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Stellenbosch Wines – a Simple Guide

Stellenbosch, surrounded by more than 150 wine farms, was among the first places where grapes were planted for wine production in South Africa in 1679.

Stellenbosch wine estates
The beautiful Tokara wine estate in Stellenbosch produces both excellent red and white wines.

The granite mountains surrounding the vineyards of the Cape Winelands make for some of the most beautiful wine farms in the world and contribute to a diversity of soil types for the production of complex and distinctive wines. See our detailed guide to the wine farms of Stellenbosch. The warm climate yields high alcohol wines, combined with good rainfall and the cool ocean breeze from False Bay the area has a great climate for wine production. With an exchange rate favoring tourists you will get great value for money in South Africa. Visiting Stellenbosch is a must-include in your Cape Town itinerary.

The hot, dry climate makes the area ideal for production of quality red-wine grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab blends account for most of the top reds produced in the Stellenbosch area followed by Shiraz, Pinotage and Merlot. The Cool breeze from the ocean in False Bay creates a nice climate for growing white grapes; Chenin Blanc is the most common cultivar harvested followed by Colombar, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Chardonnay however is the top white wine in the area when it comes to winning awards.

Vineyards on Stellenbosch wine farms
Beautiful vineyards on wine farms of Stellenbosch

This vibrant student town is home to the training facilities for winemakers and wine scientists in South Africa. I was very lucky to do my postgraduate studies in Wine Biotechnology for 7 years at the University of Stellenbosch, many of my student friends are now young and innovative winemakers in the area.

Classification of Wines in Stellenbosch

South Africa has a Wine of Origin system that legislates how wine regions of South Africa are defined and can appear on wine labels. Regions are defined geographically, so for wine to be labelled it comes from Stellenbosch it must come from a farm in the Stellenbosch region. Wards divide wine growing areas by unique terroir characteristics. Terroir is a French term describing the environmental factors; climate, landscape and soil type that affect grape and consequently wine quality. Stellenbosch is divided into 7 wards with distinct terroir characteristics Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch Red Wine Cultivars

Pinotage – Uniquely South African. The Pinotage grape variety was created in Stellenbosch in 1925 by Prof Abraham Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University by crossing two grape varieties, Hermitage (now called Cinsaut) and Pinot noir. The plan was to create a great wine-producing grape like Pinot Noir that grows as well as the robust variety Cinsaut.  Look out for – black fruit flavors plum and blackberry also red fruit raspberry and cherry, picking up banana notes in Pinotage is common. The wines can also have an earthy, smoky side with hints of bacon!

Beyerskloof Pinotage wine farm stellenbosch
Beyerskloof wine farm famous for production of Pinotage wines.

Try coffee Pinotage! Many wineries produce Pinotage with a very strong coffee profile, no actual coffee or artificial flavoring is added! Bertus Fourie was the first person to produce this style of Pinotage at the wine farm Diemersfontein near Stellenbosch. The story goes during the harvest of 2000 Bertus ran out of stainless steel tanks for fermentation, he had some barrels available and decided to ferment the Pinotage grape in oak, the next morning the whole cellar smelled like coffee. Connoisseurs do not always like the strong coffee profile, but it has become popular.  Bertus now makes the Barista Pinotage at Val de Vie where he is a winemaker.

For tasting Pinotage there are two farms not to miss, Beyerskloof and Kanonkop. Beyers Truter cellarmaster and owner of Beyerskloof winery placed both farms on the map with Pinotage and is well known as ‘Mr. Pinotage’ today. When he was the winemaker at Kanonkop he did a lot of experimenting with making wine with Pinotage and won the Robert Mondavi Trophy in 1991 for Best Winemaker in the World with the 1989 Kanonkop Pinotage.

Award winning wines – Beyerskloof Pinotge Winemakers Reserve 2017, Kanonkop Pinotage 2017

ageing red wine in barrels
Red wine ageing in barrels.

