Toasting the Cape of Wines

By Stef Terblanche

The Cape of Good Hope. The Cape of Storms. The Fairest Cape. These are some of the descriptions attributed to the Cape over the centuries. To these, however, can easily be added the Cape of Wines. After all, the iconic things by which most people near and far remember the Cape, are Table Mountain, Cape Point, Robben Island…and the Winelands.

No visit to South Africa is complete without a tour of the Cape Winelands, also a firm favourite with domestic tourists.

Out of 15 of the world’s wine-producing countries in 2017, South Africa was ranked 8th in terms of volume of wine produced annually by the International Organization of Vine and Wine. The country has long maintained its position among the top ten wine producing nations of the world, both in terms of volume and quality. And although the judging of best wines depends much on personal taste and many other factors, South African wines regularly rank among the best in the world, especially its Chardonnays, Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Francs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Cinsauts. However, this selection is not cast in stone and is something wine connoisseurs will spend many glass-swirling, lip-smacking hours arguing about.

The real point here is, South Africa produces some darn good wines and it produces them in one of the most beautiful and friendly wine regions of the world, home to some of the finest wineries and wine estates that are open to the public. Here you can see how wine is made, taste the different wines while a cellar master or host tells you about all the finer details of the wine, eat a five-star meal in a tranquil setting, picnic in beautiful surroundings, go on wine tours and wash it all down with a bottle of one of the many top-rated vintages. All of this set around beautiful valleys, hills, rivers and streams at the foot of the Cape’s many majestic mountains.

So here’s a toast to the Cape of Wines and all her wonderful wines! If the home of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is in Europe, his most favourite second home in the ‘New World’ is certainly basking in the warm African sunshine of the Western Cape.

Although the Western Cape region situated around Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Paarl, Malmesbury and Franschhoek is the original home and still by far the hub of South African wine production, wine is also produced these days in parts of the Southern Cape, along the West Coast, Namaqualand, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. With small, private home-industry wineries found in little towns all over South Africa too.

Birth of the Cape Winelands

South Africa’s wine industry has its roots in the establishment of a supply station in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company at what is today Cape Town. Among the tasks given to the first Dutch commander at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, was to establish a vineyard and produce table grapes and wine. These were intended to supplement the diets of sailors passing from Europe to the East, in the belief then held that their consumption would protect sailors from scurvy and other diseases on the long sea journey. Alas, the sailors’ diseases endured, but so did the Cape wine that grew from strength to strength.

In 1659 the first South African wine was successfully produced from French Muscadel grapes. The wine industry at the Cape received a significant boost in 1679 with the arrival of Simon van der Stel, the tenth Dutch commander at the Cape who also became the first Dutch governor of the Cape Colony. Van der Stel developed an intense interest in wine-making at the Cape and in 1685 purchased a large estate on the southern slopes of Table Mountain called Constantia. He recruited French winemakers and imported many new grape varieties to the Cape, and his dedication to quality soon earned his wines an excellent reputation in Europe.

After the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the small Atlantic island of St Helena following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, his favourite wine in the daily ration allowed to him and his staff, was Vin de Constance, produced on the Constantia estate at the Cape. In the week before Napoleon’s death on St Helena in 1821, he is noted to have drunk a glass of Vin de Constance each day – but it should be empathically stated that this did not contribute to his death, but rather eased his passage from this world!

Following Van der Stel’s death, the Constantia estate fell into disarray and was divided into three: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Bergvliet. All three survive as top wine estates to this day, albeit with Bergvliet having been transformed into several smaller, well-known wine estates. In 1778 Hendrik Cloete bought Groot Constantia and returned it to its former glory. Today it is still one of the world’s finest wine-producing estates and a significant tourist attraction. Many of the original farm buildings survived and now house a museum in the old manor house, a wine museum and cultural history museum, restaurants, and wine-tasting cellar.

Stellenbosch Wine Route

The influence of Van der Stel soon extended to Stellenbosch, the town that bears his name and the second town to be established by the Dutch after Cape Town. Today it is a large university town, and the centre of the wine industry and location of South Africa’s first official wine route. This first wine route was founded by Frans Malan of Simonsig, Spatz Sperling of Delheim and Niel Joubert of Spier, all three giants of the local wine industry. Together they were also instrumental in transforming wine estate legislation which led to the establishment in 1973 of South Africa’s Wine of Origin system.

Joubert’s Spier estate, owned by a different family since 1993, is today known far and wide for its Sunday picnics where families relax on the green lawns in the shade of trees on the banks of a river, its restaurants, wine-tasting, theatre and more. The Joubert family continue to produce excellent wines at their Niel Joubert Estate.

