Most of the Cape’s winegrowing regions are influenced by one of the two mighty oceans which meet at this southernmost tip of Africa: the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. Combine beneficial maritime influences like regular coastal fog and cooling sea breezes with a moderate Mediterranean climate, distinctive and varied topography, and diverse soils, and you have the ideal conditions in which to create wines of unique character and complexity.

Coupled to this, a winemaking tradition and history dating back over 350 years blends the restrained elegance of the Old World with the accessible fruit-driven styles of the New, making for wines which eloquently express the unique terroir of the Cape. No wonder that this extraordinary wealth of natural assets and tradition should instil South Africa’s wines with a true sense of place.

The Concept of Terroir

While currently topical, terroir is not a new concept. Terroir refers to the natural features of a body of land which interact to create a unique set of conditions that in turn confer specific characteristics on the wines produced there. Key factors include topography, climate, geology and soil. From 200 BC to 200 AD, Georgic authors already underlined the role played by the environment in viticulture both at a macro and meso scale, and the importance of choosing the site according to the cultivars to be planted. This concept has formed the basis of many geographical indication systems, including the Wine of Origin System in South Africa. The pronounced diversity in South Africa’s vineyard and wine landscapes is considered an asset, and zonation and demarcation of areas of origin is rated highly important by the industry.

All around the world, the identification of viticultural terroir is receiving a lot of attention, backed by an increasing demand by the consumer for knowledge and understanding of the origin of each wine produced. Although falling within the warmer winegrowing zones, the Cape is influenced by two oceans, and has a great diversity of topography and mesoclimatic conditions impacting on viticulture. In South Africa, as in much of the New World, wine producers are focused on identifying and selecting sites best suited to particular grape varieties. In addition, new clones and rootstocks which are particularly well adapted to the local soil and climatic conditions are being selected.

Ongoing Research

South Africa has become a New World leader in terroir research, the basis of a multi-disciplinary programme currently being carried out at the ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij Institute of Viticulture and Oenology in Stellenbosch and the University of Stellenbosch. Begun over 16 years ago to identify what constitutes terroir and its effects on grape quality and style, it has already had a significant impact on better matching between varieties and location in the Cape winelands, as well as on current viticultural practices such as canopy management and trellising, and unlocking the potential of new winegrowing areas.

As the research continues, so does the ongoing debate about which inter-related environmental factors are the most important in influencing the outcome of the wines. This is not simply an academic exercise but a committed attempt to grow better wines, part of a focused shift from grape farming to wine growing.