Smoke and mirrors

One of the many joys of the Cape is that the winelands are all within a day’s reach of Cape Town. An easy 20 minute drive down the M3 will get you to the beautiful vineyards and wines of the Constantia valley; double that time and you’ll be in the oak-lined streets of Stellenbosch, around which there are enough wineries to satisfy the most ardent wine taster. Even a drive north up the N7 towards Vredendal, or east, along the famous R62, to Calitzdorp and its many excellent Port-style fortified wines, will take little longer than four hours – trips that can be done in a day, though visitors are likely to want to stay overnight at least.

Those who have traversed these winelands will recognise that despite their relative proximity, the scenery, topography, altitude and temperatures, sometimes within just a few kilometres, are diverse. In a country such as Australia, where the wine regions are far more spread out – Margaret River on the West Coast and the Hunter Valley a few thousand kilometres away on the East Coast – such diversity would generally be easier to get a grasp of.

The benefit of proximity also brings its own challenges, especially when the eight-or-so most-planted varieties are found across the winelands and wineries produce an all-sorts range without any one variety a feature in all. It makes regional focus extremely difficult, marketing that region even more so.

Gradually, a few key regions are identifying a single variety or style on which they can hang their marketing hat and, if it’s not paying dividends now, it surely will, especially when producers pull together.

Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley from La Vierge towards the sea
Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley from La Vierge towards the sea

Take, for instance, the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, where the three Wards – Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (yes, be careful how you use lower and upper case here, else the ‘V’s will be on your back!), Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge – have made their name with pinot noir, not just through marketing, but more importantly the quality of the wine.

Thanks to our flexible regulations, other varieties are also grown and made there; chardonnay, of course, sauvignon blanc, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon among a host of others, but it is pinot with which the valley is now indelibly associated.

Their annual and extremely popular Pinot Noir Celebration, two days of local and international pinot hedonism for around 150 pinotphiles, has done much to create awareness of the valley itself and the quality coming out of it.

Hemel en Aarde's pioneer pinot noir. The late Tim Hamilton Russell recognised the valley's suitability for pinot and chardonnay, purchasing the farm in the id-1970s.
Hemel en Aarde’s pioneer pinot noir. The late Tim Hamilton Russell recognised the valley’s suitability for pinot and chardonnay, purchasing the farm in the id-1970s.

There are many who wonder why they bothered to divide this small area into three Wards (they fall under the Walker Bay District, but who knows anything about that?). Apart from politics, I’m one who does believe each has a potential distinction from the others, something that should be pursued, if mainly for the geeks; nothing wrong with the less-involved consumer keeping to ‘think Hemel-en-Aarde, think pinot noir’, or the even more straightforward, ‘South African pinot noir’.

Rumour has it that Elgin, whose chardonnays I’ve been known to rave on about, are considering something similar for their flagship variety. I hope such rumour is true, for it is this white variety, iterated by many wineries, that pinpoints their cool climate.

Constantia and Durbanville, which share sea vistas and breezes, have sauvignon blanc as their calling card. A few years ago, Constantia introduced Constantia Fresh, then a wonderful summer showcase for their wines held in the gardens of beautiful Buitenverwachting. It’s still held there, but attention is now distracted by wines from all over on show too.

Constantia valley with False Bay in background
Constantia valley with False Bay in background

In warmer areas, the Swartland has syrah, its various cohorts and had the Swartland Revolution, their showcase now no doubt evolving into something else to keep the momentum going. More temperate Stellenbosch, as populous an area as it is and with seven Wards, enjoys acclaim with cabernet sauvignon, of which it boasts the majority of the country’s best examples.

As is evident from these few examples, a theme is emerging. Variety, style, quality but also specific climatic conditions, topography which give each of these areas their distinction need to be promoted and experienced. For instance, rain is not unknown in both Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin during summer in a strong south-easterly wind. The same wind blowing over Constantia and Durbanville will merely cool down the vines while the sun still shines.

It will take time and a sustained marketing effort for winelovers, local or international, to come to appreciate why pinot shines in Hemel-en-Aarde, cabernet in Stellenbosch and that while vintage conditions might be good for one, it might prove more difficult for the other. (This doesn’t take into account any varieties new to Cape vineyards which might perform even better than those mentioned here.)

Such determination should, however, be made after rather than during the harvest, as is happening this year, admittedly with its extreme weather conditions, ‘the hottest and driest for 150 years’, I’ve been told. South African vintages themselves are not a one-trick pony, neither are they the same within all the regions.

Regional enlightenment would also ensure winelovers breathe easy that smoke from a fire in Stellenbosch won’t affect that Hemel-en-Aarde pinot.

Simonsberg fire 2016. Photo courtesy of
Simonsberg fire 2016. Photo courtesy of

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