And few Winelands experiences can beat the beautiful garden-set tranquillity of Delheim, the superb wine estate built up by the legendary Sperling after arriving as a 20-year-old from Germany in 1951 with just a few pounds in his pocket. His success with Delheim and the deep footprints he left in South Africa’s wine industry, earned him many awards, accolades and honours over the years, including one of the top awards given to winemakers, the 1659 Medal of Honour. Sadly, Sperling passed away in October 2017, but his legacy lives on in the able hands of his family.

A number of large wine companies and brandy distillers are headquartered in Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch University is also the primary location for viticulture and viticulture research in South Africa. Among the many cellars that carry the Wine of Origin Stellenbosch label, that produce some of the country’s most acclaimed wines, include Lievland, Le Bonheur, Warwick, Uitkyk, Kanonkop, Delheim, Simonsig, Beyerskloof, Morgenhof, Rustenberg, Zorgvliet, Delaire, Neil Ellis, JC Le Roux, Clos Malverne, Lanzerac, Muldersbosch, Boschkloof, Blaauwklippen, Dornier, Jacobsdal, Annandale, Vergelegen, Vergenoegd, Lourensford, Middelveli among many more. There are now more than 200 wine and grape producers within the boundaries of the Stellenbosch Wine of Origin classification region.

The many beautiful and historic wine estates in and around Stellenbosch are truly well worth a leisurely visit. And the town of Stellenbosch with its many historic, white-washed buildings, student vibe, lively restaurants and pubs, galleries, shops and tree-lined lanes will capture the heart of any visitor.

The French at Franschhoek

The local wine industry was given a further significant boost with the arrival at the Cape in 1692 of 201 French Huguenots, Protestants who had fled the resumption of bloody Catholic persecution directed at them by the French King Louis XIV in 1685. In following years more Huguenots also arrived at the Cape. Governor Van der Stel settled most of the Huguenots, a number of whom where experienced viticulturists and horticulturists, in Franschhoek (French corner) and Drakenstein (where the towns of Paarl and Wellington are today). Many of the farms they settled were developed into thriving wine estates that still exist today, bearing the names of French towns and regions given to them by the Huguenots. Today the surnames and descendants of these French Huguenots are found all over South Africa.  

Franschhoek went on to become one of the top wine routes and tourist attractions of the Cape Winelands with its many fine restaurants, wine shops, wine tours, accommodation, bistros and world-renowned wine estates still bearing their original French names such as L’Ormarins, La Chataigne, Mont Michelle, Grand Provence, Plaisir de Merle, Chamonix, La Chaumiere, Dieu Donne, La Motte, Landau Du Val, La Bri and many more. Other additions in the valley included today’s well-known wine estates such as Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, Vrede en Lust, Boschendal, Graham Beck, Solms Delta, Backsberg and Glen Carlou.

With a year-round festive air embracing the town of Franschhoek, and with the many French name sign posts lining the streets, its many old Cape Dutch buildings set in the midst of rolling vineyards, and surrounded by mountains, visitors could easily imagine themselves being in a French provincial town. At the top end of the main street packed with eateries, stands the Huguenot Memorial, a monument to those early French pioneers. The hop-on, hop-off Franschhoek Wine Tram tour is one of the best ways to discover the area as the tram criss-crosses the Valley and its vineyards.

Paarl and Wellington

As in Franschhoek, many of the original French Huguenot farms survive in the form of magnificent wine estates around the towns of Paarl and Wellington, while other estates were also added over the years. Famous estate and brand names abound here, like Nederburg, Rhebokskloof, Vendome, Zandwijk, Landskroon, Grande Roche, Fairview, Laborie, Douglas Green Bellingham, Diemersfontein, Oude Wellington, Welbedacht, and Nabygelegen.

The Paarl Wine Route is the second oldest in the country, started by Sydney Back of Backsberg upon the insistence of Spatz Sperling. The route is known for its rich, full-bodied, spicy red and crisp white wines, and renowned for quality cultivars such as Shiraz, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinotage, Viognier and Mourvedre. Paarl is also home to the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt, better known internationally simply as KWV, and producer of famous brands such as Roodeberg and Laborie, as well as a number of the finest brandies.   

