Think South African reds, think Stellenbosch. But just why is the region so far ahead of its neighbours, and just when are they going to catch up? TONY MOSSOP finds out.
ASK a group of northern hemisphere wine drinkers to locate the Cape wine region on an African map, and many would struggle. As for pinpointing a single vineyard area, forget it. So is the legend of Stellenbosch – the much-heralded red jewel in the Cape’s crown – justified, or mere marketing hype?
The name certainly enjoys greater international recognition among semi-educated wine drinkers than any other area in the region. It is arguably on a par with Napa, and certainly a whisker ahead of Coonawarra. In short, it’s a sexy address, for sure. Just ask Jeff Grier, whose family owns the Villiera estate, recently ‘reclassified’ to Stellenbosch from neighbouring Paarl.
‘When we bought the place years ago it was smaller, and fell into the Paarl magisterial district,’ he says. ‘But as we expanded, our new purchases were all on the Stellenbosch side. We didn’t push for reclassification – after all, it’s never been done before. But some of our neighbours felt we should be on board.
‘The wines are the same – and we don’t get any more visitors because we’re on the Stellenbosch Wine Route rather than the Paarl one. In fact, we haven’t even released any ‘Stellenbosch’ origin wines yet – that’ll be the 2002 vintage, from after the reclassification.’
One senses a ‘but’ coming. And though Grier is reluctant to admit that his change of address – if not location – will result in higher prices for his wines (‘maybe some time in the future,’ he muses), it’s safe to say the sexed-up branding will eventually reap rewards.
Pick of the Bunch
So does Stellenbosch have the raw materials to back up its elevated status? After all, its vines are on the youngish side, with two-thirds under ten years old, and only 20% past their 20th birthday, And the area ranks only third in the total line-up of viticultural regions size-wise, with just 16% of all vineyard land in the Cape. But its ratio of red-to-white grape plantings, at 60%/40%, is in marked contrast to the national 30/70 average. What’s more, the region can claim a third of the country’s Cabernet and Merlot, 23% of its Pinotage, a quarter of Shiraz plantings, and nearly half of all the Cabernet Franc.
Then there are the show results and other accolades. The country’s respected WINE Magazine has only awarded 11 five-star ratings (‘Superlative – World class’) in its 10-year history: seven of these were for red wines – all from Stellenbosch. Of this magazine’s 22 top Cape cellars, 17 are situated in the Stellenbosch region. And of the 26 Double Gold medal accolades dished out for reds at the SA National ‘Veritas’ wine show this year, more than half were awarded to Stellenbosch wines.
The list goes on: at the 2003 Fairbairn Capital Trophy Wine Show, Stellenbosch reds picked up eight of the 12 Gold medals. In recent WINE Magazine category tastings, where a four-star rating is only awarded to an ‘excellent wine of distinction’, the region took four out of five such Bordeaux blend reds, five out of nine Shirazes and all three Merlots. Stellenbosch is only overshadowed in one red wine category: Pinot Noir, where the Walker Bay region near Hermanus claims dominance.
Pockets of Greatness
How has this enviable track record been built up? Cape-based international wine judge and writer Dave Hughes has a memory as long as his snow-white beard. ‘It all comes down to competition,’ he claims. ‘Ever since guys like the late Frans Malan of Simonsig estate and ‘Spatz’ Sperling of Delheim got the whole Stellenbosch Wine Route going 30 years ago, these guys wanted to out-do each other. There are now so many cellars cheek by jowl all over the Stellenbosch hills, all trying to pip the other, [that] it breeds class.’
Hughes points out that the region is not a ‘cool climate’ area: ‘In fact, the Robertson region [on the other side of the mountains] enjoys cooler nights, with similar harvest-time temperatures during the day. There are plenty of cooler regions – Walker Bay, Constantia…’
But there are plenty who agree with him that it is Stellenbosch’s topographical diversity that makes it special: after all, it’s such a complex, convoluted part of the world. New Zealander Chris Kelly is in charge of winemaking at the progressive Stellenbosch Vineyards consortium of erstwhile co-ops. He loves the variety and opportunities. ‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think this place was more exciting than anywhere in France, Australia or Napa,’ he says. ‘In fact, it’s the only region I know apart from Napa with so many different microclimates and little zones of real excellence.’
