Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted red wine variety in South Africa, and performs admirably across the Cape winelands. But to produce truly world-class wines this most regal of the noble varieties requires the perfect terroir. The climatic conditions - plenty of sun, but moderate temperatures - need to be just right. As do the soils, with well-drained weathered shale and granite ideal for producing high quality Cabernet.
Stellenbosch ticks all of these boxes, so it is little surprise that Cabernet Sauvignon from this historic wine-growing region was one of the star attractions at the Cape Wine 2015 trade show in September.
"To make great Cabernet you need a very specific set of climatic conditions," explains David Trafford, owner and winemaker at De Trafford Winery, who says that the range of soils, elevation and aspects in and around Stellenbosch make it the perfect region for cultivating Cabernet.
"In a way, it's not like Stellenbosch chose Cabernet... Cabernet chose Stellenbosch," says Johan Malan, cellar master at the family-owned Simonsig Wine Estate and one of more than a dozen winemakers working to establish Stellenbosch as the 'Kingdom of Cabernet'. "Cabernet is the last variety to ripen in the season and is exposed to all the trials and tribulations of the vintage, so it needs the perfect terroir to perform at the highest level."
Local winemakers aren't the only ones enthralled by the stellar Cabernet vineyards planted in and around this historic university town.
"I'm most impressed by the outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon quality that areas of Stellenbosch, South Africa have the rare ability to forge," enthuses Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, Editor-in-Chief of the respected Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. "Cabernet is a notoriously difficult variety to ripen. It is well known that there are very few special places around the world that can coax Cabernet to its somewhat unique pinnacles of flavour and phenolic ripeness."
While this special terroir certainly finds expression in the bottle, Stellenbosch winemakers are also forging their own identity when crafting Cabernet Sauvignon. Previous decades have seen winemakers experiment with both Old and New World approaches to wine-making, but local cellars are today putting their own stamp on Cabernet, imbuing each bottle with a character that is uniquely, recognisably, Stellenbosch.
"There are two paradigms of Cabernet: there's Bordeaux, and there's Napa Valley," says José Condé, winemaker at Stark-Condé in the picturesque Jonkershoek Valley. "I'd say we sit nicely between the two."
"We must make Cabernets that are true to our own soils and climate," adds Malan emphatically. "Although we are in the New World, stylistically our wines have an Old World character; they are more austere, with dry tannins and a slightly herbaceous character."
In the past "there has been a pursuit of richer and riper styles, but I believe that most winemakers are coming back to the classic style which has remained timeless," agrees Kevin Arnold, cellar master of Waterford Wine Estate and a member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers' Guild.
Time is certainly one of the key ingredients in creating great Cabernet, with firm tannins and high acidity allowing the wine to develop over decades.
"The ability to age is central to what Cabernet is all about," notes Trafford. "In the last decade or so we've started to make wines that can happily last 30 or 40 years."
"Previously winemakers were pushing the boundaries of ripeness," adds Condé. "Now they are backing off from that, looking rather for balance and freshness, and how to express the vintage."
On that score, Stellenbosch winemakers have struck it lucky.
"We've had a string of excellent vintages starting with 2009. A lot of people call 2009 the greatest vintage in 50 years," enthuses Condé. "2010 was also excellent; a little lighter, more classic vintage; and 2011 was absolutely fantastic."
Those vintages may have also provided for good Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage harvests in this prolific wine region, but for a handful of winemakers their gaze is focused firmly on harnessing the unique terroir of Stellenbosch to produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon that balances the New World's generosity of fruit with the elegance of Bordeaux.
"Stellenbosch is blessed that we can grow so many different grape varieties, but in the decades to come we need to focus on what we do best," says Malan. "Cabernet does immensely well in Stellenbosch, and it's a grape that we can use to show just what local winemakers are capable of."
"Cabernet Sauvignon is the yardstick by which all wine regions are judged, and over the years Stellenbosch has proven to be the most successful area in South Africa for producing great Cabernet," concludes Etienne Le Riche, cellar master at Le Riche Wines. "I want Stellenbosch to become famous for the variety that does best here. And that variety, is Cabernet."
To keep up with the latest from the Kingdom of Cabernet, follow @StellWineRoute on Twitter as #KingdomofCabernet trends.
CLICK HERE for the photo album of the #KingdomofCabernet event, held on 14 September 2015
The 20 wines showcased at the Kingdom of Cabernet event on Monday 14 September:
Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1.5L 2000
De Trafford Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve 2011
Ernie Els Proprietor's Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Glenelly Lady May 2011
Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Oldenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2009
Stark-Condé Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Thelema Rabelais 2011
Uitkyk Carlonet 1.5L 2003
Vergelegen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Vergenoegd Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Vriesenhof CWG Cabernet Sauvignon 1.5L 2007
Waterford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Zonnebloem Limited Edition Cabernet Sauvignon 2009