Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our South Africa selection.
South Africa is a beautiful country with a hugely varied landscape, from deserts to beaches, lions to penguins: its impossible to discover South Africa in only one visit. Every time you go back there will be something new that surprises you, and this is perhaps why South Africa’s wine industry is one of the most exciting in the world right now. Each vintage there is a flurry of new producers, new varieties and new styles of winemaking that appear, each showing a different side of what South Africa can produce. Tim Atkin sums this up well in his 2018 report:
South Africa’s history is inherently linked to the Dutch East India Company, and its wine history is no different, despite the Dutch having almost no wine tradition. In 1652 DEIC established a refreshment station in the Cape to provide fresh food to the company’s merchant fleet on their voyages to India and surrounding areas. It was Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, who planted a vineyard in 1655, and on 2 February 1659, made the first wine from Cape grapes. Van Riebeeck continued to encourage farmers to plant vineyards although initially quality was poor because of the farmers’ lack of viticulture knowledge. However, things improved when Van Riebeeck was succeeded in 1679 by Simon van der Stel, who was not only enthusiastic but very knowledgeable about viticulture and winemaking. He planted a vineyard on his farm in Constantia. French Huguenots settled at the Cape between 1680 and 1690 and it was at this point that the Cape wine industry began to flourish. As religious refugees, the Huguenots had very little money and had to adapt their established winemaking techniques to new conditions.
After a promising start, the 18th century was a difficult phase for the Cape wine industry. The quality of some Cape wines left much to be desired and a shortage of oak vats made it difficult to age wine properly. In fact, some of the vats used for exporting wine had previously even been used to brine meat, this literally gives me the heeby jeebies. The Cape was also struggling to identify the best varieties for each region and how to adapt winemaking techniques to the local conditions. Nevertheless, the first half of the 19th century brought prosperity to the industry with vines increasing from 13 to 55 million and wine production from 0,5 million to 4,5 million litres within 45 years, mostly driven by the Brits thirst during the war with France.
However, disaster struck the Cape wine industry, starting in 1861, when the Brits and France made up and with this, South Africa’s wine exports collapsed. This was quickly followed by phylloxera being discovered in the Cape in 1886. Then in 1899 the Anglo-Boer War began, and the wine industry was left in chaos with a proliferation of new plantings causing overproduction and 25 years of hardship followed. However, they say bad things come in three’s and thankfully, Charles Kohler arrived determined to rectify the situation. His efforts led to the creation in 1918 of the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV). An umbrella for its farmer members, the KWV brought stability to the industry, placing it on the road to growth and prosperity.
The modern history of the Cape wine industry can’t fail to overlook the polarising Pinotage variety. In 1925, Viticulturist A.I.Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault producing South Africa’s own hybrid vinifera grape Pinotage, however the first bottling didn’t enter the market until 1961. With no benchmark wines to compare to and following little success with either Pinot Noir or Cinsault, the quality of Pinotage has been wildly inconsistent. Many of the poorer, overworked and over cropped examples were exported giving Pinotage a pretty poor global reputation. However, with lower yields, better site selection, and healthy vines, there are now many more good examples, such as Ashbourne from cool climate Hemel-en-Aarde and FRAM from desert-like Citrusdal Mountain.
In recent years the number of wineries has more than doubled, with most of this growth driven by small site-specific wineries, although the production is still dominated by co-operatives. Many producers have been focusing on their vineyards, pulling out diseased vines and replanting with better and more varied clones suited to their local area. The ‘New Wave’ of producers has helped increase consumer perception of South African wine, with prices increasing, allowing for better pay for vineyard workers and a more sustainable industry.
Climate and Soil
South Africa, and most importantly the Cape is primarily a Mediterranean climate, however the Western Cape is cooler than its position might suggest. Most vineyards are focused along the coastal zone and are seldom more than 50 km from the ocean, experiencing beneficial cool sea breezes. Summers are reliably warm, and winters cool with the rain falling mainly in winter months between May and August. Rainfall on the coast, where fynbos vegetation flourish, measures up to 1000mm per year. The further inland from the coast the hotter the temperatures are in summers with many producers relying on dams filled by the winter rainwater for irrigation. The impressive Cape mountain ranges form a dramatic backdrop to one of the most beautiful wine-producing areas of the world. The vineyards lie on the valley sides and mountain foothills providing diverse terroirs which interact differently with the influence of two oceans – the Atlantic & the warmer Indian. The Atlantic influence is particularly important as it is chilled by the icy Benguela current which flows northwards up the west coast of Africa from Antarctica which helps moderate the summer warmth. It provides cooling moisture-laden breezes which blow in from the sea during the afternoon. The Cape Doctor has a massive influence on South Africa climate. A sometimes ferocious south-easterly wind that blows across the southwestern Cape during the spring and summer months. Living up to its name, it inhibits the development of disease in the vineyards and lowering temperatures by several degrees.
