The Western Cape is home to the vast majority of the South African wine industry, and the country's two most famous wine regions, Stellenbosch and Paarl. The city of Cape Town serves as the epicenter of the Cape Winelands, a mountainous, biologically diverse area in the south-western corner of the African continent. A wide variety of wines are produced here, from rich, robust reds made from Shiraz and Pinotage to fresh, flinty whites made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
The Western Cape’s wine regions stretch 200 miles (310km) from Cape Town to the mouth of the Olifants River in the north, and 220 miles (360km) to Mossel Bay in the east. Areas under vine are rarely more than 100 miles (160km) from the coast. Further inland, the influence of the semi-arid Great Karoo Desert takes over. The climate can be cool and rainy (as in Cape Point and Walker Bay) but is more often than not Mediterranean in nature.
© WOSA/Erica Moodie
The Western Cape is littered with spectacular mountain ranges that form the Cape Fold belt. These are extremely important for viticulture across the whole region, contributing soils and mesoclimates ideal for the production of premium wines. Of particular importance are the Boland Mountains, which form the eastern border of the Coastal Region, and the Langeberg range, which separates the Breede River Valley from the Klein Karoo semi-desert. The Hottentot Hollands and the Riversonderend mountains around Elgin and Overberg are also very influential on the wines produced in those regions. The Cederberg Mountains in the north are home to some of South Africa’s highest-altitude vineyards. The dominant soil types in the Western Cape are granite, Malmesbury shale and Table Mountain sandstone. Alluvium and loam soils can be found along the beds of the Breede River, the Berg River, and the Olifants River in the north.
The surrounding oceans play a big part in the climate of the Western Cape. The area between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas is where the Antarctic Benguela Current of the Atlantic meets the warmer Agulhas Current of the Indian Ocean. The prevailing winds that blow in from the south-east – collectively known as the 'Cape Doctor' – are cooled by these currents, bringing refreshment to vineyards across the Cape. Westerly winds that affect the more-northern areas of the Cape are also cooled by the Benguela Current, which runs all the way up the west coast of South Africa.
The first vineyards were planted in the Western Cape when South Africa's very first European settlers arrived in the 17th Century. The second Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, is widely credited with bringing winemaking to the region in the 1600s and setting up a wine estate in Constantia. The Stellenbosch region is named after him. However, the wine industry in the wider Western Cape owes more to the Huguenots, Protestants who fled religious persecution in Catholic France in the late 17th Century and arrived in South Africa with vines from their homeland.
Traditionally, the Western Cape is known for its elegant Bordeaux Blends, easy-going Pinotage and honeyed Chenin Blanc. Nowadays, winemakers are experimenting with more international styles. Burgundy-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Walker Bay are making a splash, and cool-climate-style Sauvignon Blanc from Darling and Overberg is rivaling that made in any other New World country.