First-time visitors to the majestic Western Cape often head straight for its most famous wine region – Stellenbosch – taste some great wines, relax and pretty much stay put. This is understandable, of course, many excellent wineries can be found in South Africa’s premier wine zone. But, to miss out on Paarl would be a tragedy, as this is one of the most beautiful and scenic parts of the Cape’s wine lands. A mere 45 minutes’ drive from Cape Town, Paarl nonetheless offers quite a different set of growing conditions to Stellenbosch, with the resulting differences in wine styles quite apparent to anyone familiar with the wines further south. The town of Paarl itself is the third oldest European settlement in South Africa and the region has played a major role in the country’s 20th-century history. On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Vester Correctional Centre in Paarl, after 27 years of imprisonment. His release signaled the start of a new era, and the end of apartheid. Today, a bronze statue of Mandela is proudly displayed in Paarl, a reminder that there is more to the region than its viticultural legacy.
Second largest wine region
Situated to the north of the Stellenbosch zone, Paarl is South Africa’s second largest wine region, and increasingly one of major importance for both high-quality winemaking and attracting lucrative tourism. Today, there are over 14,000 hectares under vine; the first vineyards were planted surrounding the town of Paarl in the 17th century by Dutch settlers, who found the rich, fertile soil and benign Mediterranean climate more than favorable. The region has long played an important role in South-Africa’s wine history, the former Cape Wine Association, known as KWV, was situated in Paarl before abandoning their remit and being privatized. They used to control the vast majority of the Cape’s wine industry, (they still make the vast majority of the country’s brandy) before the rise of the private investor and the number of Cape wine farms subsequently trebled. Although Paarl may no longer be the focus of the Cape wine scene, some excellent wines are made here by producers such as Fairview and Coleraine, often without the price tags of their Stellenbosch neighbors.
The Paarl wine-growing region, further from the cooling influence of False Bay to the south, enjoys high day-time summer temperatures and offers excellent conditions for producing ripe, powerful wines from red varieties. Traditionally the area was devoted to whites, but the best winemakers are realizing that the true potential lies with Bordeaux and also classic Rhone varieties. There are some excellent examples of Shiraz to be found in the region, and some seductive, fleshy and rich Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines are also produced. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc are planted in almost equal quantity, although Chenin Blanc needs cooler sites to reach its full potential.
Thankfully, despite the generally hotter temperatures across the zone, the growing conditions are far from homogenous in Paarl and a number of cooler meso-climates do exist where Chenin and other white varieties can thrive. Some great value, delicious Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon are increasingly emanating from the region, proof that Paarl doesn’t have to be the land of ‘big’ red wines. Even Pinot Noir, that most delicate and troublesome of varietals to grow, is enjoying a renaissance in Paarl, with good examples being coaxed out of the higher altitude, cooler terroirs. One of the most exciting aspects of this appellation is the growers willingness to experiment with less internationally famous varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz do abound, but successful results are now also being seen with white and red Rhone varieties, could Paarl be the New Worlds answer to the Rhone Valley in southern France? Look out for Viognier from Ridgeback for your answer.
Today, Paarl’s talented winemakers are producing wines that rival all but the finest examples from the more celebrated Stellenbosch region further south. And with ever more talent and money flowing into this once neglected part of South Africa’s wine heritage, it’s safe to assume that many more exciting developments and wines are yet to come.