In South Africa, viticulture mainly takes place at a latitude of 34° south in an area with a mild Mediterranean climate. The Western Cape is cooler than its position might suggest, with conditions that are ideal for a wide range of noble vine varieties. The traditional wine growing areas along the coastal zone are seldom more than 50 km from the ocean and experience beneficial breezes blowing in from the sea.
The temperate climate features warm summers and cool winters with frost rarely a problem. Rain falls mainly between May and August. Further east and towards the north, the Klein Karoo, Olifants River and Orange River areas tend to be warmer and drier.
With its ancient soils, South Africa is considered to be the cradle of mankind. The impressive Cape mountain ranges form a dramatic backdrop to one of the most beautiful wine producing areas of the world. The vineyards lie on the valley sides and floors, benefiting from the many different meso-climates offered by the mountainous terrain and diverse terroir. There’s constant interaction between the rugged peaks and multi-directional valley slopes and the proximity of to two mighty oceans – in particular the Atlantic, chilled by the icy Benguela current which flows northwards up the west coast of Africa from the Antarctica – moderates the summer warmth. Cooling breezes blow in from the sea during the day, fog and moisture-laden breezes are prevalent at night. Adequate sunshine plays an important role too. This diversity of topography and meso-climatic conditions results in wines of character and complexity.
The Cape floral kingdom is the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms which creates a unique biodiversity. In the Cape winelands, grapes grown in one single block can show variety. The grape quality has been positively affected by better matching of varieties to locations in recent years. Extensive research and practical experience have been combined to establish which micro-climates suit particular grape varieties in order to find the ideal conditions for the wide selection of varieties that South Africa has adopted from every corner of the wine-producing world.
The wine industry in South Africa is undergoing an exciting period of change, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Winemakers are experimenting with new varieties of vine, as well as new clones of existing varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Large-scale experimentation with rootstocks is taking place to establish which planting material is particularly suited to conditions at the Cape, co-ordinated by the Vine Improvement Board.
As in other New World countries, viticulturists are hard at work matching vine varieties to soils and meso-climates in order to achieve the best results. Vineyard life in South Africa is similar to Europe’s although South Africa’s viticultural year begins in September. While preparations for the vintage are being made in Europe, the vines in South Africa are just beginning to bud.
Once buds have formed, the vines must be kept free from pest, disease and weed, and are often pruned if growth becomes too vigorous. Flowering normally takes place in November and in December the young grapes begin to swell and grow. At this stage the vines are often ‘topped’ to improve air circulation around the grapes and thus minimise the risk of fungus or rot.
January in the Cape heralds the beginning of summer and, as the temperatures increase, early grape varieties begin to ripen. The bulk of the harvest takes place in February and the sugar/acid ratio of the grapes is checked daily so that each variety is harvested at optimum ripeness.
In most South African vineyards harvesting is carried out by hand, although machines are used on some farms. The grapes are picked into baskets and transported in bins to the winery where vinification begins.
South African Soil Types
In South Africa, as in much of the New World, wine producers are focused on identifying and selecting sites best suited to particular grape varieties. In addition, new clones and rootstocks which are particularly well adapted to the local soil and climatic conditions are being selected.
Not all soils in the Cape Winelands are fertile but this is not necessarily to be perceived as a disadvantage. Rich soils can produce over-vigorous vines which can in turn yield grapes lacking in character and complexity.
Vines thrive in poor soils and are capable of putting down roots to a depth of several metres in search of nutrients and water. Good quality grapes, however, are not produced on badly drained or very shallow sites.
The soils of the South African wine regions are highly diverse, mainly due to pronounced differences in topography and geology. In the coastal zone, the general pattern is sandstone mountains, resting on granite intrusions, surrounded by shale at lower altitudes, whereas further inland shale parent material and river deposits usually predominate.
The three most important soil types are:
• Derived from Granite
Usually red to yellow colored, acidic, and found on mountain foothill slopes and on ranges of hills, with good physical and water retention properties (Oakleaf, Tukulu, Hutton, Clovelly)
• Derived from Table Mountain Sandstone
Sandy with low nutrient and adequate water retention properties (Estcourt, Fernwood, Longlands, Westleigh, Dundee)
• Derived from Shale
Usually brownish, strongly structured, on partly decomposed parent rock, with good nutrient reserves and water retention properties (Glenrosa, Swartland, Klapmuts, Estcourt).