South Africa‘s best known red wine used to be Pinotage. This home grown cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir used to be produced in large volume and shipped all over the world.
However, these days modern wine producers in South Africa’s top districts such as Stellenbosch have shifted their emphasis. Whilst Pinotage is still widely produced districts such as Stellenbosch are becoming better known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. In fact, red wine production in Stellenbosch has overtaken white wine in recent years with many white wine grape vines being torn up and replaced with red wine producing vines. Research and investment has persuaded the wine makers to work with the soil and conditions rather than against them.
Stellenbosch is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s premium wine producing districts. As well as being the seat of wine academia the district has become known for its willingness to innovate and experiment and the result is an increasing worldwide reputation for its red wines.
Stellenbosch WO (Wine of Origin) is classified as a district within the South African geographical wine classification system. It is one of several WO districts which are part of the Coastal Region WO and the district itself is subdivided into a number of WO wards. These wards include Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek, Helderberg, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Banghoek, Polkadraai Hills and Papegaaiberg.
The Mediterranean climate in Stellenbosch, which is located in the wine heartland near Cape Town, is pretty much perfect for growing grapes. It’s warm in the summer but not too warm; rainfall is concentrated in the winter months and sea breezes cool and dry the vines.
South Africa’s signature white wine grape Chenin Blanc was once the grape of choice in Stellenbosch but increasing demand around the world for red wine has meant that Cabernet Sauvignon is now the most widely planted grape in the district. Shiraz and Merlot have also overtaken Chenin Blanc in popularity and Stellenbosch now produces more red wine than white.
Some of the best South African Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Stellenbosch wine estates. Thanks to the warm climate the Cabernets are weighty with plenty of structure. These red wines are big and full-bodied with plenty of ripe and juicy black fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot with great success. Stellenbosch Cabernets are best drunk after aging, ideally six to eight years.
Look out for Cabernet Sauvignons from the Helderberg WO ward. The vines are planted in clay and decomposed granite soils on south facing sites which benefit from ocean breezes. The red wine produced in some of these vineyards is the most complex and individual found in Stellenbosch.
Stellenbosch can boast many top Cabernet Sauvignon producers. The best include Neil Ellis; Rustenberg (especially Peter Barlow); Thelema; Vergelegen; Grangehurst; Le Bonheur Estate and Plaisir de Merle. Look out for Cabernet blends from Le Bonheur (Prima); Neil Ellis (Inglewood); Meerlust Estate (Rubicon); Vergelegen (Reserve and Mill Race Red); Morganhof (Premiere Selection) and Warwick Estate (Trilogy).
The production of Merlot in Stellenbosch has been a natural progression from Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Sauvignon varietal was introduced first, followed by the Bordeaux-style blend with Cabernet Franc and Merlot and then varietal Merlot. It is less reliable than Cabernet Sauvignon as some Merlots have too much green tannin but the best are silky smooth with soft fruit.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best producers of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends are also behind some of the district’s best Merlots. Labels to look out for include Meerlust Estate; Plaisir de Merle; Thelema Mountain; Vergelegen; Rustenberg (Merlot-Cabernet); Saxenberg (Private Collection) and Warwick Estate.
Shiraz is becoming increasingly popular in Stellenbosch. Many wine makers are trying to emulate the Rhone style which makes the decision to call the red wine grape Shiraz rather than Syrah something of a mystery. Stellenbosch Shiraz is dense and oaky but more restrained than Australian Shiraz.
Some of the best Shiraz producers are starting to become familiar names. Once again Neil Ellis features amongst the recommended producers with his Reserve Shiraz. Other now familiar labels include Saxenberg (Private Collection) and Vergelegen whilst Shiraz specialists worth trying out include Kaapzicht; Kleine Zalze; Rust En Vrede; Simonsig (Merindol) and Stellenzicht.
Despite falling out of fashion Pinotage is still a significant red wine in Stellenbosch. It is a tricky grape to handle and can produce disappointing wines if all goes wrong but when it goes well the resulting red wine has a very individual aroma and flavour of mulberry, damson and blackberry along with toasted marshmallows. Top Stellenbosch Pinotage producers include Clos Malverne (Reserve); Kaapzicht (Steytler); Kanonkop Estate (Auction Reserve); L’Avenir; Saxenberg (Private Collection) and Warwick Estate (Old Bush Vine).
Image by Andres de Wet.