Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon
An intrinsic part of the South African wine scene, Stellenbosch Cabernet displays a greater diversity than is currently celebrated by its generic image, says Tim Atkin MW
64 wines tasted Not as stellar as expected, but Stellenbosch still offers good-value choices for Cabernet lovers
SYRAH MAY BE trendier, Cinsault more historic, Pinotage more distinctive, but most informed observers would agree that Cabernet Sauvignon is the Cape’s most distinguished red grape. It’s also the most planted, occupying 11% of the country’s vineyards, behind Chenin Blanc and Colombard, but ahead of all the other reds.
The variety is grown all over South Africa, but one region stands out for the quality and range of its Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux style blends: Stellenbosch. The country’s second-oldest wine region grows plenty of other grapes too, but Cabernet is its flagship, partly thanks to its association with famous estates such as Kanonkop, Meerlust, Rustenberg and Vergelegen, but also because of the quality and diversity of what it produces in this painterly, mountainous area.
In this way, Stellenbosch is South Africa’s equivalent of the Napa or Maipo Valleys. Without Cabernet, Stellenbosch wouldn’t be Stellenbosch. And without Stellenbosch, South Africa wouldn’t be South Africa.
Stellenbosch likes to present a generic image, not least where Cabernet Sauvignon is concerned – there’s even a self-appointed group called the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective – but it’s a big region, with 15,252ha in total, and 3,002ha of that planted to Cabernet, not all of which is equally well suited to the variety. In other words, there is more than one Stellenbosch, and there is more than one Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s not just a question of house style – De Toren and Reyneke are next door to each other, but produce very different red wines – it’s also a question of soil, altitude, aspect and proximity to the cool breezes of False Bay.
Other crucial factors are blending – Cabernet is paired with the other four Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) as well as Pinotage and Cinsault – picking dates, the age of a vineyard (most are young) and the amount of leafroll disease they contain. Late-season varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon are much more affected by the virus than early-ripening ones.
Officially, Stellenbosch is a district made up of seven wards (see box, right) but the legislation doesn’t reflect reality. The Helderberg makes some of the region’s best Cabernets, as does Stellenbosch Kloof, but neither is a ward. To do justice to Stellenbosch’s sub-regions, Faure, Firgrove and Somerset West should also be included.
That’s arguably the next stage for Stellenbosch: to move beyond a generic message to one that names its best vineyards. When it does, you can be sure that a significant percentage will be planted with Cabernet.