The Stellenbosch wine district is one of South Africa’s best known and most respected wine areas. Close to Cape Town and in the heartland of South Africa’s wine producing region it is the source of many excellent white wines.
Before we start to explore Stellenbosch white wine it may be useful to explain South Africa‘s geographical wine classification system. The Wine of Origin or WO classification, which was introduced in 1974, is much simpler than the system used in many European countries. South Africa’s wine producing areas are divided into large WO regions which are subdivided into WO districts. The districts themselves are then often subdivided again into WO wards.
Stellenbosch WO is a district within the wider Coastal Region WO. The Stellenbosch district is then subdivided into a number of WO wards the first of which to gain official recognition was Simonsberg-Stellenbosch. Other older wards include Helderberg and Jonkershoek Valley whilst more recently recognised wards include Devon Valley; Banghoek; Bottelary; Papegaaiberg and Polkadraai Hills. Like the entire wine industry within South Africa the classification system is constantly evolving so new wards are regularly being recognised.
Like many of South Africa’s wine districts Stellenbosch has made a shift in emphasis from white wine to red in recent years partly to meet international demand and partly because in many cases the terroir was more suitable for red wine grapes. However, there are still plenty of white wine grape vines left in the district bearing primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay grapes.
The Stellenbosch district has a wide variety of soils ranging from light and sandy on the floor of the western valley where Chenin Blanc is traditionally the predominant white wine grape to heavier soils on the mountain slopes and decomposed granite at the foot of the mountains in the east.
As South Africa’s wine industry has evolved and improved thanks to increased funding and research more attention has been paid to working with the soil to decide which grape vines to cultivate. In recognition of the variety of soils and the resulting limitations faced by wine producers, since 1995 wine estates have been allowed to buy in grapes from other areas to produce single vineyard wines. This means that a wine estate based in an area with a soil more compatible with red wine grapes can still meet the demand for white wine by buying the grapes from elsewhere and concentrating its own growing efforts on what works best in the local soil.
Once South Africa’s signature white wine, Chenin Blanc has lost ground in Stellenbosch to Sauvignon Blanc which seems to thrive in the district particularly in the cooler areas. Stellenbosch produces some fine modern Sauvignon Blancs with hints of lime, passion fruit and green pepper. Many white wine drinkers who find Loire Sauvignon Blancs too restrained and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs too rich and fruity find the Stellenbosch style hits the spot.
Whilst Sauvignon Blanc has become the white wine grape of choice for many Stellenbosch wine producers there is still plenty of Chenin Blanc produced. South African Chenin Blanc, known locally as Steen, has suffered in the past from being a victim of commercialisation – vast amounts of cheap and cheerful Chenin Blanc were pumped onto the international market most of which left white wine drinkers somewhat underwhelmed.
However, if you can be persuaded to give Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc a go you should be pleasantly surprised. This white wine will appeal to drinkers who enjoy fruity and spicy whites and a good quality example should be lovely and juicy, nicely rounded and succulent with characteristics of lime and guava.
The other widely grown white wine grape in Stellenbosch is Chardonnay although it is some way behind Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in the volume produced. South African wine producers struggled with Chardonnay for a while but seem to have come to grips with the grape in recent years and Chardonnays of finesse are now being produced, particularly in Stellenbosch. Don’t expect the subtle elegance of Chablis though – Stellenbosch Chardonnay tends to be upfront and oaky.
So which wine estates in Stellenbosch are worth looking out for? Le Bonheur Estate’s Blanc Fume is considered by many to be the finest unoaked Sauvignon Blanc in the Cape region. Other top quality Sauvignon Blanc producers include Neil Ellis (look out for the Elgin and Groenkloof Sauvignon Blancs from his Vineyard Selection); Jordan Vineyards; Morganhof; Mulderbosch Vineyards; Plaisir de Merle; Rustenberg Estate; Thelema Mountain and Vergelegen. Several of these wine estates also produce world class Chardonnay.
Top Chardonnay producers include Eikendel Vineyards; Hartenberg Estate; Louisvale; Meerlust Estate and Middelvlie Estate. Look out for botrytized Riesling from Delaire and Chenin Blanc from Kleine Zalze and Long Mountain. Nederburg Wines should be sought out for their Private Bin Chardonnay, Prelude white wine blend and their range of sweet white wines.
Image by Andres de Wet.