Viticulture in South Africa
Under the South African sun and the influence of the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic, grapes enjoy ideal ripening conditions. This produces highly aromatic and concentrated whites and reds. In particular, spritzy Chardonnays and Chenin blancs are very successful in the Coastal Region over to the west. In recent years red wines produced from Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and the indigenous grape Pinotage have become export hits.
The history of viticulture in South Africa
In 1652, Dutch surgeon and businessman Jan van Riebeeck planted the first grapevines in South Africa which he had brought with him from Europe. Expelled French Huguenots arrived in the country between 1688 and 1690, some of whom were experienced winegrowers. Together with German and Dutch immigrants, they were responsible for the spread of winemaking.
The first international breakthrough was achieved with the sweet Constantia wine which accompanied many a royal dessert during the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the country's occupation by the British, South African winegrowers gained access to new markets.
South Africa, too, was not spared from phylloxera, which raged through its vines in 1885. In the wake of the wine crisis, in 1918 an official supervisory body called the Co-operative Winemakers Union of South Africa (KWV) was set up. When the apartheid era came to an end, the demand for South African wine started to pick up abroad as well in the 1990s.
Since 2000, South Africa's wine harvest has almost entirely switched to integrated production (IP). This system includes measures to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable working practices. What is impressive is that winemakers made this commitment entirely voluntarily and out of conviction.
Geography and climate
South Africa has an almost ideal climate for winegrowing. The Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic to the west create a maritime climate. The summers are long and frequently sunny, while winters are mild and damp. The Benguela Current prevents all too ruinous heatwaves. The moderate climate allows the grapes to ripen fully, and consequently favours the production of more concentrated wines.
The climate varies from one region to another however. Vineyards near the coast benefit from the tempering influence of the ocean. As a result, the Coastal Region which is so important to South Africa's wine industry lies in a dry, warm zone with cool southwesterly breezes in summer. However, as the weather is often unpredictable, the quality varies from year to year. The vintages specified are therefore an important factor. In South Africa's ultra-dry wine regions such as Klein Karoo, for example, rainfall is insufficient. Along with hot summers, the dry inland climate in the Breede River Valley region further away from the coast also sees very little rainfall. Artificial irrigation is therefore extremely important. This affects wide areas of South Africa's winegrowing regions, particularly in summer.
South Africa's winegrowing regions
Based on their climate and the favoured grape varieties, South Africa can be divided into two main wine regions. The main region covers the cooler areas along the coastline, especially the Coastal Region, which have more rainfall. This moderate climate zone creates dry white wines and fruity reds. A second core region covers the areas of Worcester, Olifants River, Klein Karoo and Robertson which are cut off from the ocean's influence by mountain ranges. Owing to its far drier and hotter climate, more powerful red wines and sweet wines high in alcohol predominate in this region.
Analogous to European models of origin and quality control, South Africa has a classification system with its own defined designations. The "Wine of Origin" (WO) seal is a guarantee of high quality and provides reliable information about the grape variety, vintage and origin. Anyone who wishes to acquire an excellent bottle of South African wine should therefore pay particular attention to the designation of origin on the label. An "estate" is a farm or combination of several farms. A "ward" is an area or parcel of land. A "district" is a contiguous parcel of land and may consist of several wards. South Africa's wine regions can comprise several districts and numerous wards. The five regions are Boberg, Breede River Valley, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo and Olifants River. The "geographical unit" (GU) was introduced in 1993, and three such units are registered: the GU Western Cape, where most of the "Wine of Origin" (WO) areas are situated as it encompasses all five regions with their districts and wards. The Douglas district plus the three wards of Hartswater, Lower Orange and Rietrivier are situated in the GU Northern Cape. Only trial plantings, no WO regions, are found in the GU KwaZulu-Natal. Districts in the Breede River Valley region: Breedekloof, Worcester, Robertson, Swellendam; districts in the Coastal Region: Cape Point, Darling, Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Tygerberg; district in the Boberg region: Tulbagh; district in the Klein Karoo region: Calitzdorp; districts in the Olifants River region: Citrusdal Mountain, Citrusdal Valley and Lutzville Valley. Independent districts: Cape Agulhas, Overberg, Douglas and Walker Bay. Independent wards: Lower Orange and Ruiterbosch. Wards in the Paarl district: Franschhoek, Wellington; in the Coastal Region: Constantia; in the Tygerberg district: Durbanville and Philadelphia.
Wines from South Africa Winegrowing regions
At one time the majority of South African vineyards were planted with white grapes. This was not surprising, as the moderate climate makes for an appealing freshness and balance. However, with the growing worldwide demand for red wines and following the improvement in South Africa's trading relationships, winemakers increasingly turned their attention to red grape varieties. These days white and red varieties are evenly balanced. Overall, South African winemakers tend to favour dry wines. Also popular are simple, easy-drinking wines. In addition, sweet dessert wines similar to port are traditionally produced.
Cabernet Sauvignon leads the red grape varieties, followed by Colombard, Syrah, Pinotage and Merlot. Following increasing export success, vintners rediscovered Pinotage, the cross between Pinot noir and Cinsault created in South Africa in 1925. This red grape is particularly at home in warm, dry climes. It produces full-bodied wines with high acidity and a high sugar content. Rounded fruit and intense berry aromas are a treat for the tastebuds. These characteristics make it ideal for large-scale production. Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc dominate the range of whites. South African whites exhibit a scintillating freshness. The country’s Sauvignons blancs are particularly fruity, with spritzy aromas of citrus fruits and gooseberries. Vegetal and mineral nuances lend Sauvignons from the Cape a unique note. Chardonnays often develop a well-rounded character through ageing in barriques. Even the Bordeaux grape Chenin blanc originally from the Loire Valley produces lively wines with good body in South Africa. Chenin blanc predominates with 18% of production, followed by Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay.
Wines and grape varieties
Vineyard area and production volume
Treat yourself to a glass of wine from the Cape. South African winemakers offer excellent red and white wines. A large selection of South African wines is available at Mondovino and in Coop sales outlets.