Stellenbosch – best terroir in the world mate!

Stellenbosch – best terroir in the world mate!

13th Jan 2011

Some musings about the most spectacular vineyards on earth.

If we had a pound for every time a South African had said that to us, we'd be very rich indeed.  When abroad, they love to sell their most famous wine region as having an unbeatable terroir and quite frankly, why would you want to visit anywhere else?

Talking of South Africans, something we noticed during our trip was that they often seem to stand with their mouths half open, a fact which must cause difficulties during the fly and mosquito season.


We saw this interesting phenomenon many times in December, when we were invited on a Media Tour of South Africa. The tour was supposed to end in Johannesburg, but we managed to include a trip to the Cape, it seemed silly to go all that way and not pay a visit to our friends the Appelbaums of Demorgenzon.


Hylton and Wendy Appelbaum own this beautiful wine farm, a large estate perched high on a hill in Stellenbosch. We were half expecting the famed beauty of Stellenbosch not to match the hype, and it didn’t. It exceeded it. We  have seen many contestants during our travels for the world’s most beautiful vineyard prize, but South Africa is 10 leaps ahead of the rest. In Stellenbosch, brilliant green pastures sandwiched between the mountains and the sea expand into the breathtaking franschhoek Valley, at the base of which are the gleaming white façades of Cape Dutch colonial architecture. It is a sight to behold.


Cape Town and the wine lands were the icing on the cake of the trip, the Demorgenzon estate truly surpassed Hylton's proselytizing. Perched high above the valley, the visitor is afforded views across to table mountain, taking in the grand sweep of the bay. However, the estate is not only famed for having the most impressive view in the region, but also for its unique way of growing grapes.


You see, Hylton, not content with meticulously pruning and caring for his vineyards, connects speakers to every row of vines and plays them baroque music  24/7. Our first thought was ‘nice gimmick’, until he explains the reasoning behind it.


“My vines clearly respond to the sound waves from melodic Baroque music, they show greater vigour and are healthier as a result”, he says. “We saw a difference within the first year after introducing music to the vineyards.”


It was the first wine farm visit, and already our notions of good viticultural practice were being challenged.  We were able to see the effects for ourselves. Two vineyard sites close together; same soils, aspect and grape variety. The only difference was that one site was played baroque music year-round, one wasn't. The vines that had been treated to some Bach were producing smaller berries, less fruit with a noticeable more even pace of ripening across the bunches. The skin to pulp ratio seemed much more favourable.  Not just a nice gimmick after all!


The Appelbaums were great hosts, taking us to various farms across the Cape where we always received a warm welcome. The wines of Rust en Vrede, Forrester Meinert and Morgenhof were particularly impressive.  We took in a massive swathe of farms in a relatively short space of time, where we were always reliably informed that the Cape boasts the oldest geology in the wine growing world: ancient soils typically based on granite, Table Mountain Sandstone or shale which naturally inhibits the vigour of the vines.


Slightly less impressive was the way that so many producers feel they can do every grape variety under the sun justice. A typical farm might produce a wide range of reds and whites, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and perhaps a Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Presuming the grapes are not contracted in, you can’t possibly have terroir on one estate to grow each variety to its full potential. Consequently, there are many indifferent Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines being produced by producers which are on the one hand, quality conscious, but on the other hand over ambitious. This is evident in the over-oaking of many wines.


Another noticeable trend during our visit was the wholesale substitution of red grapes for white, especially Chenin Blanc, which once dominated South African vineyards. It is still the most planted variety, but now represents less than one vine in five. To loose more would be a grave mistake, old vine Chenin is a special thing indeed and rivals the best from the Loire.


Pinotage on the other hand we could happily say goodbye to forever – nasty tannins and messy, jammy fruit. I met Ken Forrester when we dined at his handsome restaurant, 96 winery road. Ken is a passionate and opinionated man who had an interesting take on the origins of the variety.


“You must remember that Pinotage was a marriage between an aristocrat and a hussy pretender. We should expect some wildness” - how he describes the crossing between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Couldn’t have put it better myself.


Ken, a member of the Stellenbosch Wine Board also advises a 'less is more' approach and remains unconvinced that South Africa can truly do Merlot justice, although he is more optimistic about the Cabernet. If South Africa needs a poster boy for the reds, then Syrah is certainly the strongest contender, responding to the terroir well; the best samples show great finesse and elegance. A half way house between the Rhone Valley and Barossa.


From what we experienced, the best wines come from estates around the town of Stellenbosch, which is either benefited from southerly ocean breezes from False Bay, or is high enough in the hills for altitude and cooling winds to slow down the ripening process. Hamilton Russell Vineyards produce an excellent Chardonnay in such conditions, proof that South Africa can do this previously disappointing variety justice here.


We left Cape Town in awe of the overwhelming beauty, with a new understanding that this is a country no longer struggling with a sense of its wine identity or heritage. Instead, South Africa drives forward with great self-confidence, and perhaps at times a little too much confidence. If they can just focus on what they do best (and rip out the evil Pinotage) then the future holds great promise!


 Our five favourite wines from the region


Demorgenzon Chenin Blanc 2007


An explosive, oaked Chenin with fantastic ripe fruit but a good structure as well. One of the most powerful and complex wines the region has to offer.


Ken Forrester FMC Chenin Blanc 2005


Another landmark Chenin, Ken Forrester never denied that FMC stands for Fu*king magic Chenin, a description which captures this wine perfectly. Complex, with exceptional length and finesse this honeyed, waxy Chenin easily rivals the best examples from the Loire Valley.


Rust en Vrede Syrah 2008


A gorgeous, dense but elegant Syrah from the respected producer Rust en Vrede. In style, it sits comfortably between Barossa Shiraz and lighter, more refined, northern Rhone Syrah.


Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2008


The first good Chardonnay we tasted from the Cape, proof that they can do it! Lovely peachy and toasty aromas give way to restrained, elegant palate with stone fruit, good balance and a nice minerality. Quite understated!


Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2009


South Africa is starting to give the Kiwis some serious competition in the Sauvignon Blanc  stakes, this example from Mulderbosch shows all the classic gooseberry and blackcurrant characteristics with a lovely acidity and concentration on the palate.                          


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read your stellenbosch blog post and really enjoyed it, yes the horror of pinotage... Guy Trangos, Jo-berg
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