It’s a remarkably short drive from Cape Town to the key production areas of the “Cape Winelands,” a term used fondly to encompass the eleven compact regions where wine is grown on “farms” (not vineyards). To give this a U.S. perspective, it takes much less time to get from Cape Town to Paarl or Stellenbosch, for example, than from San Francisco to Sonoma or Napa. When you arrive, the drive time between wine farms is more like Sonoma than Napa. There are only a few places where one can cross the road or drive a few hundred meters to the next delicious tasting. Others require a tasting plan and some interesting navigation. But to be clear: it is quite possible to explore over a dozen wineries in three regions in three days, plus more wines at special lunches and dinners, and still have time to watch whales play in Walker Bay at Hermanus!
Because there is so much variation in such a small area, it is nearly impossible to typify South African wines. You really need to know where you are and how the micro-climate conditions impact what’s in the glass. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans are without question the most significant influence on grape varieties and wine styles. The climate is maritime, or coastal as it is called here, until you move inland a few miles. The landscape is dotted with sharp, craggy mountains that rise majestically in clear sight of the Cape’s extensive shoreline. Mountains provide interesting variations in soil types, occasional spots for hillside growing with perfect aspect as well as slope, excellent nocturnal temperature variation during hot summers, and once you cross over the mountains, a somewhat temperate continental climate that changes the picture considerably. Bush vines (no trellising) have traditionally been used in South Africa because the area is quite windy. Problems that other regions might experience with mildew, rot or other diseases are by and large controlled in places where bush vines continue to make sense. This approach has gradually changed with a flurry of new wineries — now nearly 600 — adopting modern technology on the farm and in the cellar.
Unlike Constantia, where the majority of wine farms trace back to the Dutch colonial era and Governor Simon van der Stel, most of the Winelands consists of new wineries, many created in the last 10 years. Some farms were virgin territory for grapevines, others had lain fallow for many decades. This can be partially explained by the fact that there were strict government rules regarding expansion of the winegrowing territory, as well as other regulations, that made it impossible to develop this area as a wine region despite its excellent terroir. That is all changing rapidly. Gauging by the sophistication of cellar operations, the depth of wine education provided to brand representatives who staff elaborate tasting rooms, as well as other tourism amenities available on many properties, wine is clearly viewed as a growth industry and major export product. South Africa is currently 8th in worldwide wine production.
Like Constantia, nearly all wineries are devoted to familiar international grape varieties. A red Bordeaux blend with at least two of the main varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is typically a winery’s “flagship” offering. Adding clever twists of other varieties to the blend, from a full complement of all five Bordeaux grapes to a little Shiraz and perhaps even Grenache or a dash of Pinotage, creates each winemaker’s signature. Several winemakers have moved in the direction of both red and white Rhone varieties. While Sauvignon Blanc is as ubiquitous as it was in Constantia, it was more often blended with Semillon or spent some time on lees. No more “GGG” — high acid green, grassy, gooseberry! Pinotage makes an appearance a bit more often, and there was the occasional Chenin Blanc, but these two varieties highly associated with South Africa in the 20th century are indeed rare today.
Perhaps because winery visits were carefully chosen with quality and international availability in mind, the wines I sampled were good to very good. There were a few I didn’t care for because tannins and alcohol were too high for my palate, but other sophisticated consumers simply love those very same wines, some of which are South African and international award winners.
My personal favorites (in alpha order):
Boekenhoutskloof Boek Special Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend
De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc
Fairview Oom Pagel Semillon
Fairview Cyril Black Shiraz
Jordan The Prospector Syrah
Kanonkop Pinotage (classic, gamey herbaceous style)
TOKARA Director’s Reserve (Bordeaux blend)
Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc
(note that Fairview makes the “Goats Do Roam” brand. This photo is where the real goats roam!
