Grapes

From Côtes du Rhône to Where Goats Do Roam: Exploring the Rhône Style Wines of South Africa

Some say Shiraz, some say Syrah. That is the catchy tagline that the Shiraz Association of South Africa has adopted to illustrate how the styles produced here oscillate between the Old and the New World. Some wine-producing countries might even find themselves glancing enviously at the southern tip of Africa, where diverse award-winning Rhône-style wines are proudly catapulted into the world from its continental, coastal, and Mediterranean climates.

The inspiration drawn from France's northern and southern Rhône regions is evident in the landscapes that, in a way, mirror each other. South Africa's vignerons, in some instances, find common ground with the Rhône, courtesy of amphitheatre-like terroirs that retain heat, ensuring the ripening of Shiraz and its accessory, Grenache, with that sought-after berry flamboyance. A wide range of terroirs, including rolling hills, plateaus, and river valleys, make this connection palpable. Winemakers, whose wines underwent the discerning palate of the Gilbert & Gaillard tasting panel, often recount how their time in the Rhône gave them invaluable lessons on approaching these grape varieties in their homeland.

 

While the magic of the Rhône lies in its steep, south- and southeast-facing slopes in the north, the South African landscape is certainly more forgiving with timid gradients in comparison. Still, there is something to be said about a similar essence of the southern Rhone and the Cape Winelands. They share a Mediterranean climate that produces wines with a delicate balance between fruitiness and acidity. Despite their weight, these vibrant and lively wines are the style South African wineries have embraced, without mimicking these quintessentially Rhône wines.

 

As many Rhône-style wines in South Africa are based on Shiraz, the art lies in balancing its generous expressions of dark fruit and spice with a more savoury tone, preventing the wine from overwhelming the palate. Various soil types are crucial in determining the ripening period, absorbing, or reflecting sunlight—an aspect mirrored in South Africa. And, while the Rhône faces challenges (and benefits) from the mistral wind, the Cape Winelands must brace their vineyards against a similar power. As ruthless as the onslaught of the Cape's south-easterly wind, aka Cape Doctor, can be, this natural frenemy also cools and aerates the canopies in the peak of summer.

 

Much like Shiraz, Grenache is a great attribute to the South African winelands - drought-resistant with a pleasant alcohol sweetness that adds length and lush red fruit. As in the Rhône, Syrah often provides structure and complexity, while Mourvèdre, despite its proneness to reductivity, adds a savoury gloss to balance the opulence of Shiraz and Grenache. Cinsaut’s big berries contribute a fleshy mid-palate for many Rhône-inspired blends, offering the ensemble a floral quality and rich texture. Turning to white wines, South Africa flaunts its ability to work with Marsanne, characterized by delightful pear and quince tones, while Roussanne, on the other hand, leans more toward stone fruit flavours, adding a creamy complexity to blends. And don’t forget Viognier’s floral touch! 

 

The Fairview G.O.A.T. - gracious, original, adventurous, tenacious 

 

Anthony De Jager, winemaker at Fairview, spending time in the vineyards

 

Fairview harvest

 

Harvest time at Fairview

 

In exploring the world of Rhône-style wines in South Africa, we find a convergence of terroirs, winemaking prowess, and an authentic expression of the land that finds its way to infamous wine labels.

The inception of Fairview's tongue-in-cheek wine range, "Goats Do Roam," was nothing short of audacious. Unwelcomed at first, perhaps for apparent reasons, but these witty labels of Fairview helped the nation carve a distinct space for itself on the global wine stage. Fairview is due to celebrate its 50th anniversary since bottling its first wine in 1974—a milestone marked by Shiraz.

Anthony De Jager, chief winemaker at Fairview, emphasizes the importance of understanding history in appreciating the winery's trajectory. 

"It started with Cyril Back, a staunch Shiraz lover whose enthusiasm was infectious, and he recognized the variety as a flagship grape for the Paarl region."

In Fairview's early days, wine was crafted in open concrete fermenters and French oak barrels were only introduced 15 years later. And although these wines were hard to drink in their youth, De Jager reflects on recently enjoying one of those original wines, marvelling at its ageing potential. Their innovation extends beyond Shiraz in the Rhône sphere. They were the first to bring Viognier into the country, planting their first block in Paarl. De Jager made their inaugural 1997 Viognier that won international acclaim, marking the beginning of Fairview's reputation as a pioneering force for Rhône varieties including the first Mourvèdre and contributing to the introduction of Roussanne and Marsanne.

 

"Our Fairview Cyril Back 2020 received five stars in the Diners Club Platters Wine Guide 2024. It was also named wine of the year in the Shiraz/Syrah category. Other five-star achievers include the Fairview Primo Pinotage 2021, the Fairview Beryl Black 2022 and Fairview Caldera 2021, a Grenache-based Southern Rhône-style that scored 92 points from Gilbert & Gaillard.

