South Africa is considered part of the New World when it comes to wine production, not least because it emerged from isolation after the Apartheid era in fairly recent times. In fact, the history of wine production in South Africa stretches back as far as the 1600’s when it was first settled by the Dutch. While its wines may be considered new on the world stage, its heritage is decidedly Old World with a history and traditions that shape the industry to the present day. Here’s a brief history :-
Shortly after the Dutch East India Company established a fuelling station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, Governor Jan van Riebeeck sent to Europe for vine cuttings in the belief that sailors would suffer less from scurvy if they drank wine. The first wines were produced in 1659 but whether they helped prevent scurvy or not is unclear – more likely it contributed to unable seamanship on a grand scale.
Simon van der Stel, van Riebeeck’s successor, was so disgusted by the quality of the wine produced that he proceeded to remedy the situation by planting vines at Constantia. This area still exists today and comprises three separate estates, world-renown for their quality of wine production – Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting.
The arrival of French Huguenots in the late 1600’s helped to greatly improve the quality of the wine made in the Cape as they brought their knowledge and expertise with them. The Franschhoek ward (which literally means French Corner) in Paarl still retains its French character in many ways and French wine-making traditions are used on most estates.
After French Revolutionary Forces entered the Netherlands in 1806, the British occupied the Cape and began exporting South African wine to the many corners of its far-flung empire, enhancing its reputation greatly. By 1860 4.5 million litres of wine were being exported to Britain alone but by the end of the 1800’s exports were drastically reduced due to the cut in wine duties between Britain and France (1861), phylloxera (1886) and the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
Early in the 19th Century, South Africa experienced a large influx of immigrants attracted by the discovery of gold and diamonds. A huge increase in demand for wine and brandy was anticipated as a result and vineyard expansion went unchecked. At the same time the Ostrich feather industry collapsed so many farmers started to grow grapes instead. Overproduction was the result and the market soon became controlled by co-operatives or wine merchants who fixed the prices. This had a disastrous effect on the quality of the wine being produced.
To combat this lake of wine being produced that nobody wanted to buy, the Cape Government encouraged the formation of co-operatives and in 1918 the KWV was formed backed by considerable government powers. The KWV had full control over the wine market in South Africa for many years to come – from production to marketing, the oenological sector, planting rights and industry statistics. One of the first decisions it made was to distill half the the country’s annual wine production into brandy thereby reducing the surplus. The rest of the surplus was blended into marketable export wines – both these strategies saved the South African wine industry at the time.
During the apartheid years the wine industry was isolated from the rest of the world and this inevitably led to inertia and the failure to keep up with world trends, many of which happened in the 1980’s. Strict quarantine laws imposed by the KWV kept chardonnay out of the country for decades. Even those wine estates who had a decent product to export could not sell it due to the boycott of South African goods in most markets. The focus became very introspective and tailored to the local market – the mindset of the farmer being about yield over quality. The average per capita consumption of wine in the country was very low compared to most parts of continental Europe and even the USA. Chenin blanc was the most widespread variety in the apartheid years as it could be used for dry white wines, sweet white wines and brandy. Even in 1997 – 3 years after Nelson Mandela was elected President – Chenin blanc accounted for over 30% of total vineyard area. It is this period that has been the most damaging to the SA wine industry in my opinion – both from an image and commercial perspective – and to a certain extent it still suffers from today.
After the abolition of apartheid in the early 1990’s, the SA wine industry was finally allowed to open itself to the world again and establish business relationships in Europe and the USA. Wine farmers now had to change their focus from producing quantity to producing quality to compete with wines from other countries such as Australia, Chile and New Zealand. This involved a large scale re-planting program to change from the varieties used for bulk production (mainly Chenin blanc) to the noble varieties of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz which appealed to international tastes. In 1997 these varieties only accounted for 19% of the total vineyard area but by 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for 12.8% alone. At present only 17% of all vines are older than 20 years while nearly half are in the 4-10 year age range indicating the scale of the replanting. This has had a hugely positive effect on exports – in 1997 exports were 120 million litres but by 2007 they were 320 million litres.
South Africa is now the 9th largest producer of wine in the world with 840 million litres, representing 3% of global production. The 320 million litres exported go to the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark predominantly and in that order but new markets are opening up in the USA and Far East. Wine estates and producers such as Meerlust, Kanonkop, Vergelegen and Boekenhoutskloof have achieve international acclaim for the wines they produce. Many wine makers now spend part of the year in France, Australia or the USA to learn about new wine-making trends and as a result there is a huge exchange of knowledge that impacts on the overall quality levels of the wines produced. There are still problems – leafroll virus being one – but the SA wine industry is probably better placed now than it has been at any other time in its 400-odd year old history.