Stellenbosch, in South Africa’s Western Cape, is a region unified more by a common historical and cultural context than by a common terroir for grape growing. Wine production has been continuously practiced in the valleys surrounding the eponymous town at the heart of the district for the past four hundred years since the Dutch settlement in 1683 by Simon van der Stel. The area now circumscribed by the Stellenbosch District includes diverse topological and climactic factors which make it hard to speak of the region as a whole, except to note its generally Mediterranean climate. To the south, Stellenbosch is bordered by False Bay. To the north, Stellenbosch heads into the Simonsberg Mountains, which block any residual cooling influences from traveling farther north. This configuration causes a gradual temperature and precipitation gradient, from cool and moist in the south to hot and arid in the north, determined primarily by proximity to or distance from cool breezes off the ocean waters chilled by the Antarctic. Further divisions in the landscape are recognized as distinct mesoclimates which have each been delineated as wards of Stellenbosch, including the Polkadraai hills, Jonkershoek Valley, Devon Valley, Bottelary, Banghoek, and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch. Hills are valued for their north-facing slopes, shielded from the cool southern winds, and exposed to the sun for maximum ripening potential. Elevations up to 600 meters (2,000 feet) are key to cooling down vineyards in Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, the largest, most northerly, and by extension, the warmest ward in Stellenbosch.
Focusing on the specifics of terroir is of limited utility in Stellenbosch as many of the best vineyards lie outside of the approved subregions that are intended to designate higher quality. This prevents many top wines to have a geographical indication more precise than Stellenbosch. Soil types are largely consistent regardless of location within Stellenbosch as South Africa overall has a uniquely consistent geology; granite mountains covered with a layer of sandstone, and the decomposed quartzes and sands which derive from this underlying geology. This is because South Africa has been free of glacial, volcanic, and tectonic activity for millions of years, minimizing the processes which lead to more diverse surface soils. The last complication in tying wine expression to the site is that many wines produced in Stellenbosch are the result of grapes blended from parcels throughout the district so it is rare to find single vineyard bottlings which might otherwise reflect a single site’s character.
Regardless of the difficulty in describing Stellenbosch’s terroir, the quality of its products remains unhindered. Stellenbosch has been the driving force behind South Africa’s wine industry for centuries, and its stately manor houses and genteel pace appeal to the sense of luxury on which wine tourism feeds. The style of wine favored in Stellenbosch is overwhelmingly red and based on Bordeaux blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon leading the way. Pinotage, Syrah, and Merlot also occupy significant vineyard acreage, the first two often reserved for varietal wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and small amounts of Chardonnay are also planted in Stellenbosch, to make the best use of cooler sites. The wines of Stellenbosch have benefitted greatly from the influx of capital and the latest winemaking technology in the years since Apartheid, and their quality remains the standard by which many South African wines are judged.