 

In 1998 came the wine that caused a stir—the infamous Goats Do Roam (scoring 87/100 alongside its rosé and white counterpart scoring 88) - a resourceful blend of Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and other Rhône varieties. In the quest for Grenache, these mavericks stumbled upon old vines in Piekenierskloof, sought after to this day. Goats Do Roam was a historical milestone, launching a Rhône-style wine in South Africa before the widespread popularity of Bordeaux stars, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The launch in the US sparked controversy, with claims that the name sounded too much like "Rhône" versus "Roam." So, Fairview orchestrated a march to the French embassy defending their honour, presenting the ambassador with a magnum and goat manure for his lawn. The uproar, captured in video footage that made its way to the press and CNN, became a legendary tale in the annals of South African wine.

 

"We receive 250,000 visitors annually, so the tasting room and restaurant are the perfect places to test drive small experiments. To see how guests react to these wines gives us plenty of clues, and the tasting room staff also loves dishing up a few surprises for a captivated crowd." 

With a sense of adventure running in the company, they don't mind the wind in their hair.

"The South Easter drives us crazy at times, but the movement of the canes also keeps the vines healthy, letting the sun into the fruit zone and keeping the humidity under control."

They don't make all their accomplishments public, but it is worth noting their next-door Spice Route farm is 100% organic with 670 solar panels allowing them to run entirely off the grid if there is sunshine. Dedicated to exceptional Swartland fruit, the Spice Route Chakalaka 2021 and Limited Edition Red Blend 2022 scored 90 points, respectively, from Gilbert & Gaillard.

 

Babylonstoren, farm to table and back to the farm

 

Babylonstoren is situated on the Simondium road outside Paarl and has unfolded as a true phenomenon. The circle of life is also evident in how they take from the earth and give back two-fold, an ethos that permeates their vegetable and fruit farming, restaurants, and wine production. The spotlight is on the distinctive Babel wine (53% Shiraz, 19% Pinotage, 8% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 5% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot, 3% Mourvèdre, 2% Grenache Noir, and 1% Marselan 2022) that scored 90 points, along with their Viognier 2023.

 

Cellar master Charl Coetzee and winemaker Klaas Stofberg tasting together

 

 

Winemaker Klaas Stoffberg, drawing from experiences in Cornas and St Joseph in the Rhône, reflects on Babylonstoren's unique position.

"Some similarities are uncanny. We have nicknamed the South Easter wind ‘The Franschhoek Mistral’, Stoffberg jests, "so with elevations ranging from 150m to 650m above sea level we are no stranger to wind.

In their pursuit of excellence, they work with Romani Conti consultant, Francois Mellet.

"Some practices really put Babylonstoren apart, like harvesting Shiraz in six tranches and fermenting components in diverse vessels. This gives us the opportunity and scope of 28 different Shiraz components, contributing to a wine puzzle that navigates vintage variations."

A comprehensive cellar tour earned them the Best Innovative Wine Tourism Experience in the country by the Best of Wine Tourism Awards, starting above ground and down through seven platforms until reaching their underground tunnel, providing insight into their winemaking ingenuity along the way.

The farm's control over the entire value chain gives them a strategic advantage, facilitating a focus on online sales by constructing a new warehouse. Their commitment to sustainability also defines Babylonstoren's identity, from vegan-friendly wines to water-savvy practices.

Stoffberg: "For everything we take, we put something back. Nothing is wasted."

 

Terracotta clay pots called amphora

 

This is the 18th century Manor House at Babylonstoren with the working ducks

 

 

Winemaker Klaas Stoffberg and assistant winemaker Marina Coetzee assess wine produced in egg-shaped, Nomblot vessels

 

The impressive two-story entry into the wine museum

 

Anura – always brewing up something delicious

Close to Babylonstoren, lies Anura Vineyards, emerging as a compelling force on the Simonsberg Road. From fermenting grapes to brewing beer and making cheese, and revered for their stately events venue, Anura is another tourism gem.

 

Anura vineyards is owned and run by Tyman, Jenny and Lance Bouma

 

Stander Maass, winemaker at Anura vineyards

 

Situated against Simonsberg-Paarl, the vineyards benefit from ripening conditions like the Rhône Valley and according to winemaker, Stander Maass, they too don't escape strong winds.

Maass: “There is great focus on Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre and both the wind and the soil play a crucial role in tempering sunny days, preventing fungus and controlling yields. All these factors aid smaller berries that contribute to flavourful wines with a distinct structure.”

He emphasises the comprehensive understanding from berry ripening to bottling.

The winery's success in the market is notable, with their wines consistently over-delivering in price. Anura Shiraz is among the top 10 selling products at a medium price point in South Africa and their commitment to environmental stewardship is reinforced by a decade-long certification as an IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) farm and winery.

