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Walker Bay - Whales and Wine

September 10, 2013

Off the southern coast of South Africa, far before any human beings took notice, migrating whales have taken a yearly vacation to the warmer and more protected waters of the bays formed along its rugged coastline.  Escaping the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, these mammoth mammals travel north where they mate and calve in relative safety.  This annual journey has become quite a draw for travelers, evidenced by the ever-growing seaside town of Hermanus.  Yet, in addition to witnessing the breaching, sailing, lobtailing, and spyhopping display put on by the whales, visitors are discovering another attraction to the area - a burgeoning winegrowing region.  Indeed, Walker Bay has recently garnered some well-deserved attention as one of South Africa's most promising winegrowing areas.

The Wines of Walker Bay

Hermanus, Western Cape South Africa
Hermanus, Western Cape South Africa
Until recently, the demarcated winegrowing region of Walker Bay did not exist. Even though there were vineyards and winemakers producing quality wines, no official designation existed, which gives you an idea about the relative youth of this area.  And that infancy has resulted in vintners continuing to experiment with different grape varieties in the vineyards.  Yet despite a range of diversity, there are four main grape varieties which have elevated Walker Bay to the level of international attention.

Sauvignon Blanc - This popular international white variety is by far the most represented grape in Walker Bay and many consider it the region's best.  The grape benefits from the cooling influence of the nearby Atlantic Ocean and the Benguela current, which bring cooler temperatures up from Antarctica. That influence helps Sauvignon Blanc retain its vibrant acidity, a crucial component of the wines made in Walker Bay.  Many compare the style as a balance between New World styles found in New Zealand and California, which display ample citrus and tropical tones, and Old World styles found in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, which have a more mineral characteristic.

Chardonnay - Another popular grape found around the world, Chardonnay also enjoys the cooler climate of Walker Bay.  And even though recent numbers indicate that it lags behind Sauvignon Blanc in terms of vineyard acreage, some prognosticate that Chardonnay will become the more popular of the two.  Vintners in Walker Bay certainly feel that this is possible; especially considering the heights other cool climate areas can reach with Chardonnay (i.e. Burgundy).  Comparisons also straddle the Old World/New World line with the finest examples showing incredible complexity and subtle nuance.

Pinot Noir - Over the past decade or so, Walker Bay (and the wider Overberg region in general), has developed a reputation for making outstanding Pinot Noir.  Following the theme of growing cool climate grapes, Pinot Noir certainly enjoys the maritime climate of Walker Bay and also the diversity of soils found throughout the region.  Another recurring theme is the “middle-of-the-spectrum” style the region produces.  Many of the wines from Walker Bay display plenty of fruit aspects (cherry, strawberry, raspberry), but also express earthiness (mushroom, truffle, leather).

Syrah - Although it is the most widely planted red grape in Walker Bay, Syrah usually takes a backseat to Pinot Noir because of the latter's sometimes crazed following.  Yet, Syrah from the region certainly shows that it can make world class wines with abundant character.  Even though there are no regulations dictating what name vintners may use, many choose to label their wines Syrah instead of Shiraz because the style is more comparable to the wines of the Rhone Valley in France, specifically the Northern Rhone, than those found in Australia.  And there is certainly a method to their madness, as Syrah from Walker Bay usually displays more subdued characteristics than those typical to Australia, and even the warmer regions of South Africa, which choose to use Shiraz as their varietal designation.

Growing Grapes in Walker Bay

Walker Bay is known as a cool climate winegrowing region.  This can sometimes seem a bit misleading because it is relatively warm compared to other famous cool climate areas such as Burgundy, Champagne, Mosel River, etc.  But this simply illustrates the profound influence the Atlantic Ocean and Benguela Current has on grape growing in Walker Bay.  The cool air (which is corralled by the surrounding mountains), ensures that the grapes maintain ample acidity while they ripen.  Walker Bay is also distinguished by the varied microclimates enjoyed by the wards that are encompassed within its borders.  The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (translated “Heaven on Earth”) runs north from Hermanus and contains several unique wards that offer a slightly different wine experience from one another.  The valley is also continuing to mature with new vineyards and wineries being added almost annually.  Pretty soon, the whales may have to do more than lobtailing and spyhopping to hold the attention of visitors to Walker Bay.

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·  Klein Karoo
·  Northern Cape
·  Olifants River
·  Franschhoek Valley
·  Constantia Valley
·  Paarl
·  Coastal Region
·  Cape South Coast
·  Overberg
·  Worcester
·  Robertson
·  Eastern Cape


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