountains resting at times upon a granite foundation while lower elevations see shale.  This yields both sandy soils with poor nutrient and water retaining properties if from the sandstone mountains and/or red-yellow and acidic soil from granite with good physical and water retention properties.  Soils from shale tend to have good nutrient and water retentive properties.

The highly regarded red and brown soils, usually found in granite hills and foot slopes, located at elevations of 150-400m, are highly weathered, acidic, well drained and very stable, offering excellent water retention properties.  Other soil composition consists of sand, gravel and clay.

As varied as is the topography of the region, so are the locations of the vineyards, ranging from the valley floors, to the hills, to steep mountain slopes.  The diversity of terrain produces a multitude of mesoclimes.  A given farm may have one vineyard at nearly sea level and another some 600m in elevation.  In general, northern and western slopes are warmer than the southern and eastern due to increased sunlight.  Vineyards planted in the mountainous terrain can be challenged with adequate sunlight due to deep shadows in the early morning and late afternoon.

The overall climate of South Africa is Mediterranean, with the coastal regions receiving a cooling sea breeze, the result of ocean currents flowing northward from the Antarctica, while the inland regions are more temperate.  While winters can be cool, frost is a rare visitor.  While the coastal regions receive adequate rainfall from May through August, inland regions to the north and northwest require irrigation.  In general, the climate is described as three tiered: macro, meso and micro.  Macro refers to the climate of the region, micro as that of the vineyard and micro, the conditions surrounding bunches of grapes and flow around the vine canopy.

Analgous to the Mistral wind that roars through the Rhone region of France, at times with speeds up to 90 mph, the Cape has its version called the Cape Doctor.  This legendary southeast wind blows across the southwestern Cape region in the spring and summer, drying out the vineyards and inhibiting disease.  It can, however, occasionally bring rains to the southern most coastal zone vineyards.

Varietal Production:

White varieties constitute about 55% of the total grape plantings, Chenin Blanc comprising nearly 20% of the total.  Red varieties account for the remainder with Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for 13%, Shiraz at 10%, Merlot at 7% and the indigenous Pinotage (blend of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) 6%.  With shortages of the white varietals over the last couple of years, plantings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay has increased.

Wine Growing Regions:

Bot River:  Cool maritime climate; Varieties include Chenin Blanc,
Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz, Rhone varietals.


Cape Agulhas:  Maritime influence; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Shiraz

Cape Point: Maritime influence; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon

Constantia:  Site of 17th century wine farm and 18th century Constantia dessert wines;  Sauvignon Blanc

Darling:  Sauvignon Blanc

Durbanville:  Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon

Klein Karoo:  Muscat, Merlot, Port style wines, brandy


Lower Orange:  Most northerly winegrowing sub-region; Chenin Blanc,
Colombard, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Shiraz, Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Muscadel, Muscat


Overberg:  Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz

Paarl ( translated= Pearl, named after a large famous granite outcrop):
Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Pinotage, Shiraz
Contains the gourmet capital of the Cape

Philadelphia:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot

Plettenberg Bay:  Maritime; Sauvignon Blanc

Robertson:  Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz
(outstanding red wine region)

Stellenbosch:  17th century winemaking, renown for its terroir, highly sought
after region, known for red blends and most noble wine
varieties.  Center of wine education and research and the
Stellenbosch Wine Route for tourists.

Swartland (translated=the black land, from color of the rhino bush certain time of year):   Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvigon, Pinotage, Shiraz, port style wines

Tulbagh:  Cool region due to cold air trapping between mountains; Shiraz

Walker Bay:  Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Merlot,
Shiraz;  a side treat is outstanding whale watching

Worcester:  Important brandy producer

Some producer names to look for are: Boekenhoutslkoof, Morgenhof, De Trafford, Mulderbosch, Ken Forrester, Finlayson, Graham Beck (Sparkling Wine), Ernie Els, and Thelma Mountain,


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