The Cape winelands stretch from the rugged mountains and multi-directional slopes of the coastal region to the open plains of the Little Karoo where viticulture takes place mainly in the riverine valleys. South Africa's vineyards are mostly situated in the Western Cape near the coast. Rainfall on the coastal side, where fynbos and renosterveld vegetation flourish, measures up to 1 000 mm per year. Travel over the mountains into the hinterland and the rainfall decreases dramatically with the vegetation dominated by hardy succulents, cycads and aloes.
Currently around 101 607 ha of vines producing wine grapes are under cultivation over an area some 800 km in length. Under the auspices of the Wine of Origin Scheme, production zones in the Cape winelands are divided into officially demarcated regions, districts and wards. There are four main regions – Breede River Valley, Coastal, Little Karoo and Olifants River, encompassing 22 diverse districts and some 56 smaller wards.
The Breedekloof district is characterised by vineyards which flourish on alluvial valley soils with adequate drainage as they rest on a bed of river stones. It covers a large proportion of the Breede River Valley and its tributaries. There are marked variations between the soils and mesoclimates in the different river valleys. This district incorporates the Goudini and Slanghoek wards. There are some 23 wineries on the Breedekloof Wine Route.
Most of these maritime vineyards are situated in the ward of Elim near Africa's southernmost point, Cape Agulhas. The entire picturesque village of Elim, a Moravian mission settlement founded in 1824, is a national monument. Strong, cooling winds are prevalent in summer, ensuring a very cool ripening season, perfect for Sauvignon Blanc and also promising for Semillon and Shiraz. Generating much interest in the winelands, the still small hectarage of this coastal district shows great potential.
These maritime vineyards, some of them a mere kilometre from the sea, are situated on the western fringe of the narrow Cape Peninsula. This cool-climate district is recognised for its Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Now the first red wine vineyards, planted on north-facing slopes at Red Hill bordering the Cape Point Nature Reserve, have come on stream.
On the southern slopes of the Table Mountain range and its world-renowned floral kingdom lies the historic Constantia valley, the cradle of winemaking in the Cape. The valley was the site of Simon van der Stel's 17th-century wine farm and the origin of the Constantia dessert wines which became famous throughout Europe during the 18th century. Rooted in ancient soils, the vineyards climb up the east-facing slopes of the Constantiaberg, where the vines benefit from the cool sea breezes blowing in from False Bay. The ward receives about 1 000mm of rain annually, making irrigation unnecessary, and has a mean February temperature of 20.6°C.
There are only a handful of cellars in this premier ward, where the cool climate favours the production of white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc, and where the tradition of producing remarkable wines since 1685 continues.
Darling, with its own wine route and several tourist attractions, is just an hour's drive away from Cape Town. The Darling district incorporates the Groenekloof ward, which benefits from being one of the closest to the cooling Atlantic and is known for the exceptional quality of its Sauvignon Blanc, the variety which initially spearheaded the viticultural progress of this area. Now wines with exceptional flavour expressions are also being produced from other cultivars.
The vineyards of Durbanville, like those of Constantia, lie very close to Cape Town and border on the northern suburbs. Several estates and wineries, situated mainly on the rolling hill slopes with their various aspects and altitudes, continue to make a wide variety of wine styles. Some of the vineyards grow at altitudes as high as 380 metres above sea level. Wines from this ward attracting attention are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep soils, cooling sea breezes, night-time mists and close proximity to the ocean are beneficial factors when it comes to the quality of the grapes.
This semi-arid, elongated region stretches from Montagu, via higher-lying Barrydale towards Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn and the Langkloof. It's known for relative extremes when it comes to soils and climate. Viticulture takes place mainly in kloofs, valleys and riverine sites in a rugged mountainous landscape. Muscat varieties flourish here and the area is known for its sweet wines. Today, there is an increasing focus on reds like Merlot made in an easy-drinking style.
Calitzdorp is famous for its port-style wines and here you'll find plantings of Tinta Barocca, Touriga Nacional and, on a small scale, Souzao. More recently, red wines made from the varieties typically used to make port are creating new interest here. The Klein Karoo is renowned for the quality of its potstill brandies which have brought home international accolades.
The most recently proclaimed ward is Langeberg-Garcia. Situated north of the Langeberg mountain range between the Brand River in the west and the Gourits River in the west, it encompasses the scenic Garcia Pass.
This geographical unit stretches from Greytown to Oribi Flats and the Midlands, where altitudes are up to 1 500 metres, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It's early days yet but indications have been promising.
The most northerly winegrowing area in the Cape, it's also the fourth largest, totalling in excess of 17 000 hectares, which stretch in close proximity to the Orange River. Predominantly a white grape area, reds are being increasingly planted. The wine grape varieties grown here are Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Muscadel (both red and white) and Muscat d'Alexandrie.