After a period of stagnation of the wine industry in the 1800s, a revival followed, and by the early 1900s more than 80 million vines had been replanted, resulting in a ‘wine lake’. By 1918 substantial over production led to great quantities of wine being poured down the rivers and streams. The over-supply and the low prices led to the formation of the KWV with the aim of providing stability and security to wine producers through the imposition of a minimum price on wine and a guarantee to its farmer members that the KWV would buy up all excess wine. The KWV essentially regulated the industry.

After the early 1990s, when world markets opened to South African wine, the KWV transformed itself into a competitive commercial entity, exporting award-winning wines and brandies from its main cellar complex in Paarl all over the world.

The wine estates of the Paarl and Wellington wine routes offer many excellent opportunities for wine tasting and good food. At Nederburg full wine tours of their state-of-the-art wine cellars are available, as well as an excellent restaurant. Music concerts and other events are also regularly hosted here.

Wine cultivars, regions, districts and routes

Of course it is not only white and red wines that are produced in South Africa: many other fine products are made here from grapes such as brandy, sparkling wine, sweet wines, port-style wines and sherry. The Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for wine production. Common grape varieties, called cultivars in South Africa and often designated by local names, include Chenin Blanc (Steen), Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz, Saivignon Blanc, Chardonay, Pinotage, Merlot, Riesling (until recently known locally as Weisser Riesling), Crouchen (known as Cape Riesling), Palomino (the grape of the Spanish wine Sherry known locally as “White French”), Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc), Sémillon (Groendruif), and Muscat of Alexandria (Hanepoot).

The Cape wine regions enjoy a climate that is marked by intense sunlight and dry heat in summer, while winters tend to be cold and wet, and the springtime bringing a warm growing season between November and April. During the harvest months of February and March, the average daily temperatures in many South African wine regions is 23 °C (73 °F) with spikes up to 40 °C (104 °F).

Within the Wine of Origin system introduced in 1973, which mirrors the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, there are some 60 appellations – legally defined and protected geographical indications used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown.

Today the wine regions of the Western Cape include Boberg, Breede River Valley, the Cape South Coast, the Coastal Region, the Klein Karoo and Olifants River. The Northern Cape and Eastern Cape are also now wine regions. Designated wine districts of the Cape include Paarl, Franschhoek, Tulbagh, Breedekloof, Robertson, Worcester, Cape Agulhas, Overberg, Plettenberg Bay, Swellendam, Walker Bay,     the Cape Peninsula, Darling, Franschhoek Valley, Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Tulbagh, Tygerberg, Wellington, Calitzdorp, Langeberg-Garcia, Citrusdal Mountain, Citrusdal Valley, and Lutzville Valley. These are further divided into many smaller units known as wards.

Some of the more popular and better known wine routes of the Western Cape include the Breedekloof Wine Route stretching from the town of Gouda to McGregor and Montagu in the south; the Cape Agulhas Wine Route at the southern tip of Africa; the Cape Point Wine Route; the Constantia Wine Route; the Darling Wine Route in the heart of wildflower country; the Durbanville Wine Route; the Swartland Wine Route around Malmesbury and Riebeek Kasteel; the Elgin Wine Route in the heart of South Africa’s apple growing districts;  the Franschhoek Wine Route; the Helderberg Wine Route on the False Bay coast; the Klein Karoo Wine Route, also home of some of South Africa’s best Port-style wines; the Olifants River Wine Route near Citrusdal; the Paarl Vintners’ Wine Route; the Robertson Wine Route; the Stellenbosch Wine Route; the Tulbagh Wine Route in the valley of the same name within a basin of the Winterhoek Mountains; the Walker Bay Wine Route near Hermanus, also known for whale watching ; the Wellington Wine Route; the Worcester Wine Route beyond the early mountain border of the Cape Colony; and more.

Useful Contact Information

Groot Constantia Wine Estate Tel:  +27 21 794-5128; Email:  enquiries@grootconstantia.co.za
Vignerons de Franschhoek Tel:  +27 21 876 3062
Franschhoek Wine Valley Tel: +27 21 876 2861; Email: info@franschhoek.org.za
KWV Tel: +27 21 807 3911; Email: customer@kwv.co.za
Stellenbosch Visitor Information Centre Tel: +27 21 88 33 584; Email: info@stellenbosch360.co.za
Swartland Wine and Olive Route Tel: +27 22 487 1133; Email: swartlandinfo@westc.co.za
Nederburg Wines Tel: +27 (0)81 848 4295; Email: nedwines@distell.co.za
Western Cape Tourism Tel: +27 21 426 5639; Email: info@capetourism.org.za
Cape Town Tourism Tel: 0861322223; Website: www.capetown.travel