Stellenbosch (8 wineries, 36 wines)
Delaire Graff (lunch): 2011 White Reserve 70% Sauvignon Blanc / 30% Semillon
De Morgenzon: 2013 DMZ Chenin Blanc; 2012 Reserve Chenin Blanc; 2011 DMZ Syrah; 2011 Maestro red blend (Merlot predominant with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot
Jordan: 2012 Sauvignon Blanc; 2010 The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc; 2013 Unoaked Chardonnay; 2012 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay; 2013 Riesling; 2011 Merlot; 2010 The Prospector Syrah; 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
Kanonkop: Kadette Range of 2013 Rose (100% Pinotage), 2012 Pinotage, Cape Blend (50% Pinotage/25% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon); 2011 Pinotage; 2003 Pinotage; 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon; 2010 Paul Sauer (flagship, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and Merlot); 2005 Paul Sauer
Rust en Vrede (“rest and peace”): 2012 Merlot; 2010 Estate (flagship, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon/30% Syrah/10% Merlot); 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (100%); 1694 Classification (2009 — 60% Syrah/40% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Thelema: 2013 Sauvignon Blanc; 2010 The Mint 100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 2008 Rabelais (flagship; 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Merlot)
TOKARA: 2012 Director’s Reserve White (76% Sauvignon Blanc, 27% Semillon); 2011 Limited Release Pinotage; 2009 Director’s Reserve (78% Cabernet Sauvignon plus Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec)
Warwick: 2013 Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 White Lady Chardonnay, 2012 Old Bush Vine Pinotage, 2010 Trilogy (flagship), 2011 Cabernet Franc
Franschhoek (3 wineries, 12 wines)
Boekenhoutskloof: 2012 Porcupine Ridge Viognier (51%) / Grenache Blanc (49%) blend; 2011 Boek Special blend Semillon (92%) / Sauvignon Blanc (8%); 2012 The Chocolate Block (blend of Syrah, Grenache Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Viognier)
Chamonix: 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (88%)/ Semillon (12%) blend; 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (60%) / Semillon (40%) blend; 2012 Chardonnay; 2011 Greywack Pinotage; 2012 Pinot Noir; 2011 Troika (flagship Bordeaux blend)
La Motte (all from the Pierneef range): 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (organic); 2010 Shiraz (88%) / Viognier (12%); 2008 Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvedre/Carignan blend
Paarl (1 winery, 11 wines)
Fairview: Cap Classique Brut NV; 2013 Darling Sauvignon Blanc; 2013 Darling Chenin Blanc; 2012 Nurok (white blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Roussane, and Grenache Blanc all from the Darling region); 2011 Oom Pagel Semillon; Extrano (first vintage of Temprenillo/Grenache/Carignan blend); 2009 Pegleg 100% Carignan; 2011 Primo Pinotage (with a small amount of Cinsault); 2011 Durif Petite Syrah; 2010 Eenzaamheid Shiraz; 2010 Beacon Shiraz; 2010 Cyril Black Shiraz
Although I do have best intentions to write another piece on food and wine, my Winelands foodie experience warrants at least an honorary mention of the wines we sampled with two particularly incredible meals.
5-course pairing at The Tasting Room at La Quartier Francais in Franschhoek:
Welcome wine: Moreson Rose Cap Classique NV
Silverthorn Genie Brut Rose NV (100% Shiraz, Robertson region)
2011 Stony Brook Ghost Gum White (SB/Sem blend)
2012 Moreson Pinotage
2009 Allesverloren “Fine Old Vintage” (made from 7 indigenous Portuguese grapes, 21% abv; Swaartland region)
2008 Ezibusisweni Straw Wine (made from Chenin Blanc, dried on straw like ripasso/Amarone)
Secret Ingredients pairing at Creation in Hemel en Aarde, a sub-region bordering Elgin and Harmanus:
Welcome wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Rose (Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Grenache Noir) and Viognier
2013 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend
2013 Chardonnay (oaked, bottled mid-October)
2012 Syrah/Grenache blend
2012 Pinot Noir
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