South Africa’s winelands have become a major economic power in its global export of particularly well crafted wines. And, this is all the result of a combination of climate and geology. The winelands can be divided broadly into four geographical zones: the Coastal Region near Cape Town, the Breede River Region around Worcester, the Olifants River Region to the north of the Coastal Region, and the Northern Cape vineyards close to the Orange River. Our experience has been, to date, with the vintners in-and-around Cape Town and the Breede River.
The wine industry originally was based around the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, when the Dutch East Indian Company first planted vines in the area in 1659. At first, the number of grape varieties attempted to be grown were few, depending on the varieties that survived the journed. But, as French Huguenots immigrated to the area around Franschhoek, the varietal diversity increased and hybrids were developed to best grow in the “terroir.” The French knew that the roles of not only the soils but also the underlying bedrocks are an important component, ultimately influencing the taste and quality of the resultant wine.
Successful viticulture requires a soil that is highly porous and permeable (good drainage qualities) yet also capable of supplying sufficient water to the vine throughout the year. Hence, it is the soil’s physical structure and texture (grain size distribution) that are important. In the Western Cape, stable geological conditions have existed since the Late Cretaceous (~65 million years ago) wherein the residual soils developed. Soils in this region are acidic and potassium rich, resulting from the weathering of PreCambrian granites into saprolite. Coupled with an area that experiences a typical Mediterranean climate, these soils are well developed to accommodate viticulture.
Of particular note are the Rhône-style red varieties grown in the Coastal Region. These include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, and Viognier. Shiraz has been grown successfully in many parts of the Western Cape, with Stellenbosch long recognized to be the premium red wine-growing region. Even so, it is interesting to note that the longest established Shiraz vineyards are no more than a few decades old and the Mediterranean varieties of Grenache and Mourvédre, in general, are no more than 20 years old. Since 1991, the number of double gold awards for Rhône-style reds has more than tripled, accounting now for about 30% of the honors (Veritas, 2009).
Pinotage is South Africa’s contribution to viticulture. This variety, a cross breed between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut) grapes by Prof. Perold, the first professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, was almost not meant to be. When Perold first attempted the hybrid, only four viable seeds were produced. He planted these in his personal garden and in 1935, grafts of these plants were made onto Richter 99 and Richter 57 rootstocks. And, out of the four grafts, only one plant showed exceptional promise for cultivation. This, then, became the “Mother” of all pinotage vines that are planted today. The varietal wine first appeared on the market in the early 1960s, and by 1991 won the Robert Mondavi Trophy as the Best Red Wine of the Year.