We, the glorious inhabitants of the Western Cape, have the unbelievable privilege of living in close proximity of some of the most unique and exciting wine producing regions in the world. Whether you are driving north, south, east or west of Cape Town, you are bound to come across a few very interesting wine farms on your journey. Here in the Western Cape, we are very lucky to have such a variety of different production regions- each with their own climate and soils and therefore their own unique wine styles. And with all of these regions to choose from, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused. So here is a little summary of only a few of the wine producing districts you can find in the Western Cape (I can write a whole book if I had to write about all of them, so these are just a few of my personal favourites).
Ah, of course I have to begin with good ‘old Stellies’. It is the town that is most often associated with South African wines. This world famous Boland town has earned its reputation as one of the finest wine producing regions on the planet. With its rich heritage and farms that are hundreds of year’s old- passed down through generations of passionate farmers, it is no wonder people are attracted by this little piece of wine-paradise. It is not only the aesthetics of the magnificent mountains, the never-ending rolling hills of vineyards or the bustling student life that makes this town so popular- it is, for the most part, the wine. The cool sea breeze that reaches over the Helderberg mountain from Somerset West, is a soft kiss of delicateness that can be experienced in many of the wines originating from this region. Being a soil scientist myself, I believe the most unique thing that Stellenbosch as a wine producing area has to offer, are its soils. The deep red, clayey soils on the mountain slopes has helped this region to become famous for its full-bodied, award winning Cabernets. The heterogeneous nature of most of the soils in this region may give some inexperienced farmers and winemakers quite the headache, as it is a difficult task to ensure even ripening of grapes that are cultivated on vastly different soil types. Therefore, I give any producer that is willing to plant, cultivate and harvest in this district a tip of the hat, a pat on the back and an honourable salute.
This district is probably best known for its French heritage and the story of the Huguenots coming to South Africa and of course bringing along their knowledge about wine. The delicate little town with its art galleries and corner bistros that serve freshly made crêpes and espresso, remind you of another life that you might have lived in France, but you are surrounded by the picturesque mountains that can only be found in the Provence (get it?) that we like to call home. And do not be fooled by the French-y names flashing by as you enter through the gates of the wineries, these are top-notch SA winemakers making wines with a distinct South African signature. The region is, like Stellenbosch, also better known for its red wines. Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon seems to suit well in this valley. Let us not forget the district’s homage to its French cousin (i.e. Lady Champagne), with elegant and sophisticated MCCs to write home about. With soils ranging from alluvial and fertile to mountainous and deep, this region delivers a wide variety of excellent white, red and dessert wines.
As we drive over the famously beautiful Franschhoek Pass, we slowly head closer to a little known seaside town called Hermanus. You might think it is better known for its annual Whale Festival, but the Walker Bay district is also home to some of the world’s finest wines. The cool ocean breeze that creeps up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley makes the climate ideal for the production of top quality Chardonnay and Pinot noir. The variety of winemaking styles within the region is also mesmerising- with the presence of more traditional producers and new-age wine innovators all within a few kilometres of each other. This also seems to be THE destination where winemakers in the Western Cape take their annual “holiday” over the festive season, so it can’t be bad if the wine pioneers are going there (wink, wink).
What used to be known as Apple Country has slowly, but surely turned into one of the most interesting wine regions in South Africa. Initially it was thought that the climate around the area of Grabouw was too cold for growing grapes, but more and more producers are making beautiful wines in this region. The Elgin Cool Wine and Country Food Festival are bringing loads of people to this neck of the woods and giving the district some well-deserved exposure. Of course the cool climate leads itself to the production of outstanding white wines- with Sauvignon blanc topping the list. Other whites that are making waves in the region include (but are not limited to) Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling. How’d you like ‘dem apples?
On the other side of the Cape Fold Mountains, we are greeted by the friendly people of Worcester. Most of us might be familiar with the town because of its famous olive route or because you are a die-hard fan of Arno Carstens, but some smart people know that this is Chenin blanc country. The immense difference in diurnal temperatures (hot days and cold nights) make this region ideal for cultivating Steen- also known as Chenin blanc. The proximity this district has to other wine producing areas like the Breedekloof and Robertson districts, also makes it well worth the journey over (or through) the mountain.
This region probably doesn’t need any introduction. The great success of the Wacky Wine Weekend, Wine on the River and many other wine related festivals in this district, has made Robertson a household name where wine is to be drank. Strangely enough, the Robertson region’s climate seems to be quite similar to what we experience in Stellenbosch, with the exception of greater differences in diurnal temperatures and most importantly its lower winter rainfall compared to Stellies. It is extraordinary to see what influence this has on the wine styles of the region. As you enter the Robertson area, you also start to notice the luscious red soils of this region, which makes the district even more suitable for producing the bold and robust red wines it is known for- with Shiraz and Cab taking centre stage. Dessert wines from this region are also of outstanding quality and the white wines are not far off either. With the immense amount of fine wine farms in the region, it is best to head there for at least a full weekend to experience each and every one of them.
On the West Coast of our province lies the wine district that has been making some serious waves in the SA wine industry over the past couple of years. Beyond the vast wheat and canola fields, beautiful vineyards are to be found under dryland, rain-fed irrigation. “The Swartland Revolution” brought forth innovative individuals that changed the way we look at everything from winemaking styles to packaging and marketing. And even though this annual festival no longer takes place, this region is still exciting to visit and one to keep a close eye on.
