The Wine Regions of South Africa
Wine production in the Cape regions of South Africa can trace its roots back to 1659 when the first harvest and crushing took place in what is now modern day Cape Town. Originally produced to ward off the scurvy that struck sailors of the Dutch East India Company during their gruelling voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, South African wines experienced a renaissance during the 1980s and 1990s and the country now produces some of the world’s most sought-after varieties.
Grape-producing vines first laid roots in South Africa in this relatively small region, situated on the southern slopes of Table Mountain. The oldest wine estate in the country, ‘Groot Constantia’, was built here in 1684 by Cape Town’s Dutch Colonial Governor and the region has never looked back. The location of the vineyards on the gentle mountain slopes provide spectacular panoramic views of the region whilst their position on the Cape Peninsula exposes the vines to the cooling oceanic breezes, producing a slower ripening period in the summer. The formidable Steenberg estate is well known for its Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, whilst an outstanding Chardonnay is the choice at Buitenverwachting. The Constantia area also boasts a number of world-renowned restaurants that offers foods with an international flavour, whilst the regions picturesque Cape Dutch homesteads form part of the Iziko South African National Museums.
Following closely behind Constantia, the Stellenbosch district is South Africa’s second oldest wine region and contributes around 14% of the country’s annual wine production. Its location just east of Cape Town exposes the area to the climatic influences of nearby False Bay, which balances the climate to produce a summer temperature similar to that of the famous French wine-producing region of Bordeaux. The light, sandy soils of the western reaches of Stellenbosch lend themselves to Chenin Blanc plantings, whilst the region as a whole is famed for the quality of its blended reds. A combination of mountainous terrain, well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs has made the Stellenbosch district one of the most sought after viticultural areas in the country, and the experimental work being undertaken at local agricultural schools and institutes means the future of this precious region is in safe hands. The town of Stellenbosch itself is small enough to cover on foot and offers a bustling and varied nightlife, adventure sports and sites of historical interest. The Stellenbosch Wine Route has recently been sub-divided into five smaller, more manageable routes for tourists, so now is the time to take advantage of some of the best wines and views that South Africa has to offer.
Situated around 50 kilometres from Cape Town, Paarl is the country’s third oldest town and was, for a long time in the twentieth century, the centre of wine-making in South Africa. Despite losing some of its power to the Stellenbosch estates, recently the regions in and around Paarl have received revitalised interest thanks to the strength of their terrior driven wines. The vineyards at Wellington can be found stretched over alluvial terraces and in the foothills of the Hawequa Mountains, whose folds and valleys produce unique mesoclimates, enabling the area to host over thirty grapevine nurseries. The Paarl region is supplied by the life-giving waters of the Berg River which reduce the need for irrigation and enable the area to produce grapes with great potential, including Shiraz, Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon. The snow-peaked mountain tops, long, winding valleys and long, hot summers make this region a must-see for those wanting to combine historically classic wines with spectacular views.
Having visited the more established wineries of the inland regions, why not try something different and explore the coastal area around Walker Bay. Surrounding the seaside town of Hermanus, renowned for its world-class land-based whale watching opportunities, this relatively new region is gaining increasing interest for its promising, creamy Pinot Noirs and its powerful Sauvignon Blancs. The vines benefit from the cooling effects of the nearby ocean, which aids the development of cool-climate loving varieties like Chardonnay. The top estates sit in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where conditions reflect those found in the Burgundy region of France. With its closeness to local wildlife, its deep valleys and mountain peaks, and its almost immeasurable promise, Walker Bay perfectly encapsulates all that South Africa has to offer.
For an entirely different experience, venture into the semi-arid Klein Karoo region. Stretching from Montagu in the west to Ladismith and Calitzdorp in the east, the rugged mountainous landscape of the district and its extremes of soil and climate make for tough but successful wine production. The area around Calitzdorp is famous for its port-style wines, and the region as a whole produces Muscat varieties and easy-drinking Merlot. For an exciting addition to its wine-making excellence, Klein Karoo produces some of the world’s most highly-regarded potstill brandies, which regularly bring home international accolades. The area’s principal town, Oudtshoorn, is home to the world’s largest ostrich population and contains a number of specialised breeding farms. It is also the start point of Route 62, more commonly known as the Wine Route, an 850km long trail that leads through some of the country’s most popular vine-growing regions and offers tourists the chance partake in safari drives, hiking, mountain climbing, canoeing, horse-riding and fishing.
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