South Africa has a unique distinction. It’s one of the only wine regions in the world situated between two oceans: the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. As a result of this ocean access, Dutch colonizers easily made their way to the fertile land. By 1650, they were planting French grapes throughout the Mediterranean-esque Western Cape. Eventually, the vineyards spread through the rest of the region.
Two centuries of wars, apartheid, and phylloxera took a toll on South Africa’s wine industry, though. (Phylloxera was the plague that nearly wiped out wine grapes in the late 1800s.) After that, it waxed and waned under an enormous wine grower’s co-op known as the KWV. Similar to French or Italian wine bureaucracies, the KWV controls how wine is made, bought and sold, and exported in South Africa.
For years, the KWV’s focus was bulk production of grapes. Those grapes were destined to be distilled into inexpensive brandy or sold as table grapes, with only 30 percent being made into wine. Today, over 86 percent of South Africa’s grape harvest is for wine. As a result, South African wines are experiencing a new appreciation in the global wine community.
There are five wine regions within the Western Cape of South Africa:
Each of these regions has its own unique sub-regions. There are no legal restrictions on what grapes can be planted in which regions. However, Wine of Origin (WO) laws stipulate that 100 percent of the grapes used must come from the area stated on the bottle. In order to be labelled as a specific vintage or variety, 85 percent of the wine must be from that year or grape variety.
Let’s explore the French-driven expressions of South African wine, one region and district at a time.
Located in the southwest region of the country, the Coastal region has a warm climate. This makes it the perfect place to grow bold reds like Cabernet, Pinotage, and Syrah. It is the longest-established growing area in South Africa. It also houses Cape Town, which is recognized as the place where Pinotage (a genetic cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) was created.
Swartland is Dutch for “black land,” named for the local rhinoceros bush that turns black in the rare rain.
Swartland is known for its Rhône varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and Viognier, as well as Chenin Blanc. The hot and dry climate keeps fungal diseases at bay as well as produces smaller, more concentrated fruits.
Situated to the west of picturesque Paarl Rock, this wine region produces robust Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Pinotage, as well as lush styles of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. It’s the hottest area of the Western Cape, tucked far from the Atlantic Ocean’s cooling breezes.
It’s an ideal area for wine tourism, given its proximity to Cape Town.
Young Chardonnay grapes in a vineyard
Perhaps the best-known sub-region of the Coastal Region, Stellenbosch is hilly. Its climate is reminiscent of the Mediterranean. It’s bordered by a striking granite mountain range of Cape Fold and the Atlantic Ocean, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.
You’ll mainly find plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon as well as some Merlot. South African producers use these to make Bordeaux-inspired blends. Stellenbosch also grows Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and that Pinot Noir/Cinsault cross, Pinotage.
Just 15 minutes from Cape Town sits a beautiful green expanse at the foot of the Constantiaberg mountain range. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Constantia was best known for its incredible dessert wine, vin de Constance. Made from Muscat de Frontignan, it is heralded as the world’s best naturally sweet dessert wine. It even makes appearances in contemporaneous literature (such as Dickens and Austen).
Today, Constantia mostly produces Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Muscat Blanc.
Vineyard Landscape in Constantia
To the east of the Coastal Region and south of Klein Karoo, the Cape South Coast’s terroir is unforgiving and ocean-battered. It produces hardy vines with concentrated, high-acid grapes.
With fertile soil, ocean breezes, and an imposing mountain range, the winemakers of Cape South Coast can grow beautiful Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. And they produce some truly delicious sparkling wines.
Walker Bay’s maritime climate is cooler than most of the other regions. This allows for the delicate hand needed to grow Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Exuberant fruit, snappy acid, and plenty of personalities – all are hallmarks of Walker Bay wine.
The area is known for its spectacular whale-watching in addition to its growing wine tourism.
Elgin also benefits from those Antarctic currents. It has long, slightly warm summers and temperate winters. It sits southeast of Stellenbosch and slightly inland, with a higher altitude than Stellenbosch but less rain.
The region is newer to wine than some of its neighbors, benefiting from years of other’s experimentations, failures, and successes. Expressive Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc reign supreme.
Moving further inland, the Breede River Valley is surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges. With a variety of soil types and sprawling terrain, thousands of acres of premium wine hail from Breede River Valley.
About 40 percent of vines planted in South Africa are here, with its cold winters and hot, dry summers. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, and Cabernet Sauvignon can all be found, as well as some Shiraz and other varietals.
Pinotage grape vineyard and wine plantation in Breede River Valley
Ocean breezes floating over Cape South Coast relieve the scorching heat of Robertson. This leads to fruit-driven wine with a great balance of acidity. You’ll see big, rich wines come from this stretch within the Breede River Valley – mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.
It’s an arid slip of land north of Cape South Coast and east of Breede River Valley, with fertile soils but a harsh climate. Many wineries are forced to irrigate since there’s little relief in the way of rainfall.
Klein Karoo is best known for its fortified wines, as the heat alone pushes grapes into a hotter, sweeter concentration. Mostly Muscat a Petits Grains and Muscat de Frontignan (sometimes referred to as Muscadel) are planted here. But there’s also a newer focus on Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Shiraz.
Small Farm Community in the Karoo South Africa
The furthest north of all the Western Cape wine regions, Olifants River is best known for its citrus groves. It isn’t as internationally renowned for its wine as some of the other areas of South Africa, leading to value-driven, passion projects of wine.
The whites produced here (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc) are characterized by zippy grapefruit, lime, and pineapple notes. They’re floral, crisp, and dry with intense fruit. Some vineyards within this district are situated in higher altitudes. So they’re well suited to grow impressive Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir in the Olifants River
It may not have the same clout as France and Italy. But wine coming from the ancient soils of South Africa has an extensive history and dedication to excellence. South African wines can stand with pride next to bottles from Europe.
The next time you’re tempted to skip straight to the Old-World section of your local wine store, consider the wide variety and Old-World influence from South Africa. Decant a Bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch or pour some cold Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc in your glass. Then you’ll begin to experience the history of South African wine regions.