The history of South African wine begins in 1655, when the first grapevines were planted near Cape Town by members of the Dutch East India Company. The first results weren’t encouraging but as more colonists arrived, they brought a knowledge and a tradition of viticulture and winemaking. The wine industry grew throughout the 18th century, mainly producing sweet and fortified wines. Brandy, which necessitated the cultivation of white grapes, also became a major export.
In 1795, the British invaded and changed the course of history for both South Africa and its burgeoning wine industry. Vineyard area increased rapidly and wine was exported all over the globe, especially to Britain. But as British trade increased with France, South African wine exports declined. Add the phylloxera epidemic and the Anglo-Boer War and by the beginning of the 20th century, the wine industry was suffering.
The government’s answer was wine cooperatives. One cooperative in particular, the KWV, went on to become a powerful, government-backed entity that determined everything from grape prices to quotas per vineyard. Quality suffered under this system, but many old vineyards were preserved that otherwise would not have survived.
Apartheid in the country led to international sanctions in the 1960s, further hampering the growth of the wine industry. But it was during this time that some independent producers began improvements in viticulture and winemaking. And when apartheid ended in 1994, the momentum towards quality over quantity was building.
South Africa is found at the southern tip of the African continent. The vineyards are almost all within a hundred miles of Cape Town, which lies at about 34 degrees South Latitude. While not very far south, the climate—described as mild Mediterranean—is suitable for winegrowing for a couple of reasons. Areas near the coast are much cooler than those further inland due to the cold Benguela current that comes up from Antarctica. Inland regions are warmer but benefit from elevation. Coastal areas are wetter than further inland, where vineyards often need irrigation. But the country as a whole has had to deal with serious water shortages in recent years.
The soils are ancient and weathered. They are typically based on granite, sandstone and shale near the coast. Inland one finds more alluvial soils interspersed with sandy soils, free lime, and iron-rich soils.
International grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Merlot predominate in the vineyards across South Africa. The most-planted grape is Chenin Blanc, which is resistant to drought, a big plus in South Africa. The best Chenin Blanc wines, many produced from old vines, rival the great Chenin wines of the Loire and the grape has become the country’s signature white grape.
South Africa’s lone native grape is Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known for many years as “Hermitage”). This unique grape can be made into a variety of styles ranging from light and fruity to tannic and full-bodied. Pinotage is often combined with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce “Cape blends.” These Bordeaux-style wines are often South Africa’s top reds. Sparkling wines made using the Traditional Method are called Méthode Cap Classique. They are extremely popular and represent some of the best values in sparkling wines anywhere.
The new generation of winemakers in South Africa, many of whom have traveled and worked all over the world, are innovating and improving both in the vineyards and in the cellars. It is a very exciting time for South African wines, which have improved dramatically in recent decades.