If one region represents the enormous progress achieved in South Africa over the past few decades, then it is undoubtedly Stellenbosch. It remains – despite some stiff competition – the center of premium wine production in South Africa. It is also the first place tourists tend to head to, and with good reason. The region is one of the most attractive to visit anywhere in the world, with towering mountains rising seemingly out of the ocean and gorgeous white-washed Dutch homesteads filling the landscape.
Today, Stellenbosch is home not only to some of the largest wine companies in the country but also to some of its most impressive. De Morgenzon, Mulderbosch, Meerlust, Ken Forrester – these are all names now globally recognized and revered. However, although some of these brands don’t boast a long history of quality winemaking, the Western Cape has been planted with vines for centuries. Its official history begins in 1697, when the then governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, discovered a small island on the Eerste River and named it Stellenbosch. The first Dutch settlers, marveling at the benign climate of the region and rich fertile soils, soon planted agricultural crops, including, of course, the first vines.
Over 150 wineries
By the 20th century, Stellenbosch was celebrated as both as a center of agriculture and as a center of learning. The region’s first university was inaugurated in 1918 – to this day it remains an internationally recognized education center and one of the leading universities in Africa. Today, there are over 150 wineries in the Stellenbosch zone, led by a new generation of young talent who have traveled the word and done a few vintages abroad. Considerable amounts of money continues to be invested and the standards of the region’s best wines now rival any in the world.
As you might expect, Stellenbosch is no ‘one trick pony’ in terms of the growing conditions and terroir found across this expansive viticultural area. But in general terms, most vineyards thrive in an almost faultless Mediterranean climate, with rain concentrated in the winter months. Yet there is a wide variation of microclimates within the region; maritime breezes help to temper the summer heat, as does the influence of the Simonsberg and Helderberg mountains. North, further from the sea, temperatures tend to be higher, but the climate is in general benign and ideal for ripening fruit of the highest quality.
Stellenbosch also boasts the oldest geology in the world, a key factor which undoubtedly contributes to the excellent quality of its wines. Vines are planted on ancient, weathered soils, with a typical composition of granite, sandstone, or shale. They tend to be light and sandy on the western valley floor, and heavier on the slopes of the Simonsberg and Stellenbosch mountains.
It is still the common practice for estates for vinifying fruit from a wide range of locations, although increasingly single estate wines are becoming more widespread. As with all regions, there is a variance in quality across producers, but the best wines are remarkable for both their concentration and structure. Ultimately, our favorite spot is vineyards around the town of Stellenbosch itself, which benefits from the southerly ocean breezes from False Bay. Mountain vineyards, like those of the famous estate De Morgenzon, also produce fantastic fruit and are particularly suited for white varieties.
Speaking of grape varieties, whereas South Africa was formerly only known for its Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, today a colorful mosaic of wine styles is up for grabs. Chenin Blanc, once ignored by connoisseurs, is now ready to be recognized as the country’s leading white grape variety – oaked examples offer great depth, complexity and can age for several years. Indeed, old vine Chenin is arguably the Cape’s greatest offering to the wine world, although sadly much has been replanted in favor of other varieties over the past 2 decades. Look out for the Reserve Chenin from De Morgenzon and Ken Forrester’s FMC. In the coolest areas of Stellenbosch, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are both highly successful, Hamilton Russel’s Chardonnay is noted for its almost Burgundian qualities.
In recent years, Stellenbosch has embraced the lesser known, including Viognier, white Rhone varieties like Marsanne and Semillon. De Morgenzon’s white Rhone blend, Maestro, is noted for its potent aromas and powerful, tropical fruit palate. Cap Classique, the nation’s traditional method fizz, is pretty fantastic too.
Nonetheless, it is the red wines that truly succeed in Stellenbosch, both in terms of consumer recognition and commanding the highest prices. Bordeaux blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon are massively popular – Vergelegen’s flagship wine V and Meerlust’s Rubicon are regarded as top of the class and wines to rival Cru Classe Bordeaux even. Red Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah, also work well in Stellenbosch, as does Pinot Noir in the cooler sites of Walker Bay. Pinotage is the country’s unique offering, although it continues to divide opinion, even among winemakers.
A land of diversity indeed!