When I had my first major encounter with South African wines at CapeWine 2015, I was happy to report that according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) South Africa ranked 7th among the biggest wine-producing countries in the world. However with years of drought combined with other challenges, that rank has dropped over the years.
I found this out from my recent visit to South Africa on the invitation of WESGRO, the official Tourism, Trade & Investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape. It was however pleasant to note that the quality of wines from South Africa, and the passion with which winemakers produce these wines have not dwindled in any way! In fact, the quality keeps improving.
In the company of wine buyers, each from Ghana and Mozambique, the weeklong trip to the Western Cape added immensely to my existing knowledge of wines, as I experienced again a bit more of the harvest season for South African wineries, and what goes on in the cellar before we finally get our wines.
South Africa is located at the tip of Africa, with most wine regions located near the coastal influences of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, combining good soil and weather conditions for growing good vines for wine. During the harvest months of February and March, the average daily temperatures in many South African wine regions is 23 °C with spikes up to 40 °C. I experienced both the cold and the warm weathers during my stay.
Winemaking could be broken into these 5 major steps!
Harvesting is the first step in the wine making process. Winemakers often use the sugar and acid levels of the grape as a guide in determining ripeness. The moment the grapes are picked determines the acidity, sweetness, and flavor of the wine. Harvesting can be done by hand or mechanically. However proper sorting out of healthy grapes and unripe or rotted bunches are carried out at the winemaking facility. Despite the costs, most of the wineries we visited preferred the use of human workers to handpick grapes.
Crushing and Pressing
The harvested grapes are sorted and ready to be de-stemmed and crushed. Mechanical presses stomp the grapes into freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds, and solids. For white wine, the wine maker will quickly crush and press the grapes in order to separate the juice from the skins, seeds, and solids. However for red wine, it is left in contact with the skins to acquire flavour, colour, and additional tannins.
Yeast is added for fermentation, to ensure consistency and predict the end result. Fermentation continues until all of the sugar is converted into alcohol and dry wine is produced. To create a sweet wine, winemakers will sometimes stop the process before all of the sugar is converted. Fermentation can take 10 days to one month or more. Once fermentation is complete, solids such as dead yeast cells, tannins, and proteins are removed. Wine is transferred into a different vessel such as an oak barrel or a stainless steel tank. The wine can then be clarified through fining or filtration. The clarified wine is then racked into another vessel and prepared for bottling or future aging.
Aging and Bottling
The final stage of the winemaking process is aging and bottling. Further aging can be done in the bottles, stainless steel tanks, or oak barrels. Aging the wine in oak barrels will produce a smoother, rounder, and more vanilla flavored wine. It also increases the wine’s exposure to oxygen while it ages, which decreases tannin and helps the wine reach its optimal fruitiness.
Steel tanks are commonly used for zesty white wines. After aging, wines are bottled with either a cork or a screw cap, depending on the winemaker’s preference. And contrary to popular believe a cork or a screw cap does not determine the quality of the wine. Note that sparkling wines or bubblies do undergo a further step. South African sparkling wines made in the traditional French method (methode champenoise) are referred to as Methode Cap Classique (or MCC). Wine that has been impregnated with CO2 bubbles is simply termed sparkling wine whereas MCC’s undergo a second fermentation in the bottle to create the sought after bubbles.
A day at WESGRO/InvestSA
Our first day was spent with WESGRO officials at the InvestSA office, highlighting WESGRO projects in African countries, B2B meetings and wine tasting with winemakers, mostly from regions we wouldn’t be able to visit. These included:
Koni Wines – Koni Maliehe founded Koni Wines in 2015, influenced by her curiosity and passion for South African wines. She collaborates with her partner wine farm in Stellenbosch, where Koni Wines are produced. All the grapes used making Koni Wines are handpicked, sorted and vinified to produce rich wines filled with a taste of South African class. Koni Wines produces six cultivars namely Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot/Cab Blend, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Robinson & Sinclair – Robinson & Sinclair are exporters of fine South African Wines. Some of the wines presented to us for tasting included McGregor, Meerendal, Mooiplaas, and many more from various wine producers across the country.
Paarden Kloof – PaardenKloof offers premium matured Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc wines. In early 2007, PaardenKloof Estate released its first Sauvignon under the Ecology label. The Ecology range of wines spans all the varietals produced by PaardenKloof, with focus on the younger vintages, characterized by less oak and a new world approach to winemaking. Part of the Ecology series is the exciting Desert Rose Collection, which provides a fusion between the PaardenKloof heritage brand characteristics and the Ecology profile and currently includes a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Women in Wine – Women in Wine was established and founded in 2006 by a group of twenty women, all with backgrounds in the wine industry that had a common dream – giving women, especially farm workers and their families, a share in the industry. The Women in Wine label produces six wines: a Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Pinotage Rose, and Chardonnay Chenin Blanc.
Cape Diamond – Lutzville Vineyards Co-Op was founded in 1962. Since then it prospered and grew to become the second biggest winery in South Africa. It is the home of Lutzville, The Diamond Collection, Francois le Vaillant and Cape Elephant Wines. The secret behind the rich character, approachable style, juicy fruit and elegant structure of these wines is in the unique location on the West Coast of South Africa.
Ses’Fekile – Ses’fikile was founded by a group of empowered women with a main goal of creating wines that are not just rare fine blends, but also palatable and fruit driven. These rounded wines include the red wines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot; the white blend of Chenin Blanc, Roussanne; and the red blend of Shiraz/ Cinsault.
Mhudi Wines – The Rangaka family has dedicated itself to making great wine, which is the heart and soul of their business. The MHUDI Family Boutique range includes Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Say Lovey Sparkling White Wine & Rose Blush, and Foro’s Legacy.
Off to the winelands…
The rest of our stay in the Western Cape was spent visiting various wine regions, learning the characteristics of their wines and learning more about the wine making process.
The historical town of Stellenbosch boasts a winemaking tradition, which stretches back to the end of the 17th-century. The mountainous terrain, good rainfall, deep well-drained soils and diversity of terroirs, make this a sought-after viticultural area.
In Stellenbosch we visited:
Anura – Positioned on the foothills on the Simonsberg Mountains, Anura boasts a wide variety of soils, slopes and microclimates. Anura’s passion is red wine, and with plantings of Mourvédre, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Malbec, among more classic, locally grown varietals, it aims to produce handcrafted wines for individuals who are looking for something unique and distinctive. Anura wines have won numerous awards including Old Mutual Trophy Show, Michelangelo Awards, IWSC Awards, Vitis Vinifera Awards and Veritas.
Warwick wines – Warwick is a 3rd generation family-run winery, with owner Stan Ratcliffe’s wife Norma at the winemaking helm. After a long search for the finest terroir in all the land, Warwick was where they settled and decided to plant slopes of Cabernet Sauvignon. Norma’s intensive studies and natural inclination for wine making gave birthed the La Femme Bleu (the Blue Lady) and Warwick Trilogy – a Bordeaux blend that remains a flagship red wine in the SA wine industry. Other ranges include Three Cape Ladies, The White Lady, Professor Black, and The First Lady Range
We also experienced a Land Rover safari ride over the slopes to enjoy the vistas in what Warwick terms the ‘Big 5 Safari’, a tongue in cheek comparison of their Big 5 grape varietals to their animal kingdom counterparts.
Thelema – Through the understanding of its optimal climate and soil type, Thelema Mountain Vineyards has firmly entrenched itself as one of the leaders in Cabernet Sauvignon, placing Stellenbosch Cabernet’s firmly on the global wine map. Their Current range of wines includes Thelema Gargantua Muscadel, Thelema Sauvignon Blanc, Thelema Muscat , Thelema Riesling, Thelema Chardonnay, Thelema “Ed’s Reserve” Chardonnay , Thelema “Vin de Hel” Muscat Late Harvest, Thelema Semillon Late Harvest, Thelema Mountain Red, Thelema Shiraz , Thelema Rabelais and many more.
Spier Wine Farms – Spier is one of South Africa’s oldest wine farms with a recorded history dating back to 1692. Spier wines are among the most awarded in the country. In 2019, Spier Wine Farm received nine Double Gold medals and seven Gold medals at the Veritas Wine Awards. Seven of Spier’s nine Double Gold winners were white wines: Spier Brut Methodé Cap Classique 2009, two Chenin Blancs (Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2018 and Spier Ideology Chenin Blanc 2019), two Sauvignon Blancs (Spier 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc 2019 and Spier Ideology Sauvignon Blanc 2019), and both the 2013 and 2019 vintages of Spier Creative Block 2 (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon). The two red wine winners were the Spier 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 and Spier Creative Block 3 2016 (a blend of Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Viognier).
De Trafford – This is a small family winery at the end of the Upper Blaauwklippen Road in the mountains above Stellenbosch. Architect David Trafford and wife Rita established it in 1992 with the focus on high-end red wines of great intensity and longevity, using minimal intervention production methods. De Trafford has amazing Red Wine, White Wine and Straw Wine, all with amazing stories behind them.
The district of Franschheok has retained its distinct French Huguenot character. The fertile Franschhoek Wine Valley is home to some of South Africa’s noble cultivars and classic styles. These range from superb whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon and Chenin Blanc, to the full-bodied reds of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The area also produces some of the country’s extraordinary Méthode Cap Classiques.
In Franschheok, we visited:
Grande Provence – Sitting in the magnificent Franschhoek Valley, Grande Provence’s lush vines spread across 47-acres with gentle vistas over the valley floor. Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate is the home of the award-winning Grande Provence wines and the Angels Tears lifestyle collection. The distinctive Grande Provence vintages reflect the passion and enthusiasm of our winemaking team. It has a mix of delicious white and red wines across three-product range namely House Wines, Premium Wines and Flagship Wines.
Black Elephant Vintners – Sometimes called the misfits of the wine industry and the rebels of the vine, Black Elephant Vintners push the boundaries of conformity. Their wines are young and vibrant; a real toast to celebrating life. They even have wines in cans. The range includes Amazing Grace CabSav, First Miracle Magnums, Mandie Olive, MCC Blanc de Blanc, MCC Brut NV, MCC Chardonnay NV, MCC Zero Dosage NV, Nicholas Red, Rose Rebel, The Back Roads – Petite Sirah, The Back Roads, The Back Roads VIOGNIER, The Daniel Collection Amazing Grace Cabernet Sauvignon, The Dark Side Of The Vine, The Honey Thief – Natural Sweet, Timothy White, Two Dogs, a Peacock and A Horse SB.
Haute Cabriere – Haute Cabrière has found a special place in the heart of South African wine lovers since its inception. Situated on the Franschhoek Pass, Haute Cabrière has been creating wines from Burgundian cultivars for over two decades. Founder and proprietor Achim von Arnim’s passion for these varietals has always been the inspiration behind both the Pierre Jourdan and Haute Cabrière wine ranges. Today, second generation Cellar Master, Takuan von Arnim has continued this philosophy, while adding his personal stamp to the much-loved wines. Haute Cabrière wines are made using two noble cultivars, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The structure of Pinot Noir and the elegance of Chardonnay bring balance to the wines and freshness to its Méthode Cap Classique. The Méthode Cap Classique and related wines are produced under Pierre Jourdan, the name of the French Huguenot to whom the farm was granted in 1694. And the still wines are produced under the name of Haute Cabrière, paying tribute to Pierre Jourdan’s hometown in France.
We did not just taste and enjoy these amazing wines; we also had a French-inspired lunch at the restaurant. Simply yummy!
Mont Rochelle – Mont Rochelle Wine and vineyards cultivates and nurtures various grape varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon amongst a few others that are used for blending purposes to add complexity. Mont Rochelle’s white wine ranges include Mont Rochelle Little Rock Blanc, Mont Rochelle Sauvignon Blanc, Mont Rochelle Chardonnay , Miko White Chardonnay. The reds include Mont Rochelle Little Rock Rouge, Mont Rochelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Mont Rochelle Syrah and Mont Rochelle Miko Syrah.
Holden Manz – An exclusive grower of red grapes, Holden Manz Wine Estate only cultivates its top 16 hectares under vineyards, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot. Some of the wines that were a hit with us here were Rothko Rosé – a generously crisp and elegantly smooth wine with tons of finesse and a long finish; Vernissage – a beautifully blended showcase of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah; Big G – with its alluring aromas of black cherries, dark and red plums; Visionaire – a blend of Cabernet sauvignon and merlot spiced up with cabernet franc, Malbec, petit verdot and syrah; and of course Good Sport Cape Vintage – a smooth, soft entry with sweet fruits, a whiff of Sauterne, and pleasant acidity on the palate.
We ended our experience of Franschheok with dinner at Holden Manz’ Franschhoek Kitchen, which is rated as one of South Africa’s culinary hot spots for international cuisine
The high-lying cool-climate Elgin district was traditionally an apple-growing region but the region now produces award-winning wine, showing exceptional fruit and elegance, with Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz doing particularly well in this later-ripening, cooler terroir.
In Elgin, we visited:
Spoienkop Wines – In the heart of the Elgin Valley, is Spioenkop Wines established in 2008 with winemaker, Koen Roose. Spioenkop produces wines that have finesse, balance, and purity, with the idiosyncratic character of the winemaker flowing through every bottle. The winemaking philosophy here is low intervention and allowing the wine to have a voice without putting technology and an interfering winemaker in the way. The wines include the Spioenkop Range, “1900” Range and
The Tugela River Range.
Elgin Vintners – The Elgin Vintners is found on the Elgin Orchards farm, which dates back to 1890. Guided by its philosophy to produce honest wines that express the unique cool climate terroir of the valley, they are able to bring out the flavours in their grapes to their wines. Minimal intervention and maximum care in the winery turns the grapes into characterful and balanced wines that express a true sense of place. Elgin Vintners has three ranges namely Elgin Vintners Range – wines with complexity, finesse and elegance; Ridgelands – carefully selected, hand crafted, site specific wines; and Cloud Haven, a true cultivar expression highlighting crisp fruitiness with just enough on the palate to make you want more.
Oak Valley – This exquisite estate located in the Elgin Valley is well worth a visit as they offer a lot more than just premium wines. The Oak Valley estate is situated over 1,786 hectares of land and has its claim to fame in cut flowers, fruit and cattle.
They offer wines such as: Sauvignon Blanc 2011, The OV Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2008, Chardonnay 2011, Pinot Noir 2011 and Merlot Cabernet Blend 2007 under three main ranges. The Discovery Range offers uncompromising quality and accessibility for all wine lovers. The Sounds Of Silence Pinot Noir was my favourite in this range. The Groenlandberg range embodies the vision to create Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that speaks to this unique positioning of the vineyard. The Tabula Rasa range is single-minded and focused exclusively on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Wellington, which supplies over 85% of the South African wine industry with cuttings, also boasts some 26 wine producers ranging from historical estates to boutique wineries. The rolling hills and valleys of the area provide a wide range of suitable sites for wine growers where fine, elegant examples of Pinotage and Chenin Blanc are made.
In Wellington, we visited:
Linton Park – Linton Park has several diverse microclimates offered by the valley folds and mountain slopes; and the vineyards are sited and prepared to optimize these. We visited the wine estate to taste The Bridge of Hope Wines, a brand created for Rosemary Mosia, after a research project about the wine industry she conducted towards her Master’s Degree in Business Leadership. It comes in three ranges namely The Classic Collection, The Premium Collection, and The Reserve Collection
Wellington Wines – Wellington Wines is a customer driven producing cellar, delivering in bulk and bottle format. Wellington Wines is the result of the joining of forces of three different entities: Wamakersvallei, Wellington Cellar, and Bovlei Winery. In 2011 each one of these producers realized they were trying to do the same thing and instead of competing against one another, they could benefit from working together. Together they have vast plantings of old vine Chenin Blanc and other wines, and many of the labels have remained much the same. The Bovlei Cellar now serves as the taste room of Wellington Wines, and home to the W True to Terroir range, the La Cave Range, the Imprint Range and Duke of Wellington Range.
Thokozani – Thokozani means ‘celebration’ and we experienced it when we visited the estate and got welcomed with music by a choir comprising workers. Thokozani has its own wine brand and guesthouse which are 80% owned by the staff. Thokozani is based and cultivated on the prestigious Diemerfontein Wine & Country estate in the heart of the Cape Winelands. The wines include Ovation Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Ovation Merlot, Ovation Pinotage, Ovation Sauvignon Blanc, Ovation Spumanté, and Thokozani SMV.
A return to Stellenbosch
We ended our experience with a return to Stellenbosch, which is undoubtedly the most popular wine region in the Western Cape. We capped the great experience with a visit to Muratie Wine Estate, nestled within the Knorhoek Valley north of Stellenbosch. The estate is a time capsule of fables, fairytales and rich South African wine history, which has been well preserved by the current custodians of the estate, under the guidance of Rijk Melck.
Muratie Wine Estate is one of the oldest wine estates in South Africa with the farm dating back to 1685. The grapes are lovingly handpicked, ensuring only the best bunches are used. The winemakers use a traditional method of pressing the grapes avoiding mechanical crushing of the grapes, skins and seeds, resulting in the phenomenal flavour of the wines.
The splendid range of wines include Johanna Dry Rosé, Muratie Melck’s Sauvignon Blanc, Muratie Melck’s Blended Red, Isabella Chardonnay 2017, Martin Melck Cabernet Sauvignon, Cape Ruby NV, Lady Alice Methode Cap Classique, Ben Prins Cape Vintage, and George Paul Canitz Pinot Noir.
Amber Forever was a big favourite for many. It is made from Hanepoot grapes (Muscat d’Alexandrie) grown on Muratie. Other favourites also included Alberta Annemarie Merlot, Laurens Campher, Ronnie Melck Shiraz, Ansela van de Caab and Martin Melck Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve.
We ended our visit with a scrumptious lunch from Muratie’s Farm Kitchen. The old fermentation tanks in the cellar with their tartaric encrusted walls, old carpets, wooden furniture and original art made enjoying the honest home food and good wine a completely fascinating experience.
So there you have it, a bit of the story behind the passion and people making great South African wines that can be enjoyed across Africa and the rest of the world. Cheers!!!