South Africa is widely recognised as having some of the oldest and most varied soils in the world. Weather cycles and sea floods, together with the pronounced and varied geography of the Western Cape, created great soil diversity in relatively small areas. The coastal region soils are predominantly sandstone mountains, often resting on granite intrusions, surrounded by shale at lower altitudes. Further inland, shale and river deposits are most common.
The granitic hills display reddish and yellowish brown soils and can be found in Malmesbury and Darling Hills, and in the granitic foot slopes of the sandstone mountains, including Table Mountain, Stellenbosch Mountain and Helderberg and Simonsberg mountains. These soils, at altitudes of 150-400 m, often on steep slopes are highly weathered, very stable and well drained, with good water-holding capacity. Other soils formed on granite can be found on the undulating hills between the mountains and the sea at 20-150 m altitude. This area experienced several sea floods causing land recession and uplifting. The soils consist of coarse, bleached sand and often yellow-brown gravel or ferricrete, on wet (gleyed) clay. Extremes in wetness and drought in these soils can curtail vigour, however the generally consistent performance of vines on these soils, especially when coupled with good exposure to prevailing cool sea breezes, ensures good quality wines.
The Three Most Important Soil Types
- Derived from Table Mountain Sandstone: Sandy with low nutrient and poor water-retention
- Derived from Granite: Usually red to yellow coloured, acidic, and found on mountain foothill slopes and on ranges of hills, with good water-retention
- Derived from Shale: Usually brownish, strongly structured, on partly decomposed rock, with good nutrient reserves and water-retention, found in Swartland, famous for dry farmed vineyards in an arid climate.
The Regions of South Africa
The Key Sub-regions of South Africa
The Cape winelands stretch from the rugged mountains of the coastal region to the open plains of the Klein Karoo desert. Rainfall is mostly centred along the coast, and travel over the mountains into the hinterland and the rainfall decreases dramatically with the vegetation dominated by hardy succulents, cycads and aloes. With the support of the Wine of Origin Scheme, production zones in the Cape winelands are divided into officially demarcated geographical units, regions, districts and wards. There are five regions in the geographical unit of the Western Cape – Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo and Olifants River. Another five geographical units exist: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Northern Cape. The South African winelands encompass 29 diverse districts and some 92 smaller wards in total.
The Bot River ward is the gateway to Walker Bay and encompasses the Bot River village and valley. It has a cool maritime microclimate, which is influenced by its proximity to Walker Bay – cooling afternoon winds blow up the valley off the sea. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz and other Rhône varietals are well suited.
Vineyards are based on the alluvial valley soils which have adequate drainage as they rest on a bed of river stones. It covers a large proportion of the Breede River Valley and its tributaries.
Most of these maritime vineyards are based in the ward of Elim near Africa’s southernmost point, Cape Agulhas. Strong, cooling winds are prevalent in summer, ensuring a very cool ripening season, perfect for Sauvignon Blanc and promising for Semillon and Shiraz. Increasing in popularity but still small in terms of hectarage under vine.
A recently designated district named after Cape Town which incorporates the wards of Constantia, Hout Bay, Durbanville and Philadelphia. At its furthest point, the district is only 36km from the Cape Town CBD.
- On the southern slopes of the Table Mountain range lies the historic Constantia valley. 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. There are only a handful of cellars in this ward, where the cool climate favours the production of white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc, and of course Klein Constantia’s dessert wine.
- Cape Point vineyards are situated a mere 1.2km from the sea on the western edges of the Cape Peninsula. This cool-climate maritime pocket is recognised mainly for its Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
- The vineyards of Durbanville are situated mainly on the rolling hill slopes and produce a wide variety of wine styles. Some of the vineyards grow at altitudes as high as 380m above sea level. Deep soils, cooling sea breezes, night-time mists and proximity to the ocean all impact viticulture in this area.
Some of South Africa’s remotest and highest vineyards are found in this ward which borders Olifants River regions.
Central Orange River
The most northerly winegrowing area in the Cape comprises an area of some 6 029 ha, which stretch along the Orange River. Predominantly a white grape area but reds are being increasingly planted.
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.
To the east of Cape Town, this is a high altitude cool-climate region. Traditionally an apple-growing region, and now known for its cool climate styles of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The original home of the French Huguenot settlers, and now referred to locally as ‘little France’ and is regarded as the culinary capital of the Cape. The Franschhoek valley lies to the southeast of Paarl and is enclosed on three sides by 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.
The Klein Karoo is known for extreme soils and climate with some of the highest mountain peaks in the Western Cape enclosing this region. Viticulture takes place mainly in kloofs, valleys and riverine sites in a rugged mountainous landscape. Historically Muscat varieties flourished here and the area is known for its sweet wines, as well as for the quality of its potstill brandies.
A new ward in the Cape set on a stony plateau 80km east of Cape Agulhas. The vineyards, which are mainly planted to Mediterranean varieties, lie some 70m above the Breede River. The soils are complex and stony and the climate is warm and dry (350mm of rain per annum) which is moderated by constant sea breezes.