Cabernet Sauvignon – The Bordeaux region in France, Napa Valley in the US, and Australia are famous for their top-quality Cabs produced. This is the most popular red wine grape in South Africa, don’t miss out on the fantastic prize-winning Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Stellenbosch! Cabernet Sauvignon is known for full-bodied, dark color wines with high tannins and a high alcohol content (13.5% +) that ages very well. Look out for cherry, mulberry, green pepper, tobacco, and vanilla that comes from aging the wine in oak. There are excellent Cabernets all over Stellenbosch, but some of my favorites are produced by Waterford, Meerlust, and Kanonkop. Award winners – Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015, Warwick The Blue Lady 2015

Shiraz – I say Shiraz you say Syrah, it is exactly the same thing, France is well known for producing good Syrah wines. Look out for -Dark color wines with a purple hue, pepper and clove flavors, blackberry, blueberry, jammy aromas, and flavors and ripe tannins. I often buy Shiraz from Boschendal, Some award winners;  Boschendal 1685 – 2017, Mullineux Granite Syrah 2017

Merlot – the second most popular wine in the US following Cabernet Sauvignon. In South Africa, Merlot is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon as they do in Bordeaux. Most South African Merlot is grown in the Stellenbosch region and single cultivar Merlot wines are known for easy drinking, fruity wines with soft tannins. Look out for – Dark color wines, cherry, plum, chocolate, and vanilla flavors. Award winners: Jordan Black Magic 2016, Groote Post 2016

Stellenbosch White Wine Cultivars

Chennin Blanc – also known as Steen is a white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France, but South Africa is now the biggest producer of Chenin in the world. It has a long history here where in the past it was used for producing low-quality bulk wines, often for distilling. A very versatile cultivar used to make everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines. We enjoy the New World styles of Chenin made in the region, the wines are often made to drink young and exhibit rich tropical fruit notes such as banana, guava, pear, and pineapple. The nearby Breedekloof area produces my favorite Chennins and is definitely worth a visit, much less commercial and a stunning area, see our Wine Tasting in the Breedekloof article. Award winners: Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2018, Simonsig Chenin Avec Chêne 2015

Chardonnay – a white grape originally from Burgundy in France lends itself to a huge variety of wine styles depending on the terroir and wine maker. Chardonnay is produced from unoaked to barrel-fermented to barrel-aged. Techniques like malo lactic fermentation and ageing on the lees are also used. Look out for – Oaked Chardonnay, creamy full-bodied wines, tropical fruit, butterscotch and vanilla. Unoaked – light white wine with floral, apple and citrus flavors Award winners: Delaire Graff Terraced Block Reserve Chardonnay 2017, Tokara Reserve Collection Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2017

Sauvignon Blanc –  a white grape originally from Burgundy in France. Sauvignon Blanc flavor can range from grassy to  tropical. A nice Sauvignon Blanc is fresh, crispy with ample acidity and a well-balanced palate. Look out for – green pepper, asparagus and gooseberry with  tones of pineapple, green melon, citrus and passion fruit. Award winners: Spier 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Nederburg Manor House.

Stellenbosch Wine Tasting

The Stellenbosch Wine Routes is a network of more than 150 wine farms that wine lovers can explore. The farms in Stellenbosch are too far apart to go wine tasting on foot or by bicycle. You can visit the farms by doing a self-drive wine tasting or to do a guided wine tour.

Rent a Car

Renting a car is the easiest way to move around and visit the farms you want at your own pace. Just have a designated driver if you are visiting several farms!

Stellenbosch Wine Tours

Doing an organized tour is an easy way to do wine tasting around Stellenbosch. The guides are usually very knowledgeable, some of my friends did this as oenology students.  A full day tour will pick you up at your hotel in Cape Town or Stellenbosch and drop you off again after about 9 hours.

If you pick a tour I will recommend that you select a tour with a large number of ratings and read some recent reviews. Here are some well rated tours by a reputable companies.

  • Cape Winelands Full day tour – very popular tour, pick up and drop off at Cape Town hotel, explore 4 wine farms around Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch including several chocolate and cheese tastings.
  • Private Full Day Wine Tasting tour – Explore the towns and do winetasting around Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Constantia. Do 3 or 4 wine farms on this flexible tour. Get picked up at your accommodation in the Cape Winelands.
  • Hop on Hop off Wine estate tour – this is not a guided wine tasting tour, but just transport on the Southern side of the Stellenbosch wine route from farm to farm. You can make up your own itinerary spending as much time as you like at each farm. Cheaper than a guided tour, but does not include tastings.
  • Stellenbosch Cycling Wine Tour – Cycle tour starting in the town of Stellenbosch, guided tour of the
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