By: Hanifa Sekandi
South Africa, a place where, if the Winelands could speak, they would tell a story that would leave you spellbound and wanting more, down to the last sip of Pinotage. Every grape has a story: how it began and the many trials and tribulations it endured to take form into a palate pleasing accompaniment for one to enjoy. As simple as it may seem, even with a favorable Mediterranean climate and rich South African soil, the journey to the bottle is what makes this wine an intriguing and highly coveted selection.
In 1652, more than 350 years ago, Jan Van Riebeeck led the Dutch East India Company’s settlement in the Cape. The first known record of wine in this region is February 2, 1659. During this time, the medicinal properties found in wine were used to treat scurvy. This made the South African port an ondemand place to voyage to by sailors seeking treatment. Two decades later, in 1679, Stellenbosch, what is now South Africa’s most famous wine-producing region and second oldest settlement, solidified a long-standing legacy in viticulture. Located in the western Cape’s coastal region, vinotourists eagerly explore South Africa’s acclaimed wine estates to experience firsthand the birthplace of this country’s Cabernet Sauvignon — the most abundantly planted grape varietal in this wine region.
When Simon van der Stel, namesake of Stellenbosch, established Cape Town’s oldest wine estate, Constantia, it laid the bedrock of winemaking. Political turmoil and unrest have rocked this soulfully rhythmic nation, but preserving the land and all that grows from its soil continues to live and not be forgotten. Establishing this settlement opened doors for robust wine cultivation by the French Huguenots to dig roots into the Cape’s wine industry in the 1690s. Their arrival in the 17th century in the Franschhoek Valley began winemaking as a formidable industry in South Africa.
Endurance of the African Vine
Although suitable microclimates and the terrain permit a diverse repertoire of wines and the high clay content along with water retention aids with steady irrigation, South African winemakers have faced many roadblocks on their way to becoming part of the par excellence standard. Insufficient storage for the aging of wines required the unconventional use of containers used to brine meat in replacement of oak barrels. Wine connoisseurs turned their noses up at this break in practice and cultivation. The South African wine regions also almost met their demise with the grapevine disease Phylloxera.
Earlier shortcomings in the 18th century did not demotivate winemakers to forage on. Constantia, a region considered the mother of South African wines, is the home to the dessert wine made from Muscat Blanc, Vin de Constance. It provided a gateway into the exclusive European wine market. One could say that without it, the industry as we know it today would not hold center stage. This country’s acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc grapes, flourishing and gently ripening with the refreshing cool breeze as it brushes across the vineyards of the Constantiaberg Mountain, may not have been birthed had it not been for the perseverance of winemakers who saw sweeter horizons in the future.
South African wines are more than just a palate-pleasing libation. They hold conflict and triumph, a journey that continues to reveal itself with presentday winemakers who value tradition paired with modern innovation and sustainability.
Stellenbosch University’s department of viticulture is at the forefront of avantgarde and experimental ways of producing wine. The World Wide Fund for Nature movement exemplifies an agreed-upon con-servation ideal among South African wine farmers. The aim is to maintain and nurture the Cape Wineland’s natural habitat. Along with an accommodating climate that favors a vast array of grapes which benefit greatly from the proximity of the Indian and Atlantic oceans cool winds, sustainability and affordable wine prices allow a firm place in the market. South Africa ranks eighth in the world as a wine producer with over 560 Western Cape wineries and over 200,000 acres of grapes planted.
Wards that Lead the Way
Each wine region, also known as wards, has unique characteristics. Stellenbosch is where wine revelers can find South Africa’s most recognized and prestigious wine estates. One fifth of the country’s vines are planted here. This is where a perfect blend of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir comes together to produce the be-loved Pinotage. The exclusive Black Label Pinotage, made from a plot planted in the early 1950s, has a graceful aging period of 30 years. Other wines produced in the illustrious wineries in this region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chemin Blanc, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Semillon and Chardonnay.
The South African wine route may lead you to Paarl, situated on the low lying slopes of Paarl Rock. Since it is more inland from Cape Town, the temperatures here are warmer. The terroir of this region provides for more opportunities in wine cultivation. One would not think that some of the prestigious wines in this country flourish in vineyards high up on the mountains. The beginning of wine in this region is at-tributed to the French Huguenots who settled and planted grapevines and orchards in the late 17th century. Full bodied, decadent fruit reds and tropical notes in white wines can be found here due to the robust grape varieties.
Once a wheat producing region, Swartland is located in the Western Cape and just north of Cape Town. The vineyards here appear predominately on the northern side of the Paardeberg mountain. The hot and dry climate is ideal for producing fruitier wines. Scorching temperatures also decrease the negative impact of fungal disease. Bush vines can withstand dry conditions and survive due to their ability to pull water from deep layers of soil. Since they are drought resistant, they are planted in the hottest and driest area of the ward. Chemin Blanc and Shiraz are key grape varietals harvested in the “black land” Swartland. Black Land is a name to denote the rhinoceros bush, which turns black after a rainfall.
Another Western Cape region where the vines grow on fertile soils with granite deposits and immense clay volumes is Constantia—recognized as an early immigration settlement in 1685 of the Dutch. The highly esteemed sweet wine touted by European nobility and celebrated by esteemed authors Charles Dickens and Jane Austen isn’t the only premium wine produced in this region today. Bordeaux Blends, a combination of deep rich reds ranging from Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon as a base coupled with another grape variety, has become an adored South African wine selection. Since this region is surrounded by two oceans and experiences considerable shade from the mountains, cooler temperatures are the norm. The result of these cooling winds is the retention of acidity in the grapes. This region is also known for its sublime Sauvignon Blanc.
NOTABLE SOUTH AFRICAN WINES
Klein Constantia “Vin de Constance” Constantia (2017)
A prestigious dessert wine that almost met its end continues to dazzle the palate of the wine world-at-large thanks to its resurrection in the late 20th century. The Jooste family acquired Klein Constantia, who embarked on this revival with Professor Chris Orffer, a viticulturist. To achieve their aim of unearthing this golden, unfortified sweet wine of the past in its most authentic form, they used the expertise of renowned winemaker Ross Gower. Vin De Constance, made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, is a di-vine sunkissed hued wine with a beautiful burst of citrus zest, a creamy stone fruit finish, and pleasing notes of litchi, rosewater and almonds. You cannot miss the smooth floral aroma that engulfs the senses. It is a wine that ages with grace and can stand the test of time.
Steen is still one of South Africa’s most popular white wines made from grapes in the Witzenberg and Piekenierskloof vineyards. Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the infamous Rust en Vrede winery and Don-kiesbaai winery, is the ingenious winemaker at the helm of the masterful creation of this robust, smooth tropical wine. Lively aromas of pineapple, peach, apricot and lime provide the right balance for seafood dishes or rich pasta entrees.
This full bodied, deep, dry red wine with deep vanilla, oak, chocolate, plum and black cherry aromas has rave reviews from vino connoisseurs who have been lucky enough to get their hands on the Beyerskloof winery cultivation. It is considered a premium Pinotage, and limited bottles are available for purchase. You may have to join the list to get your hands on a bottle of it. This wine pairs well with spicy dishes or a perfectly seared flank steak. If you are an animal lover, you may be happy to know that the name Diesel is a tribute to the winemaker’s dog.