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South Africa - Winegrowing Areas of the West Coast

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: View of Swartland District, the “Blackland” © Provided by DKBooks View of Swartland District, the “Blackland”

Groote Post in the newly designated Darling District

View of Swartland District, the “Blackland”

Winegrowing Areas of the West Coast

Cooperatives, and the production of bulk volumes of wine, used to completely dominate South Africa’s West Coast winegrowing areas. However, quality wines are now being made here as more private producers open up cellars and invest in vineyards.

Olifants River Region

soil type: alluvial, red soils and lime, red sands
red grape variety: Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet
wine styles: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
wine styles: red, white, sparkling, dessert, fortified

As its name suggests, Olifants River Region takes the name of the major waterway running through it. Vineyards on the flattish land on either side of the river have plentiful irrigation, so high yields are easily attainable. This explains why the area was previously associated with poor-quality bulk wines. However, better viticultural practices have been established and farmers are increasingly being paid on graded fruit quality rather than sugar levels, which means yields are now much lower. Consequently, wines with added character are made here, despite still being of commercial, early-drinking style. This positive turn is also reflected in the grape varieties planted. In 1990, the top five were all white, headed by Chenin Blanc and Colombard; but by 2002, Shiraz and Pinotage had edged their way onto the list, with Shiraz, in particular, showing great promise.

Recently, more sites with higher quality potential have been identified. Among these are: Lutzville Valley District in the most northerly part of the region; Koekenaap Ward, a coastal area near Vredendal; Bamboes Bay Ward, where the vineyards almost abut the beach; Piekenierskloof Ward, in the new Citrusdal Mountain District; and its neighbor, Citrusdal Valley District.

Despite all this progress, cooperative cellars still dominate the area; Vredendal, the dedicated white wine cellar for Westcorp, is the country’s biggest under one roof, its annual harvest topping a phenomenal 65,000 tons.

Cederberg Ward

soil type: sandstone
red grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet
wine styles: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Bukettraube
wine styles: red, white

Cederberg is a small ward that lies just to the east of the Olifants River Region’s southern end. The winery of the same name, with 42 ha of vineyard, lies 3,600 ft (1,100 m) up in the Cederberg Mountains. It is a stark, beautiful conservation area blessed with clean air and often covered in snow in winter, all of which adds to the character of its sleek wines.

Swartland District

soil type: red-brown with granite
red grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot, Cinsaut
wine styles: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Colombard
wine styles: red, white, sparkling, dessert, fortified

Swartland—the “Blackland”—gets its name from the black bushes that dot the area’s gentle hilltops. Traditionally known as wheat country, Swartland has seen the development of many new vineyards during its emergence as premium wine country in the last decade. Sites here have to be carefully selected due to the long, hot summers and the minimal irrigation available. Untrellised bush vines are common; their naturally smaller crop produces the big, powerful wines for which the interior of the district is known. While wine styles have not changed much over the years; grape varieties have. In 1990, the frontrunners were Chenin Blanc, White French (Palomino), Cinsaut, Colombard, and Pinotage. Today the list of top five grapes reads: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, and Sauvignon Blanc—sure signs of a recognized quality area.

Darling District

soil type: red-brown with granite
red grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot
wine styles: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
wine styles: red, white, dessert

The principal ward within the newly designated Darling District, Groenekloof really reaps the benefit of the Benguela Current, which carries in cool air from the Southern Ocean. This, in conjunction with its complementary slopes and aspects, helps to retain the all-important fruity acids in the wines here. White varieties, particularly Sauvignon Blanc, shine in Darling. While none of the wines lack alcohol, their natural acids give a fresher, more elegant impression than is usual in wines with high alcohol levels.

Tulbagh District

soil type: boulder beds of large stones
white grape variety: Cinsaut, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage
red grape variety: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie), Crouchen Blanc (Cape Riesling), Chardonnay
wine styles: red, white, sparkling, dessert

Famous for the 1969 earthquake that destroyed many of the town’s old houses, Tulbagh was rather a neglected wine area for quite some time. Until recently, it was best known for Cap Classique sparkling wine from just one producer, Twee Jonge Gezellen. Otherwise, it was associated with everyday-drinking white wines. With the opening up of the industry in the 1990s, however, newcomers, all private wineries dedicated to quality, saw the potential for red varieties here. Now, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinotage are starting to shake up the “white varieties only” philosophy, with a third of all viticultural land here being occupied by red grapes. One of the area’s newcomers, Rijk’s Private Cellar, won top awards with its first vintage in 2000: not only did its Pinotage win the local Pinotage Challenge, but its Sauvignon Blanc also performed well, showing that there are spots in this hot valley where even such cool-climate grapes can succeed.

The new generation of winemakers

South Africa’s reentry into international markets since the end of apartheid in 1990 means it is now much easier for winemakers to absorb outside influences. Unlike the generation before them, they no longer consider the cellar the hub of quality winemaking. With more emphasis on terroir, South Africans are fast becoming as proficient in the vineyard as behind the press. They are also very willing to experiment—with both new patches of land and a host of non-international grape varieties. Importantly, they are now led by consumer demand rather than by traditional winemaking methods or high production levels.

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