South Africa - Western Cape, Primer
This week, we take you on a virtual wine tour of South African wines from the Western Cape. So grab your crisp glass of Chardonnay and join us for an excursion to the Winelands. The Western Cape is South Africa’s main wine-producing region and is not far from the center of Cape Town. Here you'll find lush, green vineyards surrounded by majestic mountain ranges. Dating back 350 years, the Cape's wine areas are divided into six regions encompassing 26 districts, but our tasting this week will focus on heavily on Stellenbosch, along with the lesser known enclave known as the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, in the Walker Bay district. Here's some background on these two regions, to prepare you for the flight:
Stellenbosch is one of the most popular tourist destinations for wine tasting in the Western Cape. Steeped in history, the district features some of the best examples of Dutch architecture and is home to more than 150 wine estates and producers. Stellenbosch is known for the quality of its blended reds and produces wines from almost all the grape varieties. The Stellenbosch region is also where Pinotage was born in 1924 from a crossing of the Pinot Noir and Cinsault wine grape varieties. French Huguenots were the first to plant vines in the Stellenbosch region in the 1690s and the region is still at the forefront of the growth in the country’s wine industry, home to nearly a fifth of all South African vines today. The Stellenbosch region’s mountainous terrain, good rainfall, well-drained soils and diversity of terroir make it one of the most sought after viticultural areas in the country for both winemakers and visitors alike. The region is divided into a number of wards and several unofficial areas, which each has its own distinctive terroir. Its hot, dry climate make it ideal for producing premium red-wine grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates plantings, but Merlot and Shiraz are also widely planted. Cool breezes from False Bay cool down the vineyards nearer the ocean, where white Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc find their homes.
Hemel-en-Aarde is home to about 20 wine producers (and growing) and there are several factors that, in combination, set it apart from other South African wine producing areas. Firstly, the Hemel-en-Aarde is an area of unusual grape varietal focus for South Africa where plantings are overwhelmingly made up of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Secondly, there are no large volume producers and production is on average small and very high-end. In terms of the number of trophies, classic scores, gold medals and 5 star ratings per case of wine produced, the Hemel-en-Aarde is unmatched. Thirdly, the properties are almost all family owned and operated, by the families that pioneered them from unplanted ground. Unusually close proximity to the cooling influence of the South Atlantic Ocean and a more southerly location than the traditional South African winelands, makes the Hemel-en-Aarde one of the coolest, most maritime, wine producing areas in the country.