Last, but not least, is the district that is best known for having the oldest wine farms in the country. The traditional Cape-Dutch style architecture of the Constantia area is reminiscent of days (and wine) long gone. You can almost picture the slaves pressing the grapes with their bare feet in big barrels as you drive under the trees that are reaching up to the heavens. But is not only the tradition and heritage of this region that makes it so special- there is a very good reason why Napoleon himself chose to drink wine from this small corner of the earth. Distinct delicate white wines are at the order of the day and they are well worth facing the wind that you might encounter on your visit here- not to mention the scenic drive over Chapman’s Peak (like you need anymore convincing).
In a nutshell, every wine district has its very own wine styles, cultivars, festivals and other attractions that make them popular. There are loads more wine districts in the Western Cape that I myself haven’t even explored yet- think Plettenberg Bay, the Lutzville Valley and Klein Karoo- just to mention a few. And then there are the exciting regions beyond our province, like the Orange River region and KZN Midlands. We should thank our lucky stars that we have so many beautiful and unique wine regions to visit within a few hour’s drive of Cape Town. So next time you find yourself bored at home on a Saturday or Sunday morning, jump in the car and venture out to one of our amazing wine regions. No matter where you go, you will not be disappointed.
A biotech innovator develops a new way to lower costs for small wineries and reduce water usage across the industry
A biochemical engineer by training, Vijay Singh spent decades working with pharmaceutical industry bioreactors in New Jersey. When he retired early, he decided to experiment with home winemaking. He quickly learned that winemaking requires extensive manual labor, scrubbing and washing. Quality wine demands spotless tanks, pumps, hoses and floors, and all of that demands a lot of water.
“I’m quite lazy. I don’t like to do things that are just tedious,” said Singh, laughing. He asked himself: What if a winery could reduce the time and effort devoted to those tasks—and conserve water simultaneously?
His answer has led to a new product, in trial this harvest at more than 15 wineries in the United States and Spain. Called GOfermentor, it involves fermenting wine in a disposable plastic bag. The device aims to make it easier for small winemakers to get started and help large producers make small lots, while dramatically cutting back water use in the process.
One of the more than 20 patents Singh developed during his career is the Wave Bioreactor, which replaced hard-to-sterilize tanks and stirrers for mixing vaccines, antibodies and other cell cultures with disposable plastic bags on rocking platforms.
GOfermentor builds on that idea of trading vats for portable and disposable components. The device consists of a reusable rigid base; a control panel for monitoring temperatures, logging data and scheduling punch-downs; and a single-use, flexible, biodegradable plastic liner for either a 1-ton or 2-ton batch.
The liner has two completely separate chambers—after harvest, rather than dumping crushed grapes into a vat, the winemaker places them into a chemically inert chamber. During red wine fermentation, carbon dioxide pushes skins and other solids up to form a cap atop the juice. Winemakers usually punch the cap down or pump the juice over the cap to break it up and submerge the solids.
To replace manual punch-downs, the GOfermentor gradually inflates the liner’s second chamber, a blue nylon bag. As it expands, the CO2 in the fermentation chamber is vented, the liquid is pushed up through the cap and that cap is squeezed, breaking it up. The bag is then deflated, and the chunks of wet skins settle back into the liquid.
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Q. Where did you originate ?
“I was born in Cape Town in 1981”
Q. Where did you study ?
“I was a student at University of Stellenbosch and graduated in 2004.”
Q. If you are a product of University of Stellenbosch which was pretty prescriptive at that time, how did you get your ideas on grape growing and winemaking ?
“Most of our ideas came from our connections in Europe. It was here we developed making low intervention wine.”
Q. Your approach to winemaking is very different to others ?
“Yes. It’s very different to the vast majority of winemakers in South Africa. The only addition we ever use is sulphur. We strongly dislike new oak. As a well known South African Winemaker says “ Why do you want your South African wine to taste like a French tree ?” He continues “”I think that late picking in South Africa is a missed opportunity pretty much every time.” After some thought “Why work so hard on a beautiful old block of wines, only to drown it’s character in new oak ?”
Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?
“VERY. I think separation between vineyard and winery is a bad idea. We are very involved with the farming. We believe in farming as close to nature as we can, and encouraging naturally healthy soil. This is paramount in making fine wine. Dead soil gives dead wine.”
Q. Do you have varieties you prefer to work with ?
Immediate response “Traditional Cape varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Cinsault.”
Q. Why white wine ?
“We really love white wine but also love red but our real fascination is with white wine. We love its flavours and purity. We think the Cape’s true strength is in its white wines. But we also make some great red wines.” He follows “Historically the Cape was white wine. Red has become fashionable fairly recently.”
Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ?
“I think the Swartland guys have been a big influence. Plus Daniel Vollenweider in the Mosel in Germany. Also fascinated with Lanquedoc, Roussillon and Provence. Also Tegan Passalacqua in California. “
Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?
With a broad grin “I’m still working on that ! Anyway, I think that most winemakers think too much of themselves and of what we do. It isn’t really rocket science.”
Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?
“Probably allowing the must to develop without interference prior to alcoholic fermentation, so zero sulphur nor gas cover at pressing or settling. It’s risky, but the payoff is worth it.”
Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?
“It doesn’t feature, unless you consider a bladder press from the 80’s as modern !”
Q. What of the future ?
“Our winemaking business has revolved around heritage grapes and older vineyards from the outset. This will continue, but we will bring in a strong focus on planting new vineyards in new places, hopefully establishing vineyards that our grandkids will be proud of.”
Q. There was a time when your wife Suzaan was very involved in the business ?
“In the beginning she was very involved but since the kids have arrived she’s a full time Mom. She still does a bit of admin here and there. She’ll jump back in when the kids are grown.”