The Changing Face of South African Wine: Embracing Variety and Terroir

South Africa has long been known as a land of experimentation and exploration in the world of wine. With a multitude of grape varieties planted, wineries have been eager to discover what works best in their unique regions. However, there is a shift happening in the country, as wine regions start to profile themselves based on specific grape varieties that thrive in their climates. Stellenbosch, for example, has made a name for itself with cabernet sauvignon and pinotage, while Hemel en Aarde focuses on cool-climate varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay. Swartland, on the other hand, is known for its hot-climate grapes such as grenache and syrah.

This evolution is positioning South Africa as a leading New World wine producer, with exciting wineries exploring their potential. One such winemaker is Danie Steytler, the current cellarmaster of Kaapzicht Wine Estate. I had the privilege of speaking with him about the potential of cabernet sauvignon and pinotage in Stellenbosch.

Danie is involved in the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a collaborative marketing effort to showcase the region’s expertise in cabernet sauvignon. The collective brings together 28 members, including renowned names like Kanonkop, Simonsig, and Rust en Vrede. The aim is to speak as one voice and create a recognizable profile for Stellenbosch wines.

Danie believes that the South African wine industry is transitioning from a stage of experimentation to one of focus and refinement. The younger generation of winemakers is identifying which grape varieties work best in their specific regions and eliminating those that don’t. For example, while Stellenbosch is ideal for cabernet sauvignon, varietals like pinot noir and sauvignon blanc may not thrive in its warm climate.

Stellenbosch’s diverse sub-regions, known as “wards,” contribute to the rich variety of wine styles in the region. Each ward has its own microclimate and soil conditions, resulting in distinct wines. Granitic soils are prevalent throughout Stellenbosch, which benefits certain grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon. Other wards, such as Helderberg, produce wines with tightly wound tannins that age well, while Bottelary offers riper tannins due to its warmer climate.

Pinotage is another important grape variety for South Africa, as it is a unique crossing between pinot noir and cinsault. Danie describes pinotage as proudly South African, originating from Stellenbosch in 1925. While it has faced some challenges gaining international recognition, Danie believes that pinotage excels in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary sub-region. Producers in this area have honed their skills in making exceptional pinotage, exemplified by renowned wineries like Kanonkop and Beyerskloof.

A high-quality pinotage can come in various styles, but Danie has a preference for the bigger, fuller expressions. However, he acknowledges that a more modern approach has emerged, with younger winemakers focusing on lighter, fruit-driven styles reminiscent of pinot noir.

As South Africa continues to establish its reputation as a leading wine producer, it is clear that embracing the diversity of grape varieties and terroir is key. Winemakers like Danie Steytler are at the forefront of this movement, passionately showcasing the potential of Stellenbosch and South African wines to the world.

FAQs about South African wines and grape varieties:
1. What are some examples of wine regions in South Africa that focus on specific grape varieties?
Stellenbosch is known for cabernet sauvignon and pinotage, Hemel en Aarde for pinot noir and chardonnay, and Swartland for grenache and syrah.

2. How is South Africa positioning itself as a leading New World wine producer?
South Africa is embracing its potential by exploring the diversity of grape varieties and terroir, which is attracting excitement and interest from winemakers worldwide.

3. Who is Danie Steytler and what is his role in the South African wine industry?
Danie Steytler is the current cellarmaster of Kaapzicht Wine Estate and is involved in the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a collaborative effort to promote the expertise in cabernet sauvignon from the region.

4. How is Stellenbosch showcasing its wines and expertise in cabernet sauvignon?
Stellenbosch has formed the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, which includes 28 members, to create a recognizable profile for Stellenbosch wines and speak as one voice.

5. How is the South African wine industry transitioning?
The younger generation of winemakers is moving away from experimentation and focusing on identifying grape varieties that work best in specific regions. They are eliminating those varieties that do not thrive in the climate.

6. What contributes to the rich variety of wine styles in Stellenbosch?
Stellenbosch’s diverse sub-regions, known as “wards,” each have their own microclimate and soil conditions. This results in wines with distinct characteristics, offering a wide variety of styles.

7. What are the characteristics of pinotage and its significance in South Africa?
Pinotage is a unique crossing between pinot noir and cinsault and is considered proudly South African. It originated in Stellenbosch and, although it has faced challenges gaining international recognition, it excels in the Bottelary sub-region.

8. How do younger winemakers approach pinotage compared to traditional styles?
While there are bigger, fuller expressions of pinotage that some prefer, a more modern approach has emerged with younger winemakers focusing on lighter, fruit-driven styles reminiscent of pinot noir.

9. Why is embracing the diversity of grape varieties and terroir important for South African wines?
By embracing the diversity, South Africa can showcase its unique offerings and establish a reputation as a leading wine producer.

Definitions:
– Terroir: Refers to the environmental factors, such as climate, soil, and topography, that influence the characteristics of grapes and the resulting wine.
– Varietals: Refers to different types of grape varieties used in winemaking.
– Microclimate: The climate conditions within a smaller area, such as a vineyard, which may differ from the surrounding region.
– Sub-regions (wards): Smaller areas within a larger wine region that have unique characteristics, such as microclimates and soil conditions, resulting in different wine styles.

Suggested related links:
Wines of South Africa
Wineries of South Africa
Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective