We recently travelled to South Africa with G Adventures to experience the extraordinary beauty of that country. We found that some of the most stunning settings were in the Western Cape where high mountains rise next to the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Settled into those mountains are South Africa’s two best wine regions: Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
In South Africa, wine regions are designated by the term “Wine of Origin” (or “W.O.”) which classifies an area that has distinct and homogenous growing characteristics, similar to the term Appellation in France or American Viticultural Area in the US. The Western Cape geographical unit (one of five) plays home to three of the more important wine W.O.s: Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Franschhoek shares a border with Stellenbosch rising east from False Bay on the Atlantic. On its eastern border, nestled in the mountains is Franschhoek. While we detected more similarities than differences between the two regions, Stellenbosch has a cooler, more maritime climate as opposed to Franschhoek’s warmer more Mediterranean climate.
Stellenbosch has 15,252 Hectares under vine. There are numerous varieties planted there but the most important are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. Stellenbosch is the birthplace of Pinotage, a hybrid grape that was first created by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault in 1924. Stellenbosch soils are primarily granite and sandstone. These soils offer good drainage but there is just enough clay mixed in to retain enough moisture to grow crops. They also tend to impart a slightly mineral tone to the region’s wines. Proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and elevation are two key components of the Stellenbosch terroir. The Atlantic provides a cooling influence which allows the white wines to retain their freshness. As you move inland, elevation increases creating a warmer, drier climate that can fully ripen thick skinned red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Just inland from Stellenbosch is the much smaller Franschhoek. Originally settled by the French Huguenots in the 17th century, Franschhoek means “French Corner”. Franschhoek has 1,254 Hectares under vine. Important varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. The Franschhoek valley is amazing to look at. The Groot Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains meet to form a beautiful and protective amphitheatre around the valley floor. These mountains also provide shade to keep temperatures in check. As the air rises up against those mountains it drops its moisture content in orographic rainfall. Proximity to the mountains will make a drastic difference to the amount of annual rainfall. Though Franschhoek is a small region, the differential in annual rainfall from least to most covers a range of 400mm to 2,000mm! Soils in Franschhoek are very diverse, the product of mountains meeting a valley floor. But like Stellenbosch the dominant forms are granite, sandstone and clay.
Both Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are terrific wine regions to visit. Each has its own beauty and charm. Hills and valleys and lots of green vineyards; wine country is always beautiful and South Africa’s Western Cape is no exception. We only spent a day in each of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch but we were in South Africa for a total of 12 days. That gave us lots of opportunity to try many of the local wines and to immerse ourselves in the local food culture. One thing we did not expect was the degree to which South Africa is a foodie heaven! The focus is very much on local and on farm-to-table. There is a huge diversity offered as South Africa has land, sea, and inland waterways from which to draw its food. We encountered wonderful innovation in the preparation of dishes with intense flavours and beautiful textures.
Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are producing South Africa’s top wines. We were especially impressed with what the top producers were doing with their sparkling wines. The Method Cap Classic uses in bottle secondary fermentation and is essentially the same as the Methode Champenois. The results are spectacular and we found the sparkling wines to be as good as we have tasted from anywhere outside of Champagne. Top examples can compete with the best we have had from Sonoma, Oregon and Spain. We were also very impressed with the still whites we encountered.
Chenin Blanc is getting a lot of buzz and deservedly so for its great balance, soft texture and good acidity. Sauvignon Blanc is also extremely well done in this region. New Zealand has its own style which has certainly attracted fans, but South African Sauvignon is a much different wine. The pungency and overt grassiness of New Zealand is nowhere to be found in South African Sauvignon. We encountered wines that were reminiscent of the French Sauvignons of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé: balanced wines with citrus flavours, medium body, mineral notes and refreshing acidity. The reds were also very good and played a more elegant hand. While Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be getting the attention internationally, we felt that the Syrah (often called Shiraz in that area) was generally better suited to that terroir and showed more in common with the wines of the Northern Rhone than Australia or California.
One final note on prices: both food and wine are terrific bargains in South Africa. Their currency, the Rand, is now roughly equal to US 7 cents. Most of the top quality wines of South Africa we encountered were selling for less than R200 (US$14) and the very good ones were often half that price. Even though the costs of transportation and importation make them higher in local markets, they still represent excellent bargains on a world wide scale.