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South African wines, shunned during the apartheid era, are gradually making a bigger mark on the world stage. Quality is still variable, and large volumes are still produced from the Western Cape that are not particularly distinctive. But there are also premium brands, either based on a single estate or at the other extreme made by selecting grapes from across the large geographical units.

 

 

 

Macroeconomic Overview

South Africa has a young and rapidly growing population which stood at 57 million people in 2020 and will hit 60 million people in 2022. Although most of the country’s wine is exported, this offers huge potential as a market in its own right.

Viticulture, Climate and Terrain

The climate of South Africa ranges from hot and arid in the north of the country to cool coastal in the south. South Africa’s coastal regions are cooled by the Benguela current of the Southern Ocean, which sweeps up from the Antarctic and provides cooling breezes in a region that is arguably too near the equator to make high quality wine. The southesasterly winds here are known as the Cape Doctor, and can cool temperatures by 1-2 degrees C.

Other vineyards benefit from higher slopes, which typically rise to around 500 meters and have a diversity of aspect and soils. These can provide a channel for the wind in some regions, as well as protective shade. The terrain and soils are varied. The areas around Cape Town are major areas for wine production, and the slopes of Table Mountain outside the city are heavily planted. The Western Cape region accounts for most of the western and southern part of South Africa, and is the area that was settled by Anglo-Dutch farmers.

Around 90% of the wine in South Africa comes from the Western Cape, but the Orange River region in the northern Cape produces significant volumes of cheap wine that is consumed domestically.

Phoro of red and white grapes in back of truck

Black Grape Varieties

The main black grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and the country’s own Pinotage.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The latter was known as Hermitage in South Africa, hence the name Pinot-Age. This wine is used to make Cape Blend with international varieties. Two different styles are recognised, the first that is simple and fruity, and a second style that is made with oak and produces wines with distinct coffee and chocolate notes. Pinotage is also grown on old vines which produce wines with a richer quality.

Despite offering a point of difference, Pinotage is not the most widely grown grape in South Africa.

Cabernet Sauvignon holds the top spot among black grapes, and produces single varietal wines as well as being blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc to produce Bordeaux blends.

Merlot can be full bodied and with plummy flavours.

Syrah is made in two styles: in hot regions it can have high tannins and makes wines with plummy, earthy and meaty flavours. In cooler regions, the style is lighter and fruitier, with the peppery notes common in Rhone or Languedoc wines.

Pinot Noir is planted only in the coolest region, including Walker’s Bay which produces high quality wines with fresh red fruit flavours.

Photo of bunch of black grapes hanging on vine

White Grape Varieties

Chenin Blanc is the country’s single most widely grown grape variety, and produces everything from simple wines with stone fruit flavours to complex wines that have been matured in oak.

Colombard is the second most widely grown, although this is often used for brandy production.

Sauvignon Blanc is also grown widely, especially in cooler regions where it produces expressive wines with high acidity and green fruit flavours.

Chardonnay is also grown, and is used in Bordeaux Blends.

Sweet wines are made from a grape known locally as Hanepoot. This is the same as Muscat of Alexandria and is used in late harvest wines, as well as to produce noble rot.

Viognier has a growing presence, particularly in Swartland which has been a centre of innovation. It makes rich, perfumed wines, often matured in oak. It is often made into blends with Chenin Blanc, with the addition of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.

Photo of bunch of white grapes hanging on vine

Regional Analysis

South Africa’s Western Cape is the main wine growing region, accounting for 90% of total production. This region can be sub-divided into the Coastal Region, the Breed River Valley and Cape South Coast. The Coastal Region includes the regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Swartland and Darling, as well as important wards such as Constantia and Durbanville. The Breede River region has the districts of Worcester and Robertson, a high volume region. Cape South Coast is a much smaller region but has some important regions and wards, including Walker Bay and Elgin.