This region stretches north to south along the broad valley of the Olifants River. The summers can be relatively warm or cool compared with some of South Africa’s other wine areas and rainfall is low.
- Famous for citrus fruit production, the Citrusdal valley lies in the southern reaches of Olifants River. 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. Many of the ‘New Wave’ producers source fruit from this region.
The Paarl wine district lies to the north of Stellenbosch and is bordered by the town of Wellington to the north-east, and the mountains of the Groot and Klein Drakenstein and Franschhoek ranges to the south-east. The Berg River runs through Paarl and provides water for irrigation in the hot growing season. However, vineyards on the eastern slopes, having better water retention often do not require any irrigation.
Situated in the Breede River valley, with the river providing water for irrigation. Summer temperatures can be high but the cooling south-easterly winds channel moisture-laden air into the valley. Known primarily for quality bulk wine production, it can produce top Chardonnays, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. The district of Robertson incorporates 14 wards, including Bonnievale.
The historical town of Stellenbosch features some of the finest examples of Cape Dutch architecture. It also boasts a winemaking tradition which stretches back to the end of the 17th-century. The mountainous terrain, good rainfall, deep well-drained soils make this a sought-after viticultural area. Wineries and producers are increasing (there are more than 200 now) and include some of the most famous names in Cape wine. The Stellenbosch district has been divided up into several smaller viticultural pockets including Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch.
Vineyards in the Swartland district are planted on the foothills of the mountains (Piketberg, Porterville, Riebeek and 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. The district was traditionally a source of robust, full-bodied red wines and high quality, fortified wines, however in recent times, some exciting wines have emerged championed by the Swartland Revolution producers. It has six designated wards, Malmesbury, Paardeberg, Paardeberg-South, Riebeekberg, Riebeeksrivier and St Helena Bay.
Surrounded on three sides by the Groot Winterhoek, Witsenberg and Obiekwaberg mountains. The soils in the valley are extremely variable, and the diurnal shift is extreme. However, it is the valley’s unique geographical composition called 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’ where cold air gets trapped and creates this cold air bubble. There are currently 13 wineries including several newcomers already helping to put Tulbagh on the map for Shiraz and Méthode Cap Classique.
This district is famous for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The area is also being noticed for the outstanding and consistent quality of its Pinotage, see Ashbourne for an example of this quality Pinotage. This is a cool climate area where the vineyards benefit from persistent cooling winds from the nearby ocean.
Wellington supplies over 85% of the South African wine industry with cuttings and is home to 26 wine producers ranging from historical estates to boutique wineries. In winter, snow sometimes covers the mountain tops and night temperatures are generally cooler than at the coast some 60km away. The district comprises of five wards: Blouvlei, Bovlei, Groenberg, Limietberg and Mid-Berg River.
This is the most important brandy-producing area and home to the largest distillery of its kind in the southern hemisphere. This district comprises several wards.
There are currently around 92 067ha of vines under cultivation over an 800km area in South Africa. Surprisingly white varieties account for 55.2% of the plantings, with Chenin Blanc coming top with 18.6% of the total. Unsurprisingly the most widely planted red variety is Cabernet Sauvignon with 11% of the total, while Shiraz comes second with 10.0%. South Africa’s indigenous variety Pinotage represent 7.2% of plantings coming in third, although it is in growth, while Cabernet Sauvignon has seen a decline in plantings and Shiraz has remained stable. South Africa ranks eighth in global volume production of wine and produces 3.3% of the world’s wine (2019), another surprising fact given the association with South Africa and volume bulk wines. In recent years South Africa has moved away from bulk wine production with bulk exports down 30% in 2019. However, total exports of wine have decreased by 24% to 320 million litres in 2019, mainly as a result of the three-year drought. The top three export countries for South Africa are the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, although the Netherlands only overtook Germany in 2019.
2009: Top vintage across the board.
2010: Mildew was an issue due to a wet spring and warm summer meaning quality is variable.
2011: A drought plagued vintage with reduced yields but good concentration in reds.
2012: A dry and uneventful vintage but yields slightly down.
2013: Rot was a threat after a wet winter and warm summer, although those who managed well show promise, particularly for reds.
2014: A difficult vintage troubled by rain, although coastal regions fared better quality overall is average.
2015: Yields down on 2014, but quality across the board is good, particularly in reds.
2016: A hot vintage resulted in early harvest, giving lower alcohol levels. Although sunburn was a problem in some regions, and it was the smallest vintage in 5 years.
2017: A hot and dry vintage with some experiencing drought conditions, although this also meant very little disease pressure. Smaller yields but plenty of concentration.
2018: Yields were 15% lower than 2017 due to drought, but this also helped concentrate flavours, a difficult vintage but pockets of potential.
2019: Another drought riddled vintage, with volumes down, but quality is promising particularly for Chenin Blanc.