The Jaw-Dropping Wines of South Africa’s Stellenbosch District
Many of the photos we see of South African vineyards–positioned in front of striking granite mountains,–are from the Stellenbosch area. It contains the most developed winelands; it is home to an important wine University (University of Stellenbosch); and it is the center of wine tourism. In short, Stellenbosch is to South African wine much like Napa is to Californian wine.
Of course, finding good wine from Stellenbosch can be challenging because there are so many producers. However, there is a secret to exploring the area. The highest rated wines tend come from vineyards that are on alluvial fans of the granite mountains. The wines from these locations are often described as having a subtle mineral note which many believe is from the decomposed granite soils. The granite mountains are approximately 600 million years old, over 3 times as old as the soil in Napa.
“The granite mountains are approximately 600 million years old, over 3 times as old as the soil in Napa.
5 Outstanding Sub-Regions of Stellenbosch
Within Stellenbosch there are 7 sub-regions, or wards, and a few unofficial delineated areas where wine is produced. The 5 following areas have consistently produced outstanding wines, each with their own regional specialty. If you ever get an inkling to visit, it’s well worth it!
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Blaauwklippen River Valley unofficial Ward
Blauuwklippen (meaning “Blue Cliffs”) is an unofficial area just southwest of Stellenbosch that is hedged by the Hottentots-Holland Mountains. The region is most famous for its bold, blackberry-and-spices Syrah but also produces excellent rich-styled aromatic white wines with Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
- Tobacco-laced Cabernet and Merlot Blends
- Easy drinking White and Rosé wines
Somerset West unofficial Ward
This unofficial area has breathtaking ocean views on one side and stunning ancient mountains on the other. Somerset West is where you’ll find outstanding Bordeaux blends made with Cabernet Sauvignon that have great potential to age. The Cabernet-based wines taste of tobacco and smoke with notes of black currant and pencil lead, much like a Supertuscan wine from Bulgari, Tuscany.
- Cabernet and Merlot Blends designed for long-term aging
- Toasty and citrusy styles of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc
Simonsberg is a mountain that straddles Paarl to the North and Stellenbosch to the South. Simonsberg-Stellenbosch has deep, reddish clay soils that create wines so bold they usually need to be cellared for several years to subdue their massive tannins. After waiting the right amount of time (usually 7 years), the Bordeaux blends and Syrahs review flavors of smoky black currant, black cherry, tobacco and cedar. These wines are perhaps the closest analog to Bordeaux. Besides reds, this region also produces a unique-to-SA white blend with Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and often a little Verdelho (a dry climate white from Portugal). The whites have bright acidity, a waxy-creaminess from subtle oak-aging, and flavors of lemon, apple, and toasted almond.
- Outstanding Chardonnay
- Juicy, fruit-forward Cabernet and Merlot Blends
Next to Simonsberg-Stellenbosch is the very small, hilly region of Banghoek. This area is a little cooler and produces juicy, creamy, Cabernet-based wines that have less tannin than Simonsberg-Stellenbosch. The reds are good, but perhaps the area should be more known for their outstanding (and little known) white wines. The acidity in Banghoek white wines are what set it apart from the other wards (and even Franshhoek district). The Chardonnays and Chenins from Banghoek exude flavors of lemon-curd, pineapple, vanilla and have a streak of acidity that makes them easy contenders for being some of the best Chardonnay in the country.
- Elegant, peppery styles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
- Creamy Chardonnays and other white wine blends
Jonkershoek Valley Ward
If you ever go to South Africa you need to go to Jonkershoek Valley, not necessarily for the wine, but for the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve. This little valley is like nothing else. This area of South Africa is home to one of only six floral kingdoms of the world. There are something close to 9,600 recorded plant species that make up the Cape Floral Kingdom, 70% of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Jonkershoek Nature Reserve has over a thousand different species, some of which don’t grow anywhere else. When it comes to wine there are a limited number of producers, due to the fragility of the region, who produce peppery, savory, and minerally red wines of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and floral, zesty white wine blends with notes of ginger, saffron and beeswax.