At 34° south, Cape Agulhas is at the southern-most tip of Africa; from there, a vast expanse of wild ocean separates it from Antarctica. If rounding the Cape was a voyage for explorers, the Agulhas Wine Triangle is a vineyard for explorers.

This virtual triangle was established in 2019 by a group of pioneering winemakers to showcase the wines of this wild and rugged region. It extends from Sijnn in the east to Lomond in the west with Strandveld and The Drift filling the southern and northern points respectively. While the Cape South Coast is the catch-all Region, such is the spread between wineries (around 240km from Sijnn to Lomond), that many fall within smaller appellations, those in the Ward of Elim forming the majority.

Such are both distance and terrain that a visit to the area is best enjoyed over two or three days; in Elim, a central point, Black Oystercatcher, Strandveld and Zoetendal offer winery accommodation. Elim is also a convenient place from which to explore a region exceptionally rich in biodiversity, the Agulhas Wine Triangle members contributing to its preservation. One project, creating The Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area, has seen hippos and buffalo re-introduced.

Start explorations at Sijnn, one of the most remote wineries in the Cape, perched near the mouth of the Breede River and 45 kms off the main road, down a bumpy dirt track. It was ‘the incredible soils’ that persuaded David and Rita Trafford of Malgas area’s potential on their visit in 2000. When planning a cellar, architect David Trafford knew it was important not to deface this remote, unspoilt region.

Controlling costs and the wish that the building should fit into the landscape were his main considerations. These were achieved by keeping the building low, partially underground with the area’s natural stone forming outside walls.  Ingeniously, the tasting room doubles as kitchen and office; in good weather, the stoep with its view across the river, hosts tastings.

Rhône varieties, along with chenin and verdelho, cabernet and touriga, respectively form part of the flagship Sijnn White and Sijnn Red. ‘These are our priority and focus,’ confirms winemaker, Charla Bosman, adding; ‘In this virgin area, experiments with individual varieties are also necessary to highlight our unique terroir and their role in blends.’

If any variety is associated with and shines in these cool, southern vineyards it’s sauvignon blanc. Viticulture in this wild area is not for the faint-hearted; wind and birds, among other difficulties, conspire to deter these explorers. Netting is often used to counter the birds, while viticulture has been adapted to the special conditions. 

Struggles prove worth the effort. The sauvignons, oaked or unoaked, are breathtaking, full of nervous tension and brilliant cool-climate flavours. With the vineyards’ proximity to the sea, there’s often a finishing salty note. Conrad Vlok’s single vineyard, unoaked Strandveld Pofadderbos is a benchmark of the style. Other winemakers from outside the area appreciate these cool-climate sauvignon vineyards too, buying in grapes to create their own versions. Notable among them are David Nieuwoudt’s Ghost Corner, Trizanne’s Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc and the Land’s End pair of Cape Agulhas and Cape South Coast sauvignon blanc.

Sauvignon and semillon form as happy a partnership as elsewhere, their tones of lemon grass and honey complemented by silkily-weighted texture. Black Oystercatcher White Pearl, Strandveld Adamastor and Lomond Snowbush are three worthy examples of such partnership.

Reds are not overlooked; Syrah does well and pinot noir lives up to its preference for cooler sites but The Giant Periwinkle’s Pierre-Jacques Rabie observed ‘how much happier my block of pinotage seemed to be in comparison to the Cape Agulhas pinot noir vines I had made wine from.’ He vinifies pinotage in the same way as pinot noir, for a lighter style with lower alcohols. ‘I am a firm believer that this style is the future of the variety, at least in cooler climates.’  His Sun Spider Pinotage ticks all these lighter-style boxes.

The wines, scenery and people of the Agulhas Wine Triangle are three good reasons for wine lovers themselves to be intrepid explorers.

Angela Lloyd