With literally hundreds of options from which to choose, finding your bearings when it comes to the Cape’s wine farms, wine estates, and wine-tasting rooms can be a daunting task. So here’s a helpful, varietal-based guide to just Five of the highly drinkable tipples from our area.
Before we begin, a note on terroir: With its warm ocean breezes and moderate rainfall, and given the protection it gets from the Helderberg mountains (previously the Hottentots-Holland mountains), the Somerset West wine region is possibly South Africa’s premium red wine production area. But it shows considerable talent for excellent white wines, too.
Now. To the wines:
Is Cab-Sauv the world’s best-known premium red wine grape? Certainly it was the world’s most-planted red variety for much of the 20th century until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s. That didn’t last long, though, and by 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon had clawed its way back to the top spot again, where it no doubt belongs It’s easy to cultivate; its thick-skinned fruit ripens late, which makes it hardy to frost; and the vines have a natural resistance to insects and other nasties.
Classically described as full-bodied, with high tannins and a natural acidity, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are known to age well, with grapes grown in cold climate delivering hints of blackcurrant, green pepper, and mint, while vines from warmer areas yield olive and cherry notes.
In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, it’s the most widely planted red wine grape, and, according to Wikipedia, “regional styles are starting to emerge… the Stellenbosch region is noted for heavy, full bodied wines while Constantia’s wines are characterized by their herbal and minty flavours.”
- Our suggestion? Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 vintage, which the estate describes as a wine that, “shows off pure fruit and earthy notes complimented by a classical pencil lead aroma. A typical dry tannin structure with a seamless balance to finish.”
The rich, dark-blue Merlot grape, which is probably named after the blackbird – “merle” in French – is the third-most-planted amongst the world’s premium reds.
Famous as one of the main varieties used in Bordeaux blends, and the most widely planted variety in France, it’s given rise to two distinct styles: the Bordeaux style, in which the grapes are harvested early to maintain acidity, producing medium-bodied wines characterised by fresh flavours of red fruit such as raspberries and strawberries, and the international style, favoured in the New World, including here in South Africa, in which later harvesting yields full-bodied, inky wines that are high in tannins and alcohol, and that deliver intense flavours of plums and blackberries.
Here in Somerset West, we are literally in the middle of Merlot country; the vines seem to favour the cooler sites around the Paarl and Stellenbosch regions, which are situated right next door to us.
- Our choice? De Trafford Merlot from one of the newer vineyards in our region: the family-run De Trafford Winery, which, according to its website, focusses on “high-end red wines of great intensity & longevity, using minimal intervention production methods.”
Also chiefly associated with the Bordeaux region, Pinot Noir grapes are generally grown in the cooler wine producing areas of the world. It’s the most-planted varietal in the Champagne region, too (38% according to Wikipedia), and in other sparkling-wine producing areas.
The word “pinot” (“pine” in French) refers to the vine’s habit of producing tightly-clustered trusses of fruit that resemble pine cones, a habit that creates canopy-management challenges for viticulturists since the tight spaces between the individual grapes create fine environments for the formation of various forms of rot. But it’s all worthwhile because the grape’s thin skin and low levels of phenolic compounds such as flavinols, musts and tannins, tend to deliver light-coloured, medium-bodied wines with low tannins.
Young Pinot Noir wines often present cherry, strawberry or raspberry notes, which develop towards vegetal and barnyard flavours as the wines age.
- We’re going with: The Dome Pinot Noir 2017 from Lourensford Estate. (Lourensford’s just four km from Easy Five Guesthouse) Lourensford’s web site describes it as, “bright ruby-red in colour. Aromas of fresh, ripe cherries with an undertone of well-used leather greet you on the nose. On the pallet the wine has a silken texture and gamey complexity.”
Stemming from the Loire Valley in France, Chenin Blanc produces fruits of high acidity that are used as components in a wide variety of products: sparkling wines, table wines, dessert wines, and so on.
Chenin is a relatively old variety whose history in South Africa may stretch back to the earliest settlers. Indeed, the first commander at the Cape, the Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck, is thought to have planted it here in the 1650s, and his often-quoted diary entry for 2 February 1659 has been translated as, “Today – praise be to heaven – for the very first time the grapes of the Cape were pressed for winemaking.”
Known for centuries in this country as “Steen,” but positively identified as Chenin Blanc in 1965, this varietal is credited with fuelling South Africa’s white-wine renaissance in the 1960s and 70s (Wikipedia).
By the early 2000s, fully one-fifth of South Africa’s vineyards were planted to Chenin Blanc.
Since moving to South Africa, Linda (one of the owners of Easy Five Guesthouse), finds that she’s quite fond of Chenin Blanc, which embodies the (ahem) spirit of South African wine making.
- Our choice (because we like celebrating!): Stellenrust Winery’s Chenin Blanc Sparkling Brut: A blend of Chenin Blanc and Muscat de Alexandrie. Stellenrust is a family-run farm and, according to its website, “With our mother being Italian, the influence from Prosecco styles of tank fermented, Charmat method, Italian sparkling wines were called for seeing that we already produce sparkling wine in the bottle fermented version.”
This variety stems from France’s Burgundy region, but it’s made its home in most of the world’s wine producing areas, where it contributes to numerous different styles. It’s even a favourite for sparkling wines produced in the Champagne!
The green-skinned grapes are best described as neutral, since the flavours associated with Chardonnay wines are invariably influenced by terroir and the chosen fermentation process. In general, though, they produce medium- to light-bodied wines, which may explain their popularity, which “peaked in the late 1980s, then gave way to a backlash among those wine connoisseurs who saw the grape as a leading negative component of the globalization of wine. Nonetheless, it is one of the most widely planted grape varieties … second only to Airén among white wine grapes and fifth among all wine grapes” (Wikipedia)
South Africa’s relationship with Chardonnay is somewhat fraught; many cuttings that were smuggled into the country as Chardonnays in the 70s and 80s, in contravention of local quarantine restrictions, weren’t the real deal, but (Wikipedia again), “By the late 1990s, efforts to promote ‘authentic’ Chardonnay helped to increase plantings and by 2004 it was the third-most widely planted white wine grape behind Chenin Blanc and Colombard.”
- Our choice for this month (it’ll change): The Mira Chardonnay 2015 from Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards, which are situated 620 metres above sea level on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountains (worth visiting, even if just for the views!). According to the producer, this is, “A wine of real poise and fruit purity with sweet, juicy lime offset by fresh, lingering acidity. Complex and balanced with an elegant creaminess and chalky texture.”
So – cheers to new discoveries at Easy Five Guest House in Somerset West!
Image: Francis Moran