 

Wildeberg - a Franschhoek gem

 

Team Wildeberg is proud of their consistant achievements

 

Wildeberg has achieved the remarkable feat of receiving the prestigious Winery of the Year award back-to-back, as bestowed by winemag.co.za.

 

Wildeberg is a 144-hectare wine farm nestled 350 meters above sea level at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Acquired by the international wine company Boutinot UK in 2016, the farm boasts a rich history dating back to pre-European times when the Khoi-Khoi traversed the area seasonally with their flocks. The Catspad, one of the first passes to the interior, was constructed along the old game route over the Franschhoek Mountains, adding to the historical tapestry of the region.

Wildeberg also benefits from a Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers, creating ideal conditions for cultivating Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. And of course, the farm's rocky and complex soil composition, including Katspruit, Kroonstad, Houwhoek, Cartref, Clovelly, and Tukulu.

Assistant winemaker Abigail Buckenham, who joined the team this year, is excited about the eminent 2024 harvest and the consistent quality produced here. Buckenham shares how these six soil types help carve personality and complexity into their wines, coupled with the changing terrain and three Syrah clones at their disposal. The location, against the mountain, aligns to develop vineyards that preserve natural biodiversity for conservation, she adds.

"We definitely aim for a more savoury, sometimes austere style with a herbaceous tone, avoiding an overly fruit-forward profile and I would say our flagship Wildeberg Red exemplifies this winemaking philosophy. Comprising 90% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc from Franschhoek, this wine reflects finesse with spice, fine tannins, herbaceous notes, and a touch of lavender, rosemary, blackcurrant, and cinnamon. 

It was the Coterie Range and the Grenache Blanc that stole the limelight, the 2022 scoring 92/100 and the 2021 vintage, 91 points.

The Grenache Syrah, also part of the Coterie Range, distinguishes itself with a more muscular and voluptuous body, showcasing 67% Grenache Noir and 33% Syrah. Sourcing Grenache from Paarl and Syrah from Wildeberg itself, this wine embodies a refined process emphasizing red and blue fruit, focusing on each barrel's attributes while staying true to the vineyard and style.

They call it "lazy winemaking" – or rather a hands-off approach that preserves the unique attributes derived from the vineyards. The microclimate and the howling wind in Franschhoek contribute to the distinct style, aligning with the belief that the true uniqueness of wine lies in its origin.

 

Saronsberg - embraced by mountains

 

Let's go full circle and applaud this winery for its consistent acclaim – Gilbert & Gaillard scoring their 2021 Full Circle 93/100 points. Nestled in Tulbagh, Saronsberg stands apart, surrounded by the majestic mountains of the upper Breede River Valley. The recent transition in leadership, with Daniela Jansen stepping into the shoes of the previous winemaker, Dewald Heyns, after four years as his assistant, marks a new era for Saronsberg. Jansen, well-travelled and enthusiastic about the future, brings a deep understanding of the winery's people and vineyards.

 

At Saronsberg, harvesting takes place surrounded by mountains

 

Saronsberg strategically focuses on Rhône varieties, leveraging the perfect climate for ripening these grapes. While Shiraz has been their flagship, the winery is not content to be a one-trick pony. Bordeaux-inspired blends also receive attention, recognizing the fickleness of consumer palates and preferences. The uniqueness of Saronsberg lies in its position and interpretation of a Mediterranean climate with vines predominantly planted on clay and shale. The cool afternoon breezes mitigate the heat, allowing for the development of juicy, red fruit from vines in clay soils, balanced with vineyards anchored in shale producing fruit with more depth and complexity.

The winery boasts two adjacent farms, spanning 4 km from the slopes of the mountains to the valleys. Rhône varieties such as Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, and Roussanne, along with a touch of Marsanne, contribute to Saronsberg's beloved Full Circle. The judicious use of oak has become its hallmark, resulting in profound fruit expression, worthy of its accolades in the new 2024 Diners Club Platter’s Wine Guide. Here, both the Saronsberg Full Circle 2021 and Saronsberg Shiraz 2021 scored 94 points with three more wines scoring 90+. And as an ode to the Rhône, their Saronsberg Roussanne 2021 received 5 stars and the title of Wine of the Year in its category. Saronsberg acknowledges its remote location and the unique visitor demographic it attracts. Visitors, often drawn by their familiarity with Saronsberg wines or a desire to discover something new, frequently stay in the on-site cottages to fully immerse themselves in the countryside experience.

 

Saronsberg - where visitors escape the husslte and bustle of the city

 

In conclusion, the South African wine industry stands as a testament to innovation, skilfully weaving together the restraint of Old World styles with the vibrancy of the New World. With ingenious blends paying homage to the inspiration drawn from the Rhône, the producers take pride in crafting wines that maintain an unmistakable South African authenticity.