Soil searching in the SA Winelands

The intimate understanding of terroir begs the empathetic question: Do people care? Why break your head over sublayers of limestone if you know where to find a Chardonnay that consistently delivers on a creamy, citrusy mouthfeel? Or why be bothered about the amount of clay present in a vineyard site if you have a go-to Shiraz exuding sweeter American oak nuances?

Of course, these wines intend to allure their devotees, and when a fine wine takes a bow, the judicious use of oak complimenting the leading actress in this scene, the fruit, is applauded.

Still, when you aim to invest in an extraordinary wine, you need to consider the South African wine regions' indigenous land and the remarkable gift each possesses to nurture identifiable wines. Moreover, we are still discovering new areas and smaller pockets expressing even more subtleties of the South African wine scape.

It is debatable whether soil can impart specific flavours to wine, but there is a direct correlation between the quality of a wine and the quality of the soil. Harmony in wine will always be your yardstick for quality - that quintessential balance and integration of all the elements including alcohol, sweetness, tannin, oak, and fruit, contributing to the texture, persistence, finesse, varietal typicity, and character of the wine. 

The unwittingly use of the time-honoured French term terroir (referring to climate, soil, tradition, and terrain) might have piqued wine enthusiasts into believing this old-world concept to be pretentious, leaving them incurious to explore it further. But it all comes down to dirt - good and healthy dirt. If farmed sensibly, the soil is the heartbeat of a vineyard. Alive with abundant minerals, gasses, liquids, and organic materials, creating different textures (clay, silt, and sand) will affect water infiltration, erosion, root penetration, aeration, drainage, and more.

Imagine the roots being like arteries in a human body, diving into this abyss transporting much-needed nutrients and water to the plant. How can it not have a profound effect on the grapes the vineyard will ultimately produce?

It is time that consumers' imagination be stirred beyond merely Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay and ponder what it is that makes these wines so unique in South Africa. 

It should be the wine's address down to the exact coordinates that romance you into spending well-earned money on your favourite bottle of wine. We have all stood barefoot in the soil and the unequivocal joy we derive from this hail back to our carefree childhood, connected to something bigger, feeling it beneath our feet albeit too young to fathom its power.

CWG Member Gary Jordon's vast knowledge of geology compelled him to reach for a deeper understanding of the ancient soils we plant our vines in and what it means for the style of wines we produce. Once you have tapped into this magical realm, it finds meaning in every glass of wine you drink.

The rocks from which the Cape Winelands soils originate are vital to making great wines from these particular soils, some of which are ten times older than anything found in Napa Valley, California, he explains.

"To understand the geology of the Cape Winelands, one has to take yourself back 800 million years when what is present-day Southern Africa was, in fact, a large inland sea. The sediments that formed and settled slowly in this sea eventually formed the Malmesbury group what we know today, mostly shales. And then, 600 million years ago, as the continent started to push and pull and move apart and closer together, you got an upwelling from deep within the earth of Cape granite. This magma cooled slowly and eventually formed what is the basis of most of the Cape Winelands today. You can see the granite plutons still protruding above the surface of the soil."

Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch is an example where much of what they have on top of Stellenbosch kloof is Cape granite. 

A vast 30 million years later, Gary continues, with a further pushing and pulling of continents, there was another upwelling of granite, only this time the magma cooled quickly. 

"This means in areas around Stellenbosch and particularly around farms like Jordan, you will find many granite suits that form some of the best vineyard sites in Stellenbosch today."

Now, some years after the Cape granite started to erode, you get Table Mountain sandstone right on the top of it.

"Table Mountain sandstone has remnants throughout the Winelands, and when you go beyond Worcester, it becomes obvious in sandy soils with rocky fragments, resulting in fantastic wines in every region it presents itself."

Hutton and Clovelly clay loam soils derived from Cape Granite provide the key to vineyards in Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville and Constantia, making vines survive long drought periods and dry summers in the Western Cape. 

