South Africa is renowned for its beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, and delicious wines. One of the most famous wine regions in the country is Stellenbosch, located in the Western Cape Province. Known for its scenic beauty, Stellenbosch is home to more than 150 wine farms, each with its unique history, terroir, and wine styles. So let's go on and delve deeper into the Stellenbosch wine region, its history, climate, terroir, taste profile, and other interesting facts.
Terroir - The Overview
"In the South African winelands, the constant interplay between ancient geology, valley slopes, soaring mountains and coastal breezes results in an extraordinary biodiversity, which is reflected in our indigenous flora. With more than 10 000 plant species, 70% of which are endemic, the Western Cape is recognised as the smallest and the richest of the world's six great floral kingdoms. The same conditions which support this remarkable biodiversity can in turn support a large spectrum of wine varieties and styles."( 1)
Terroir refers to the natural features of a body of land which interact to create a unique set of conditions that in turn confer specific characteristics on the wines produced there. Key factors include topography, climate, geology and soil. (1)
The Western Cape has some of the most ancient viticultural soils in the world. Massive pressures and upheavals over millions of years resulted in majestic mountain ranges on the southern tip with steep slopes and deep valleys, soft folds and soaring peaks, and created a remarkable variety of mesoclimates and soil types in the process. (1)
"About 250 million years ago, intensive folding and uplifting occurred, creating the distinctive folded sandstone mountain ranges and valleys of the Cape. Erosion removed large areas of the Cape Supergroup deposits, leaving sandstone remnants like Table Mountain and Simonsberg (1 000—1 300 m altitude), often resting on granitic foothills and associated with exposed granite plutons or domes, presently visible as distinctive solitary mountains (Paarl Mountain, Perdeberg: 500—700 m altitude) or ranges of hills (Bottelary, Malmesbury and Darling hills: 200—400 m altitude), usually surrounded by Malmesbury shale landscapes." (1)
“If terroir is important, then the age of that soil and the way the soil is constructed is important. Age and the weathered character of that soil are essential to the eventual wine, whose journey started at the hair root tips of the vine. Our geology is like a craggy old sun-etched wild west gunslinger in Hollywood — it would be impossible to cram more evidence of character and age into one face, that's us — and it makes our wines different..."-Bruce Jack, South African winemaker
Terroir - Stellenbosch Specific
Most common geology: Granite, Malmesbury shale
Dominant Soils: Red- & yellow-brown Tukulu and Oakleaf, structured Swartland and Klapmuts,duplex Kroonstad
Stellenbosch is situated in a coastal wine region which has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The proximity to the ocean moderates the temperatures and provides cooling breezes during the hot summer months. The average temperature in Stellenbosch ranges from 14°C/57.2°F to 24°C/ 75.2°F and the average rainfall is around 750mm/ 29.52inches per year, usually falling between May and August. The combination of warm days, cool nights, and ample rainfall makes Stellenbosch an ideal region for growing a wide variety of grape varieties.
Stellenbosch has the most vineyard plantings in the winelands. Conditions in this district are particularly well suited to many of the noble grapevine varieties. The sands and alluvial soils of the valley floors give way to predominantly granitic and shale yellow and reddish Oakleaf and Tukulu soils on the slopes with a mix of decomposed granite, shale, clay and sandstone. The soil type varies from one vineyard to another, which creates a diverse range of flavor profiles in the wines. . The rapidly increasing number of wine estates and producers (more than 200) includes some of the most famous names in Cape wine. The district, with its mix of historic estates and contemporary wineries, produces excellent examples of almost all the noble wine grape varieties and is known for its blended reds. (1)
The region is divided into several sub-regions, each with its unique terroir and wine styles.
The sub-regions/ wards include:
The Simonsberg-Stellenbosch ward encompasses several well-known estates and private cellars. Here the mean February temperature is 21.5°C and the average annual rainfall 600—700 mm. This ward has predominantly southwesterly aspects and, because of altitudes commonly higher than 200 m, it is generally open to the cool southwesterly summer breezes originating from False Bay, some 25 km away. The wines from this ward are predominantly red, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, with wines made from the locally bred Pinotage variety also regularly reaping awards locally and internationally.(1)
There are four wards already demarcated in the hills of Bottelary in the Stellenbosch district, all of them again benefiting from cooling summer breezes. These are Papegaaiberg, Devon Valley, Bottelary and Polkadraai Hills. Several estates and private cellars have distinguished themselves in terms of quality wines in these wards, especially the Bottelary ward, Pinotage again being prominent here.(1)
The scenic Jonkershoek Valley is home to several top producers and boutique wineries. The ward has a high annual rainfall in excess of 1 000 mm midway up the valley and the landscape is dominated by the majestic Twin Peaks, which tower up to 1 494 m high. The higher elevations and textured soils make the valley ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties.
Banghoek is relatively new as a viticultural area with most vineyards planted in the last 20 years. It is mainly known for Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeaux varieties. (1)
General Taste Profile of Stellenbosch Winelands
The Stellenbosch wine region is known for producing a wide range of wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinotage, Bordeaux style blends, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
The wines from Stellenbosch are characterized by their rich, full-bodied flavors, balanced acidity, and elegant tannins.
The red wines are known for their dark fruit flavors, such as blackberry, black cherry, and cassis, while the white wines are known for their tropical fruit flavors, such as pineapple, mango, and guava.
The Elsenburg School of Agriculture is also near Stellenbosch, as is the ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij Institute for Viticulture and Oenology. This organisation has one of the most modern experimental wineries in the world. At its experimental farms (situated in several winegrowing districts), important research into all aspects of viticulture and oenology is undertaken. South Africa has become a New World leader in terroir research, the basis of a multi- disciplinary programme carried out by the institute and the University of Stellenbosch (1)
I began some 21 years ago to identify what constitutes terroir and its effects on grape quality and style, it has already had a significant impact on better matching between varieties and locations in the Cape winelands, as well as on current viticultural practices such as canopy management and trellising, and unlocking the potential of new winegrowing areas. (1)
Interesting Facts about Stellenbosch
1. Stellenbosch is the second-oldest town in South Africa, founded in 1679.
2. It is the birthplace of the Pinotage grape.
3. Stellenbosch University is one of the top universities in South Africa and is known for its research in wine and viticulture.
4. The region has produced several famous winemakers, including Beyers Truter, Jan Boland Coetzee, and Eben Sadie.
5. The Stellenbosch wine region is home to some of the oldest vineyards in South Africa, some of which are over 300 years old.
6. The Stellenbosch wine route is a popular tourist attraction, with many wine farms offering tastings, cellar tours, and vineyard walks.
In conclusion, the terroir of Stellenbosch is a unique and diverse combination of climate, soil, and topography that creates the perfect conditions for producing exceptional wines. The region's commitment to sustainable farming practices and its long history of winemaking make it an essential part of South Africa's wine culture. If you're a wine enthusiast, Stellenbosch wines are a must-try experience.
Taste this vibrant and dynamic wine region for yourself, see All Wines.
(1) References: Aspect, The Winelands of South Africa, In-depth informaiton & Detailed Topographical Maps, e-Book, by WOSA.co.za