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Discovering The New Wine Frontier Of South Africa

South Africa

This new frontier of viticulture is not so new at all, for the last 350 years European settlers explored and put down roots quite literally.  In this case rootstock from the Vitis Vinifera species which is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe.

South African topography and geology is a direct result of cataclysmic continental activity. It’s a rare opportunity when you can actually see what the French call terroir, or sense of place.  But in this new frontier of wine country you can look at the topography and understand how it lends itself to “sense of place.”

There are three distinct types of vineyard terroir in South Africa, the Western Cape area that receives ample natural moisture while the mountains loom close to the sea.  The mountains rose up from the earth due to molten lava beneath the earth.  This Western Coastal region enjoys a Mediterranean like climate with constant wind.  Erosion from the wind and weather left sandstone on top of granite like rock from the eroding mountain sides, leaving idyllic conditions to grow grapes.  The constant winds blowing through the vineyards in this area are known as the “Cape Doctor.”  This ever present winds help vineyards to remain disease free by not allowing disease carrying insects to take up residence on the grapevine leaves.

This area which is rich in soil benefits from the Mediterranean climate.  In fact it produces perhaps the largest number of grape varietals in South Africa.

On the leeward side of the mountains rainfall is generally about half of what is normal on the coastal side.  This is still enough moisture to naturally irrigate the vineyards that line the mountain foothills.  Soils of the foothills are laden with decomposed granite and shale which lends itself to great drainage for grapes to grow.  Grape farmers pay great attention to elevation and direction of the foothill slopes.  These are important factors that determine what type of grape varieties are able to be grown and the characteristics that the fruit will produce.

The shape of the mountain faces and flat topped bluffs that look like what are referred to in Eastern Montana as “buffalo jumps” may be more interesting than any other grape growing region.  The actual shape of these mountains and bluffs serve as great mediators of climate, funneling in coastal moisture late in the day.  Heat from the foothills is greeted by cool afternoon wind currents that circulates through the vineyards, slowing the ripening of the grapes.  This allows what is referred to as proper seasonal “hang time” on the vines.

The vast inland valley areas are rich and fertile, perfect for growing grapes.  The vines are irrigated with water from the rivers that run through these inland river areas.  The soil is rich with alluvial soil matter that sits atop clay in these South African valley’s.  The result are grapes that tend to be more viscous than that of their counterparts from the coastal region and inland foothills located on the dryer side of the mountains.

South Africa is a new frontier for growing grapes with the constant discovery of new growing areas.   Winemaking is steeped in European tradition and the wines are fun, refreshing, and offer the wine lover terrific consumer value.

Terroir

The vineyards of South Africa are influenced by the constant confluence of ancient geology, coastal breezes, foothill slopes, and mountains.  The Western Cape is one of the greatest areas of floral biodiversity, in fact it is recognized as the smallest yet richest of the top 6 floral kingdoms of the world.  Translation; this area brings diverse benefits for the many varietals of wine produced in South Africa.

There are currently 25 different wine growing regions in South Africa, each one featuring various viticulture attributes.  Most of the regions are influenced by two of the world’s mighty oceans, the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean.  Mild Mediterranean weather, cool sea breezes, coastal fog, unique topography, and a variety of soil composition all come together to produce individual wines of character and complexity.

Winemaking

Winemaking in South Africa is nothing new, it actually dates back 350 years and has been driven by many different European occupancies and cultural influences.  For the wine drinker this is a huge benefit, you can expect Old World wine-making technique and New World focus of fruit, viticulture, and terroir or sense of place. https://youtu.be/kYJMDWIQ6fA

Geology

Shale and schist were deposited long ago in a marine basin at an elevation of 60 -700ft.  Due to tectonic upheaval this soil matter eroded into what is now foothills.  Plutons are intrusions of magma deep within the earth that rose up and cooled slowly resulting in the formation of Granite dome shaped mountains.  Some of the flat topped domes are located in the Paarl and Darling Hills, and Perdeberg Mountains (600-1,300ft.).  Erosion has covered many of these domes with sandstone like the Table and Simonsberg Mountan regions (3,300-4,300ft.).  The foothills of these domed hill and mountain ranges are rolling substrata’s composed of shale deposits.  These geological features make up what are the 3 most important geologic impacts of growing grapes; location, incline, and altitude.

In this southern hemisphere temperamental varietals such as Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Noir are grown on the cooler southern and eastern slopes.  Altitude and location impact the amount of the sun exposure, wind currents, temperature effect on grape vines.  The northern and western slopes are warmer due to the more direct effects from the sun’s rays.  The Eastern slopes warm faster and the Western slopes cool faster.

Soil

The soils of the Western Cape are diverse but today the coastal zone is mainly sandstone mountain with underlying granite, and at the base is shale.  Shale is predominantly found inland mixed with river deposits.

Sandstone is synonymous with poor nutrient value and low water retention while the granite is common on the foothill slopes and hills.  The granite rich areas are reddish to yellow in color, maintain good water retention and the soil is acidic in nature.  The shale based soil is brownish in color, has very good structure and water retention qualities.  Duplex soil is common in the lowlands of the coastal region, these soils are composed of sand and a coarse granitic material with clay under the surface.

Climate

Viticulture today in South Africa takes place between 27°S and 34°S latitude, as it has for the last 350 years.  This fairly narrow band of latitude exemplifies a Mediterranean like climate while the coastal areas weather is moderated by the ocean and its cool ocean breezes.  The climate is temperate, warm summers, cool winters with no frost.

Viticulture climate terminology is referenced with three different terms; Macroclimate, Mesoclimate, and Microclimate.  Macroclimate refers to the overall climate of a region, Mesoclimate identifies climatic differences from vineyard to vineyard, and these climatic variances are due to various components of terroir.  Microclimates reference climate variance potentially within the same block of land within a vineyard, this can be caused by circumstances of vine and canopy management.

The Wines

Mulderbosch Vineyards, as seen on ABC TV https://youtu.be/BWrACOO3GaI , is one of South Africa’s wine producers that have captured the very best of Old World technique and New World viticulture.  Click on this link to view the tasting notes of a flight of eight wines presented at a recent WineGuyMike wine show.  Great wines offering great consumer value; Wines of South Africa