Terroir talk:  The Klein Karoo

Carve up from Cape Town along the storied Route 62 and watch as the landscape stacks ever skyward, the mountains scaling up as the road whips through. These ancient monoliths are some of the highest in the Western Cape and inform the viticulture here. The soils crumble down, Table Mountain sandstone, granite, Bokkeveld shale. They command the weather too, casting rain shadows, directing cloud formation. The rocky curves twist and fold along the river creating pockets, valleys and kloofs, little oases for vineyards in this otherwise dry, desert region.

While the conditions are extreme, think of hazards such as grape-destroying baboons and crippling droughts, the dry climate of the Klein Karoo is beneficial in the face of fungal diseases. Meaning a large proportion of vineyards can be grown organically. 

The diversity offered by the variety of microclimates allows producers to make a spectrum of wine styles, from dry wines produced from traditional Portuguese cultivars to fortifieds as well as pot-still brandies and its famed Port-style wines.

The longest wine region in South Africa, the vineyards sprawl upwards from Montagu to the more elevated Barrydale and Ladismith, stretching into the thirstlands of Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn and the Langkloof. Long have intrepid growers worked these lands. Family-owned concerns span many generations. One such estate is Boplaas. Famed for its Port-style wines, pot-still brandies and increasingly still wines made from Portuguese varieties traditionally used for fortified winemaking. All the way back in 1880 the Nel family procured their Calitzdorp farm in order to produce brandy for export to England. Then the barrels were transported by ox-wagon to Worcestor where they were rolled on a train to get to Cape Town’s harbour to be transported by ship.

These days, Boplaas is very much still in the capable hands of the Nel family. Cellarmaster Carel Nel has spent almost five decades at the helm, and his children all work for the family business. The sixth generation, Rozanne heads marketing, Margaux is the winemaker, and brother Daniel, is the distiller.

Margaux, who completed her MSc in Portuguese varietals in the Klein Karoo, has made an intimate study of this rugged terroir. For Boplaas she sources grapes from across the region.

“We in Calitzdorp differ from Barrydale and Montagu. The vast Klein Karoo region is actually a collection of unique pockets that produces excellent fruit.” In reference to this she highlights the wines being reared by Beeslar, Survivor Wine as well as cult blend, Patatsfontein. There are many cooler sites, she notes, such as next to the Outeniqua mountains and the Swartberg, Groenfontein. 

Cooler Montagu has a longer ripening cycle. “Its Keisie region boasts numerous deep valleys with incredible changes in aspect, slope and altitude.”

Margaux says they source chenin from a vineyard there that is rooted on “...super-fine decomposing sandstone shales. Parts of the site have massive gallets covered in layers of limestone.” Chardonnay, she says fares well on a southern slope up against the Langeberg ‘with very heavy sheets of sandstone shales interspersed with quartz.’ The king of Portuguese grapes, touriga nacional is planted amongst fynbos clay and sandstone shale with heavy calcium carbonate deposits, the layers interspersed with shale.

While there are many pockets to discover in this comparatively cooler Klein Karoo region, traditional muscadel production remains firmly in play, particularly from Montagu Wine Cellar, which was established in 1941.

“In the Barrydale, Tradouw area the vineyard sites are predominantly sandstone shale soils with some calcium carbonate deposits,” relates Margaux. “The shales are super friable and allow the roots to go deep in amongst the layers.  

“The climate of the Tradouw is particularly continental and so too that of the Keisie, with both enjoying wild diurnal shifts allowing the vines to slowly ripen.”

In Tradouw, Joubert-Tradauw Private Cellar is quietly making a name for itself. “Proe die Klein Karoo,” says Meyer Joubert, viticulturist and winemaker, meaning ‘taste the Klein Karoo’. The farm was established in the early 1700s and is producing fine examples of barrel-fermented chardonnay, syrah and cabernet franc. Muscat is also a speciality here, and in the mid-2000s the family released a single barrel of it dating back 200 years. When critic Neal Martin tasted a bottle in 2011 he awarded it 99 points, which was then the highest score ever for a South African wine.

On we wind into the dusty corridors of Calitzdorp.  Annual rainfall of only 210mm per year makes this a semi-desert area. The Gamka and the Nel rivers are the vines’ lifeblood. Margaux says they also supplement with dam water. “Soils are mainly clay-rich that most of the red grapes are planted on. The soils next to the rivers are more alluvial, sandy where the white cultivars fare best. 

“We have adopted many techniques in our canopy management to manipulate the microclimate of the vines and that have served us well especially with the hotter climate we experienced in the 2024 harvest.” 

The Nel family learnt from the years of the prolonged drought and have planted cultivars more suitable for the drier area, such as early ripeners like verdelho, alvarinho, touriga nacional and tinta barocca. 

Do Port-style wines still have a future in South Africa or will it become more rarified? “Worldwide volumes are on the decline but higher quality fortified wines are on the rise. We’re seeing an increase in sales with our Reserve Cape Port wines, older vintages and Cape Tawnies. I do believe less producers are making fortified wines as making small volumes is expensive and risky. She points out that the dry climate of the area is also good for ageing fortified wines as well as brandies and whiskies. In order to further instil this sense of place, they are reusing their old fortified barrels for brandy and whisky ageing.

“The human factor is also important in terroir. We have a big pool of knowledge on the selection of cultivars we use and because we have been on the farm for so long we have generational experience not only in the vineyard but also in the cellar. 

Across the region as a whole Margaux reports the general trend is towards earlier harvesting, planting more quality grapes that suit a warming climate versus those intended for bulk. 

“The focus is on making premium red wine from the best sites.”

By Malu Lambert