In keeping with the spirit of renewal in the South African wine industry, in recent years over 40% of the vineyards were replanted as the industry has realigned its product to compete globally, moving from volume production to noble cultivars and quality wines. South African vineyards were once dominated by white grape varieties but the predominantly red new plantings shifted that. In the last four years, winegrowers have started planting more whites than reds, a reversal of the 10-year trend to planting more reds.
Noble varieties which have been cultivated increasingly in the past few years include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which produce top-class white wines, and Shiraz and Pinot Noir.
Although most of the vine varieties cultivated here today were originally imported, up to now six local crossings have been released. The best known of these is a red variety, Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut), which more recently is being cultivated locally on a fairly large scale.
The Stellenbosch region has the most vineyard plantings with 16.1%, followed by Paarl (15.9%), Robertson (14.5%), Swartland (13.5%), Breedekloof (13.2%), Olifants River (10.4%), Worcester (9.0%), Northern Cape (4.8%) and Klein Karoo (2.7%).
The Breedekloof region currently produces the most wine (16.5%), followed by Olifants River (16.0%), Robertson (15.9%), Worcester (11.6%), Paarl (9.8%), Stellenbosch (10.0%), Swartland (9.2%), Northern Cape (8.8%) and Klein Karoo (2.8%).
The wine industry in South Africa is undergoing an exciting period of change, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Winemakers are experimenting with new varieties of vine, as well as new clones of existing varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Large-scale experimentation with rootstocks is taking place to establish which planting material is particularly suited to conditions at the Cape, co-ordinated by the Vine Improvement Board.
As in other New World countries, viticulturists are hard at work matching vine varieties to soils and meso-climates in order to achieve the best results. Vineyard life in South Africa is similar to Europe's although South Africa's viticultural year begins in September. While preparations for the vintage are being made in Europe, the vines in South Africa are just beginning to bud.
Once buds have formed, the vines must be kept free from pest, disease and weed, and are often pruned if growth becomes too vigorous. Flowering normally takes place in November and in December the young grapes begin to swell and grow. At this stage the vines are often 'topped' to improve air circulation around the grapes and thus minimise the risk of fungus or rot.
January in the Cape heralds the beginning of summer and, as the temperatures increase, early grape varieties begin to ripen. The bulk of the harvest takes place in February and the sugar/acid ratio of the grapes is checked daily so that each variety is harvested at optimum ripeness.
In most South African vineyards harvesting is carried out by hand, although machines are used on some farms. The grapes are picked into baskets and transported in bins to the winery where vinification begins.
View information on red-wine varieties
View information on white-wine varieties