Large trellising systems are employed in this region of which the hut, gable and T-trellises are the most in use. These create special microclimates which protect the grapes, allowing them to ripen away from exposure to the direct rays of the sun. Specific mesoclimates are created within vineyards located on the islands between the different streams of the Orange River where the close proximity to the water cools down the grapes to a considerable degree. The conditions contribute to creating climate pockets which are conducive to production of better quality wines.
The styles of wine produced by the various wineries along the 350 km stretch of river differ singularly in style and flavour from the eastern to the western wineries. The soil types also vary greatly. The wines of the more eastern cellars are characterised by higher natural acids and lower pH readings, resulting in quite delicate sensory profiles.
This region stretches in a belt from north to south along the broad valley of the Olifants River. The summers in this valley range from relatively warm to cool compared with some of South Africa's other wine areas and rainfall is low. Soils vary from sandy to red clay loams. With careful canopy management, which ensures grapes are shaded by the vines' leaves, combined with modern winemaking techniques, the Olifants River is proving to be a source of quality, affordable wines. The region incorporates the wards of Koekenaap, Vredendal and Spruitdrift as well as Bamboes Bay on the West Coast, which is generating some excitement, especially when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc.
The predominantly citrus-producing Citrusdal valley lies in the southern reaches of the Olifants River valley. The soils are mainly sandy alluvial soils from the surrounding Table Mountain sandstone mountains in the southern part of the valley up until Clanwilliam. Irrigation is obtained from the Clanwilliam dam where the water is of an excellent quality. The area incorporates the higher-lying ward of Piekenierskloof.
Some exciting wines are emanating from the cooler, high-altitude vineyards of the stand-alone Cederberg ward which borders on the Olifants River region.
Newer viticultural areas have opened up in the southerly Overberg district. The high-lying Elgin ward, cradled in the sandstone Hottentots Holland mountains, was traditionally an apple-growing region. Now wines showing exceptional fruit are produced here with Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Shiraz doing particularly well in this late-ripening cooler zone. Award-winning wines are also emerging from the Kleinrivier ward near Stanford.
About 50 km from Cape Town, Paarl is situated beneath a large granite outcrop formed by three rounded domes, the prominent one named Paarl (which means pearl) rock. This scenic town is home to the KWV and the venue for the world-renowned Nederburg Auction. The summers are long and warm, and rainfall enough to make irrigation advantageous only in exceptional circumstances. A large variety of grapes are grown in Paarl, of which Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc have the best potential.
The Paarl district includes the wards of Franschhoek, the 'gourmet capital' of the Cape which has retained its French Huguenot character; Wellington, a burgeoning wine area which is producing some promising wines; and the newest wards, Simonsberg-Paarl, on the prime foothills of the Simonsberg, and Voor Paardeberg.
The Franschhoek valley lies to the southeast of Paarl and is enclosed on three sides by towering mountains: the Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains which meet at the top of the valley and the Klein Drakenstein and Simonsberg mountains, found further down towards Paarl. Streams from the higher peaks flow down to the valley floor where they converge to form the Berg River, fast-flowing in winter when snow caps the peaks and a mere stream in summer, fed by the Wemmershoek Dam.
Some of the Wellington wineries stretch over alluvial terraces towards the Swartland's rolling hills and wheat fields, while others are found in the foothills of the towering Hawequa mountains, where folds and valleys create unique mesoclimates. Wellington, which supplies over 90% of the South African wine industry with cuttings, has some 30 grapevine nurseries, situated here due to the appropriate soils and warm summers. In winter, snow sometimes covers the mountain tops and night temperatures are generally cooler than at the coast some 60 km away.
A newer ward north of Durbanville, Philadelphia also benefits from cooling Atlantic influences. The hilly terrain of this area means some of the vineyards are higher than usual, up to 260m above sea level. This facilitates a significant difference in day-night temperature and results in slower ripening. Some highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and red blends have already emerged from this promising appellation.
The first vines were planted in 2000 in this pioneering district, the newest and furthest appellation up the east coast, in mountainous terrain some 20km east of Plettenberg Bay, with its wealth of natural beauty, unspoilt beaches and excellent whale watching in season. The cool coastal climate – vineyards are some three kilometres from the sea – and high carbon content of the soils are proving ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.
Dubbed the 'valley of vines and roses', the Robertson district's lime-rich soils make the area eminently suitable for racehorse stud farming and also, of course, winegrowing. Situated in the Breede River valley, the river is the lifeblood of this lower rainfall region. Although summer temperatures can be high, cooling south-easterly winds channel moisture-laden air into the valley.
