History and Overview of South African Wine

A Long and Fascinating History

South African wines have a long rich and fascinating history.  Viticulture was first introduced to the country around 1655. Over the centuries, South African wines have made exceptional progress and are now appreciated worldwide by many wine lovers and regularly win prestigious international awards. The country is also known for producing some rather unique wines which are excellent value for money.

Around three hundred and fifty years ago, The Cape, at the southern tip of Africa, was an important trade link for various shipping merchants. It served as a refreshment and a re-supply station which was essential as Scurvy was a serious problem for travelers.  This base was established by The Dutch East India Company and led to the creation of the Cape Colony. 

The Governor’s Role in the Wine Industry

Jan van Riebeeck was the first governor appointed to the new Cape Colony and he was given the responsibility of developing vineyards and wine production. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm did not compensate for his lack of viticultural and oenological skills and the first vintage made in 1659 from French Muscadet grapes was remembered as being very unremarkable. In 1679, the new governor of the Cape, Simon van de Stel, possessed an in-depth knowledge of viticulture and winemaking.  As a result, dramatic improvements were made regarding wine production. The warm Mediterranean climate and the diverse soils are mainly composed of ancient shale, phyllite, schist, and greywacke as well as sandy/gravelly topsoil.  The soil is often very low in phosphorus which is rectified by deep plowing and careful soil preparation.  This climate and soil combination is ideal for growing a large variety of different grape varietals.  The industry flourished. Many international winemakers saw the potential of this new region and relocated to the Cape to make wine. 

Similar to the history of South Africa, the history of winemaking is also a turbulent tale. It was largely dominated by a cooperative, KWV. This organization wielded immense power and was backed by the government.  They imposed a quota system on wine farms, which limited wine production. The outbreak of Phylloxera in the 1880s wiped out vast sections of vineyards when the little aphid infested the vines and decimated most of the vineyards by killing the vines' roots.

Apartheid was also a massive problem for winemakers as it hindered the export of wine to many regions due to sanctions that had been put in place. Despite these challenges, the wineries persevered and continued to improve their viticulture and winemaking methods and also expanded their winemaking operations as much as they could despite the various restrictions that were placed upon them.

In 1990, the KWV monopoly finally came to an end, four years later it was followed by the end of Apartheid.  With fewer restrictions, the South African wine industry was finally able to flourish.

Top South African Wines

Early wine production was focused on using a limited number of varieties, but as the industry began to grow, in conjunction with the arrival of many experienced international viticulturists and winemakers, the opportunities to create great wines increased. 

Chenin Blanc known by the locals as “Steen” is the main grape variety grown in South Africa and has the second largest vineyard surface planted after France.  It makes up close to one-fifth of the vineyards.  It grows very well which is largely due to its drought tolerance. The signature grape and second most planted grape varietal in South Africa is Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault which expresses the best qualities of both grapes, though it does not show any of the typical French characteristics that the original varieties possess.  This varietal was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University.  Relatively unknown until it won the Wine of the Year award at a wine dinner that was hosted by the Diners Club in 1987 since then it has gained popularity around the world.

Other popular international varieties that flourish in South Africa include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.  Despite its long and turbulent history, many South African wines now rival the best wines in the world.  The famous sparkling wine Cap Classique was first made in 1968.  The wine is made using the same method employed to make Champagne.  The second fermentation takes place in the bottle and the wine must age for at least twelve months on lees before it is released.  Many innovative independent winemakers are creating some amazing wines.

What Sets South African Wines Apart from Other Wine Regions?

South Africa has a favorable and somewhat unique terroir that many varieties thrive in. It is considered a “New World” wine area which tends to have a somewhat warmer climate than the “Old World” wines of Europe and the Middle East. This makes South African wines a bit more full-bodied, riper, and often a bit higher in alcohol. Riper grapes are produced for unique, often fruity wines with great appeal to wine lovers.  The next time that you choose a bottle of wine, why not try the fine offerings of South Africa?

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