Thelema’s Gyles Webb agrees. From his lofty perch near the recent winter snowline at the top of the Helshoogte pass above Stellenbosch, he says: ‘I’ve looked all over for more land to plant for our needs and those of Tokara,’ (the neighbouring cellar, also in his charge). ‘I’ve checked out the cool Elgin region, Walker Bay near Hermanus… you name it. But Stellenbosch grapes cover all the red bases for me.’
So too for Neil Ellis, who was the first vineyard-less winemaker to source grapes for his range of own-name wines nearly 20 years ago. He is now based at the Oude Nektar farm near Stellenbosch, up the Jonkershoek valley, one of those little pockets of excellence. Ellis scours the whole of the Cape from the west coast to the southeast for premium fruit, but when it comes to quality red wines, it all comes back to Stellenbosch.
‘It’s the amazing diversity,’ Ellis says. ‘These little pockets – jewels if you like – were lost in the grand scheme of things. All these great grapes disappeared into the mass blends of the co-ops or Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery [now Distell]. They’re being rediscovered again, and replanted with better, virus-free material. And all the traditional old farms – such as Kanonkop, Rustenberg, Vergelegen – have “super-blocks” too. It’s just taken time to identify them and develop those special wines.’ Ellis feels that in any line-up of 10 great Cape reds, eight would come from Stellenbosch.
Charles Hopkins does not make wine there: cellarmaster for the Graham Beck winery near Franschhoek, over the Helshoogte pass towards Paarl, he knew that the red grape source around his newly built showpiece cellar was not quite hitting the spot for the style of wines he wanted to make.
‘So we twisted Mr Beck’s arm and bought these two great vineyards near Somerset West, on the hills above False Bay,’ he recalls. ‘The stuff is amazing – our reds took a leap in quality. The proximity to the coast, with those cool southeast winds, does the trick. Fortunately, we can now call the wines Stellenbosch – previously, when we trucked the grapes to Franschhoek they lost their passport and became common old catch-all Coastal Region. Let’s face it, that means nothing on a bottle – Stellenbosch says it all!’
Gerrie Wagener is a viticulturist who grows and sources fruit for the multi-brand Winecorp operation. ‘For our top echelon wines like Spier and Longridge, we use only Stellenbosch fruit for the reds. Prices are high, but the wines can afford that. For our other brands, like Bay View, we rove a little further – the West Coast, around Darling, is good for us.’
Such alternatives must be considered healthy, even by ‘Stello-philes’. So where is the competition coming from? Some, such as Kelly, point to the un-tried hills of the Southern Cape, beyond Hermanus and Stanford, in the direction of Cape Agulhas, the continent’s southern tip. ‘Our viticulturist, François de Villiers, feels it’s like Coonawarra – only better.’
Wagener agrees, but Ellis is sceptical: ‘It’s too marginal – they get maybe two great vintages every decade there, while in Stellenbosch you can double that.’ And he’s critical of reds from the west coast and Swartland, the warm, wheat-growing region north of Cape Town. ‘The guys make ‘4×4’ wines there,’ he chuckles, referring to the macho mode of transport used by the average winemaker. ‘Acids – 4, pH – 4 and 44% alcohol! Not the refinement or ageing track record of Stellenbosch.’
The Stellenbosch wine region is probably the most diverse, beautiful little viticultural area on the planet. From the foot of Sir Lowry’s pass near Somerset West, including the magnificent Vergelegen spread and the Lourens River valley, all the way to the northwest, this complex, fascinating piece of vineyard area snakes and winds itself in and around the spectacular mountains which provide the decomposed granite and Hutton soils so beloved by red grapes. The Helderberg, Hottentots Holland and Simonsberg ranges tower over the hills, with all manner of nooks and crannies and such names as Stellenboschkloof, Devon Valley, Polkadraai, Bottelary and Eerste River serving to confuse the wine tourist. And many of these sub-regions have spawned their own mini-wine routes, highlighting the individuality of the micro-climates and helping the region to even greater fame.
Not a chance of boredom here. And the finest red wines in the land.
Written by Tony Mossop