The most prestigious of the Cape’s wine appellations, Stellenbosch is indeed beautiful, but it also offers near-perfect wine-growing conditions and is situated right at the heart of South Africa’s wine industry, writes MICHAEL FRIDJHON
Stellenbosch is to South African wine much more than Napa to California or the Médoc to Bordeaux. It is certainly the pre-eminent South African wine appellation. However, it is also the centre of the country’s wine business, the magnet for vinous investment and the repository of wine history for the sub-continent. While the town was established in the late 17th century by Governor Simon van der Stel – after whom it takes its name – its present reputation rests on several foundations, some historical and geographical, others simply coincidental. With near ideal conditions for viticulture, it was always going to be a prominent source of wine. Its proximity to Cape Town – it is less than 40km from the Mother City – also plays a role, as does its wine tourism infrastructure, the extraordinary beauty of its landscape, its location between sea and massive mountain ranges.
In addition, South Africa’s wine of origin legislation – which dates back to 1973 – helped to boost its reputation at the expense of lesser-known regions. Producers wishing to lay claim to Stellenbosch origin on their labels were compelled by law to source their fruit from the vineyards surrounding the town. This in turn enhanced the viability of the independent growers and gave them an opportunity to free themselves (ahead of the other regions) from their bondage to the wholesalers to whom they supplied grapes. Since then independent producers have proliferated – a process which has accelerated in the past decade. There has been a threefold increase in the number of wineries within the appellation in the last 10 years and the combined Stellenbosch Wine Routes now boast over 20% of South Africa’s cellars.
Many of these new wineries have been established on properties that were previously bulk grape suppliers. Most came into being during the export-driven boom of 1994 to 2002. Grape growers saw the profits being made from owning the added value of the vinification and established cellars on their properties. Now that the rand has bounced back from R19 to £1 in early 2002 to just over R11 today, many may have cause to doubt the wisdom of this decision – though falling grape prices has left those without production units in at least as invidious a position. Those who were in the game earliest have probably established a degree of brand credibility to help them weather the storm. More importantly, the strength of the Stellenbosch name contributes leverage to those who did not buy their land at recent (and highly inflated) prices to secure sales in a difficult market.
The Stellenbosch viticultural district extends from Somerset West on False Bay northwards for about 30km. At its widest – where the Cape Flats which separate Cape Town from Stellenbosch end to Helshoogte (‘The Heights of Hell’), it covers a similar distance. Although this is not a particularly large area, the declining maritime influence moving inland and an array of mountain ranges both contribute to substantial climatic variation. The Helderberg mountains which run from Stellenbosch to Somerset West have steep westerly and southwesterly slopes and benefit from the cool breezes blowing in off False Bay. The sites closest to Somerset West – Vergelegen is an obvious example – are substantially cooler than the vineyards around the town itself. Nooks and crannies – Stellenboschkloof, home to Jordan; Ida’s Valley, home to Rustenberg; and Jonkershoek, where Lanzerac’s vineyards are planted – all offer very different wine styles. Nearby Devon Valley produces some of Stellenbosch’s richest reds. Directly over the Bottelary hills estates like Kaapzicht and Hartenberg deliver a different flavour profile – the latter offering fine Shiraz and elegant Chardonnay. The Simonsberg sub-region boasts a host of the appellation’s best-known properties including Kanonkop, Warwick and Delheim.
Given its reputation, Stellenbosch is hardly at the cutting edge of new plantings in the Cape – for these the intrepid wine tourist must traipse down to Agulhas or far up the West Coast, or even take his chances near Knysna in the Southern Cape. But in other respects, Stellenbosch does boast much of the best of what is new in Cape wine. Like the Napa Valley, it has been something of a magnet for outside investment: those who have made their fortunes in banking, IT, and industry, prefer it to all other locations for the mandatory trophy wine farm. Accordingly, it has seen extraordinary investment targeted at producing great wine in a beautiful environment rather than at impressing the neighbours with a palace on the hill. Detailed soil studies to determine the most appropriate varieties, the ideal clones, and the best rootstocks are now commonplace, as is satellite-based climate research to determine the nuances of microclimate within each vineyard block. For many of these entrepreneurs new vineyards have been more important than the sometimes strikingly beautiful wineries – mainly because South Africa’s endemic vine viruses have left them without the basics necessary for the production of fine wine. As the new blocks acquire enough age to show their worth there is no doubt that many of these projects will be the source of the Cape’s best wines in the second decade of the 21st century.
Written by Michael Fridjhon