"Without the Cape Granite and the big feldspar crystals breaking down to form clay, we wouldn't have been able to make the exceptional wines that we do in the Western Cape," and Gary only got started.

Kevin Grant is a member of the Guild who proudly calls himself a soil farmer.

"We need to honour the unique set of conditions that allows a wine to take shape initially. Ataraxia has similar conditions to our next-door neighbours, but it is never the same even within our vineyards. Therefore, we have to believe in the quintessential site that represents us best and not only resolve to alchemy."

Ataraxia in Hemel-en-Aarde has 14 variations of Bokkeveld soil, and according to Kevin, the sub-narrative lies in it having the highest vineyards in its appellation where Pinot Noir is harvested last every year. 

Back to Stellenbosch, CWG Member Rianie Strydom from Strydom Family Wines is often asked about diversity in the South African Winelands.

"We are blessed with sunshine, mountains, water, hills and dales and an array of completely different soils in the vastly different areas. A vine is a powerful growing plant, and you can imagine it feasts on this abundance."

Rianie believes this melange of variances armours winemakers with many elements to create wines for different palates.

"The slightest differences in terroir compel us to be inventive, creative, innovative, and experimental. Wine is never a direct copy; it is how you utilize what's in nature to your best advantage and be confident in the wines you make."

According to Swartland stalwart, CWG Member Andrea Mullineux, the region is warm and dry, super conducive for sustainable, dryland farming, old vine Chenin, and varieties originating from the Rhone. 

"Its somewhat wild character consists of rolling rich, red hills with vineyards bringing forth wine with lush midpalates. Significant outcrops of rocky mountains forming the granitic Paardeberg boasts vineyards bringing freshness and perfume to a wine.

Finally, the Shisty Kasteelberg and Piketberg is home to vineyards producing fruit that adds a brooding structure to a wine. So yes, the landscape defines wines that are noteworthy for their structure and personality. It is definitely not an easy place to establish vines, but it's a region that has a huge influence on the vineyards and the people who farm here."

Moving to the Cederberg where you drive up to fascinating vistas of Pakhuis formations, mostly glacial tillite from when glaciers covered the continents, also makes for wines exuding individuality.

This is the playground of CWG Member, Dawid Nieuwoudt, who makes wine from a unique and small valley of merely 15 x 6 km on top of a mountain, planted at an average altitude of 1000m above sea level.

"What is beautiful about the Cederberg is that we are not chasing trends and styles. Being the only successful high altitude vineyard site of its kind in South Africa forces you to make site-specific wines. Dramatic differences of up to 22 degrees Celsius between day and night temperatures also ensures a long ripening period."

Isolated in the middle of the 183 000 ha Cederberg Wilderness, farming 80 hectares of vines, there are no other vineyards within an 80km radius.

"Coming from Stellenbosch, I knew it all in theory, but the wine told me a different story. What we thought to be quintessential Sauvignon Blanc sites now produces our best Shiraz."

Technology helped them with in-depth electro conductivity soil scans, and for the first time, they understand what is beneath them. 

"With no maritime influences, the most significant cooling effect is north-westerly winds from the west coast. Our 0.4-hectare Teen die Hoog Shiraz lies against a cool south-easterly slope and receives cooler morning sun, contrary to the Australians favouring warmer slopes. The red shale soils have more clay than Malmesbury shales and result in wines with sweet, spicy notes, mulberry, and a little bit of that pepperiness. 

Vines planted to Koffieklip and sandstone offers completely different components, so much so we do 14 to 16 different pickings. From destemming grapes growing on shale, using whole berries from vines on Koffieklip and whole clusters from vines on Sandsteen, we can make unique and multidimensional wines. 

People might refer to South Africa as one of the New World Wine countries, and the Old World might have embraced the value soil holds for its wines before we did. Still, South Africa is the oldest New World wine country, including the North and South Americas, New Zealand, and Australia. And there is clearly something to say about place.