Robertson is renowned for the quality of its wines and while traditionally considered white wine territory and known mainly for its Chardonnays and more recently for the quality of its Sauvignon Blanc, it is also the source of some of the Cape's finest red wines, particularly Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the distinctive fortified dessert wines for which it was originally famed continue to be produced. The district of Robertson incorporates several wards, including Bonnievale.
The historical town of Stellenbosch, which features some of the finest examples of Cape Dutch architecture, boasts a winemaking tradition which stretches back to the end of the 17th-century. The mountainous terrain, good rainfall, deep well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs make this a sought-after viticultural area. The rapidly increasing number of wine estates and producers (in excess of 160) includes some of the most famous names in Cape wine. The district, with its mix of historic estates and contemporary wineries, produces excellent examples of almost all the noble grape varieties and is known for the quality of its blended reds.
Stellenbosch, the 'town of oaks', is also the educational and research centre of the winelands. Stellenbosch University is the only university in South Africa which offers a degree in viticulture and oenology, and it has many of the country's most successful winemakers as alumni. The Elsenburg School of Agriculture is also near Stellenbosch, as is the Nietvoorbij Institute of Viticulture and Oenology. This organisation has one of the most modern experimental wineries in the world and, at its experimental farms (situated in several winegrowing districts), important research into new varietals, clones and rootstocks is undertaken.
The intensively farmed Stellenbosch district has been divided up into several smaller viticultural pockets including Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch.
Stellenbosch Wine Route, the oldest in the country and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Western Cape, has created several manageable sub-routes for tourists: Greater Simonsberg, Stellenbosch Mountain, Helderberg, Stellenbosch Hills and Bottelary Hills.
Traditionally a grain-producing area, in summer the Swartland district is marked by green pockets of vineyards clambering up the foothills of the mountains (Piketberg, Porterville, Riebeek, Perdeberg) and along the banks of the Berg River. In the past, the region was planted mainly to bushvines but trellising is increasingly being adopted due to advances in management strategies and quality considerations.
The Swartland literally translated means 'the black land' and the area takes its name from the indigenous renosterbos (rhino bush) which still turns the landscape a dark colour at certain times of the year. The district was traditionally a source of robust, full-bodied red wines and high quality, fortified wines.
In recent times, some exciting award-winning wines have emerged, both red and white, and the area continues to produce top port-style wines. Increasing percentages of Pinotage, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are being grown here, as well as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. It has two designated wards, Malmesbury and Riebeekberg. The district of Swartland borders Piketberg to the north, which is not dissimilar in both geography and climate.
Surrounded on three sides by the Groot Winterhoek, Witsenberg and Obiekwaberg mountains, the vineyards of the Tulbagh district grow alongside orchards and fields of wheat. Soils in the valley are extremely variable. The area is characterised by extreme differences in day and night temperatures. Mountainous terrain creates numerous different mesoclimates which can be used to great advantage.
Unique to the valley's geographical composition is the 'cold trap', a phenomenon which occurs as a result of the encapsulating mountains, shaped like a horseshoe, with Tulbagh situated at the north of the 'bowl'. Within this bowl, once a prehistoric lake, the cold air of the previous night lies undisturbed. With no air movement from the sides, this cold bubble is trapped under the warming air above as the sun makes its way from east to west. The result is relatively cool average daily temperatures.
The town of Tulbagh boasts 32 national monuments on one street, and here history and tradition work hand-in-hand with innovation. With today's high-tech water management and advanced viticultural practices, the true potential of this area is starting to be realised. At present there are some 18 wineries – several of them relative newcomers making acclaimed wines, notably Shiraz and Méthode cap classique – in this secluded valley.
This district, surrounding the seaside town of Hermanus, is reputed for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines which emanate from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – this encompasses the wards of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and the recently proclaimed Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The area is also being noticed for the outstanding and consistent quality of its Pinotage. Fine examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Shiraz are also being produced here. The cool climate is the sought-after attribute in this area where vineyards benefit from persistent cooling winds from the nearby ocean. The soils – predominantly weathered shales – and terroir are also ideal for cool-climate loving varieties.
Both the Groenlandberg and Kogelberg reserves with their wealth of indigenous flora and fauna lie within this area, which also boasts some of the best land-based whale watching in the world in season (June to November).
The Worcester district, in conjunction with the Breedekloof district (see separate entry), is the largest in terms of winegrowing area and volume, with the historical town of Worcester the hub of the valley. With around 19 560 ha planted, it accounts for nearly 20% of the national vineyards and produces close on 27% of South Africa's total volume of wine and spirits. It's also the most important brandy producing area and home to the KWV Brandy Cellar, the largest of its kind in the world. Several of the cellars here are bottling quality wines under their own labels. This district comprises several wards.