Coastal Region

Stellenbosch

The Stellenbosch is among the oldest wine regions in South Africa, and extends all the way from the coast at Somerset West to the mountainous region around the town of Stellenbosch itself. Although it has a moderate to warm climate, cooling winds from False Bay pass through the mountains into the valleys, and the area benefits from a diversity of aspect, altitude and soil types.

Stellenbosch produces good quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, often as a Bordeaux style blend, as well as Syrah and Cape Blends. In cooler regions, the white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Paarl

The Paarl region lies to the north of Stellenbosch, and has a hotter climate, although cooler nights mean that the diurnal temperature range is large. The mountains here also produce a range of altitudes, aspects and soil types. This region makes red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinotage, often in blends, as well as whites from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.

Constantia

South African wine-making, this region on the eastern flanks of Table Mountain is fanned by the cooling winds of the Cape Doctor. In the south, at Cape Point, the weather is cool and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are planted. In the warmer regions, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are made. There is also a late harvest Muscat that is used to make Vin de Constance, an intense sweet wine.

Swartland

The huge Swartland region to the northwest of Constantia has emerged in recent years as an area of innovation in South African wine making. Old vine Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are a mainstay here, and red and white Cape Blends are also produced. This is an area with low rainfall so strongly concentrated fruit is produced from low-yielding vines. The Swartland region used to produce large volumes of cheap wine but increasingly the emphasis here is on diversity and innovation, and making high quality wine in smaller volumes.

Darling

The Darling region lies to the southwest of Swartland and is nearer the Atlantic coast, around 65 km north of Cape Town. This region has a cooler climate and produces Sauvignon Blanc from old vines, as well as Syrah. Although it is only 10 km from the coast, the climate is fairly dry and the region has a long ripening season.

Durbanville

Durbanville is a ward in Tygenberg district on the northern outskirts of Cape Town. It is one of the coolest wine regions in the country, fanned by southerly breezes from Cape Point, and with hillside sites that benefit from good drainage and altitude. It produces good quality Sauvignon Blanc that is characterised by a flinty and herbaceous character .

 

BREEDE RIVER VALLEY

Worcester

Worcester is a large region with a hot dry climate, that requires extensive irrigation. It produces large volumes of Chenin Blanc and Colombard, the latter being used mainly for distillation to make brandy. This region has a reputation for volume rather than quality.

Robertson

The region of Robertson lies to the east of Worcester and has a cooler climate, with southeasterly winds providing a moderating influence. Syrah and Chardonnay are the mainstay black and white grape varieties, and like Worcester the region is primarily known for high volumes rather than fine quality.

CAPE SOUTH COAST

Walker Bay

The Cape South Coast has a cooler climate and benefits from winds from the Southern Ocean, and  Walker Bay is among the coolest in South Africa. Located around 95 km from Cape Town, it is one of the few regions where Pinot Noir flourishes, and it also produces Merlot and Syrah. White grapes grown here include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The ward of Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven on Earth in Old Dutch and Afrikaans) is a premium wine region comprising three contiguous “wine wards” located behind the historic seaside resort town of Hermanus on the South Atlantic. This region is surrounded by nature reserves. The Hemel-en-Aarde wine website quotes a Moravian missionary who visited in 1899, who said: “Rightly has it got its name because so high are the hills which closely embrace the valley all round, that they seem to touch the sky and you cannot see anything but heaven and earth”.

https://www.hemelenaardewines.com/

 

Elgin

The Elgin region lies 65 km to the southeast of Capetown, and is just to the northwest of Walker Bay. This is an important agricultural area, accounting for 60% of the apples grown in the country. The vineyards here benefit from a higher altitude, which has encouraged the planting of aromatic grape varieties. This region has a long ripening season. Black varieties grown here include Pinot Noir and Syrah, but wine makers have also experimented with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, all used as part of Bordeaux Blends. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the main white varieties grown.

Elim

Elim is a ward to the southeast of Walker Bay. Located on Cape Agulhas, this region makes good quality Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Elim has become become one of the most closely watched wine producing regions in the world. It is now easily accessible by road, with a newly tarred road running via the town of Bredarsdorp.

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