Stellenbosch is synonymous with South African winemaking.  South Africa's second-oldest town was founded in 1679 by Dutch settlers; the first wine grapes were planted not long after that, mainly by Huguenots who left France to find a new home.  Settlers began establishing wine estates in the early 1680s, so it is not surprising that the town of Stellenbosch has lent its name to the wine region that surrounds it.  Traditionally famous for its white wines, Stellenbosch has reinvented itself in recent years, changing focus and emphasizing production of quality red wines.

Stellenbosch History

The fortunes of Stellenbosch's wine industry have been tied to South Africa's history from the earliest days of Dutch settlement.  During the early 1800s, Stellenbosch wines, as well as other wines from South Africa, found a ready market because of the war between France and Britain.  Unfortunately for Stellenbosch's wine producers, the industry collapsed later in the 19th century when Britain and France made peace.  Phylloxera arrived 25 years later, devastating the vineyards and forcing growers to replant.  Just as recovery seemed likely, the Anglo-Boer War began in South Africa itself.

The 20th century ushered in a period of renewal for the wine industry, spearheaded by the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt, or KWV, a cooperative that attempted to restabilize the wine market by controlling prices and supply.  While opinions differ on the effectiveness of the KWV's efforts, the cooperative set the stage for expansion of South Africa's modern wine industry.  The University of Stellenbosch opened in 1918; today the university is one of South Africa's leading centers of education for winemakers.

In 1935, two local winemakers established the Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery Limited (SFW) with the intention of making and marketing Stellenbosch wines for export.  SFW launched several successful wines, including the wildly popular Lieberstein, putting Stellenbosch wines firmly onto the world wine map.  SFW merged with Distillers Corporation to form Distell in 2000.

By the 1970s, Stellenbosch wine producers were ready to develop wine tourism in their region.  They established the Stellenbosch Wine Route, South Africa's first, in 1971; today this route, expanded into five separate sub-routes, is known as the Stellenbosch American Express ®Wine Routes.

The 1970s also heralded the passage of South Africa's Wine of Origin laws.  Unfortunately, South African wine producers encountered difficulty exporting their wines, due in large part to the policy of apartheid in force at the time.  When activist Nelson Mandela won election to South Africa's presidency in 1994, other nations took notice and began to import South African wines in greater quantities.  Today, the United Kingdom imports more South African wine than any other country.

Geography, Soils and Climate

The Stellenbosch wine region, called a wine district under South African Wine of Origin laws, is about 34 miles east of Cape Town.  Over time, several official sub-regions, called wards, have been established within the Stellenbosch district.  These include: Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch is almost completely surrounded by mountains and hills, but the area does feel some of the climate-mitigating effects of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  The region's climate is typically Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and cool, somewhat rainy winters.  Summer temperatures range from 74 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 50 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit at night.  During the winter months, daytime temperatures range from 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures dip down into the high 30s to low 40s. Rainfall averages 26 to 29 inches per year, with most rain falling during the winter season.  Some growers in Stellenbosch have installed drip irrigation systems to help cope with summer droughts.

Soil types vary in Stellenbosch; western soils tend to be sandstone-based, while eastern soils are more likely to be granite-based.

Stellenbosch Wine Grape Varieties

The white wines of Stellenbosch put the region on the map.  Pride of place goes to sauvignon blanc; about 43 percent of the white wine grapes planted in Stellenbosch are sauvignon blanc.  Chenin blanc, chardonnay and sémillon are also popular.  In 2008, approximately 37 percent of Stellenbosch's vineyards were planted in white wine grapes, according to Wines of South Africa.

Cabernet sauvignon is the most-planted red wine grape planted in Stellenbosch.  Shiraz and merlot are virtually tied for second place.  Pinotage (the South African cross of pinot noir and cinsaut) and cabernet franc are also popular.

Stellenbosch growers have been reasonably successful in combating the leafroll virus, which is carried by some species of mealybugs.  During the last view years, growers have been replanting their vineyards with resistant clones.

Visiting Stellenbosch Wineries

Wine tourism is well-developed in Stellenbosch.  If you are planning a trip to the area, be sure to find out whether the wineries you wish to visit will be open during your stay.  Some wineries are closed on Sundays, while others are only open on certain days of the week.

Rustenberg,  founded in 1682, is one of the oldest wineries in Stellenbosch.  Wine production began almost right away, and Rustenberg's owners have been bottling wines since 1892.  The Barlow family bought the winery in 1941; they offer tastings Mondays through Saturdays in a sleekly modern tasting room that was once a stable.

Rust en Vrede was founded in 1694 by the man who lent his name to Stellenbosch, Willem Adrian van der Stel, who was serving as Governor of the Cape at the time. The manor house that is the heart of today's winery was built in 1790, and the front of the house was rebuilt in 1825 after a fire damaged the building.  Since 1977, the Engelbrecht family has focused on making red wines only, with very good results.  Rust en Vrede's Coenie Snyman was named the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for 2009.  The winery's well-known restaurant, also called Rust en Vrede, was named Best Wine Tourism Restaurant in the 2010 Best of Wine Tourism awards.

Waterford Estate, owned by the Ord and Arnold families, specializes in unusual wine tasting experiences.  The Wine Drive Safari takes you by Land Rover into the vineyards and onto estate land that has been set aside in its natural state; your guide will explain how the grapes are grown and offer you a tasting experience right in the vineyard.  Waterford Estate also offers dessert wine and chocolate tastings as well as traditional wine tastings.

De Trafford Winery offers lodging in the on-site Garden Cottage as well as tastings on Friday and Saturday mornings.  This boutique winery focuses on quality and innovation; De Trafford is even producing "straw wine," or "vin de paille," the only wine of this type made in South Africa.  This process involves drying chenin blanc grapes on straw as the first step in making a sweet dessert wine.

What's Next for Stellenbosch?

South Africa's winemakers, including those in Stellenbosch, have been systematically increasing their red wine production, drawing away from traditionally-successful white wines.  Stellenbosch producers will need to continue and expand their efforts to market the Stellenbosch brand to ensure that wine exports continue to increase during this transition process, particularly to countries outside the United Kingdom.

Stellenbosch wine producers are pinning their hopes for stronger brand recognition on the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, hosted by South Africa.  Soccer fans from around the world are expected to flock to the various venues around the country, and they will undoubtedly be more than happy to try the country's famous cabernets and chenin blancs.

With a winemaking tradition stretching back 350 years and every incentive to continue producing top-notch wines, Stellenbosch wine producers are ready to expand their presence on the world wine stage.