South African wines of today are the result of a fascinating process of integration between philosophies and techniques from various European countries, excelling through a time of economic and political isolation.
Affected by numerous cultures in different ways, South Africa represented the meeting point between Old World winemaking philosophy and New World technological innovations.
In the early 17th century, the trade between the Indonesian port of Batavia and the Netherlands increased to such a level that Jan van Riebeeck was sent to manage the supply station at the Cape of Good Hope. Because of the false belief that wine could prevent scurvy, the Dutch built a fort and farming community in the Cape in order to supply the sailors during their journey along the spice route to India.
When Simon van der Stel was appointed governor of the Cape Colony in 1679, he closed a deal for a 750-hectare land grant. The estate was named Constantia and it went on to have a significant impact on South African winemaking. Firstly, more French winemakers were brought to the colony to improve production techniques. More importantly, van der Stel introduced regulations and high penalties to avoid harmful practices, such as harvesting before the grapes had ripened and fermenting in dirty barrels, refining the overall quality of the wines. Following his death in 1712, the estate was split.
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, marks that still exist today were imprinted, such as the winemaking philosophy of the Huguenots, who were driven out of France and the Dutch technique of adding sulphur to the wine to halt fermentation before all the sugar had turned to alcohol, keeping the sweetness without increasing the alcohol level.
But it was the British domination at the beginning of the 18th century that contributed to South African wines becoming more popular abroad. After losing Aquitaine and Bordeaux, the British welcomed the opportunity of turning South Africa into a steady supply of wine under their control. Exports led to a very lucrative market, which were encouraged even further by significant cuts in import duty to the United Kingdom.
However, the mid 19th century brought several calamities including the infamous phylloxera epidemic. The overreaction to 20 years effects of devastation caused the production of wine to overtake demand significantly. This “wine lake effect” prompted the creation of KMW winemaking co-operative in 1918. In few years, nearly 95% of all vineyards owners belonged to KMW.
Despite the beneficial effects of the co-operative on price, winemaking, viticulture and production regulations, this had a negative effect on innovation within the industry and boycotts of South African products in protest against the Apartheid system further deepened the isolation throughout the 20th century.
Political changes in the Country were the catalyst for producers to embark on a steep learning curve, switching their mindset from high-quantity to high-quality in order to compete on the global market. The amount of grapes used in wine production soon increased from 30% in 1990 to 70% in 2003.
Another innovation led to Black Economic Empowerment programs, which had a further impact on the wine industry at the beginning of 21st century, greatly increasing the number of vineyards and wineries with black ownership and involvement.
The climate in South Africa is Mediterranean: fairly temperate, with warm summers and cold winters.
Most South African wine production is located in the southwestern part of the country: the Western Cape is cooler than its position suggests, with conditions that are ideal for viticulture.
The vineyards are located on the valley sides and on the impressive Cape mountain foothills. Rugged peaks and multi-directional valley slopes create a constant and suggestive interaction, while the proximity of two oceans moderates warmth in the summer.
There are 94,545 hectares of vineyards in South Africa, over an area of approximately 800 kilometres in length. White varieties cover just over 55% of the total, while reds account for a 45%.
South African wine production in 2017 was over 448 million litres.
Exports has been consistently under the 50% mark over the last 10 years, with the exception of 2013, with moderate fluctuations. The most relevant markets for South African wines are United Kingdom and Germany, followed distantly by USA, Canada and the Netherlands.
For white varieties, Chenin Blanc leads the ranking with almost 19% of total vineyards. It is followed by Colombard (12%), Sauvignon Blanc (10%) and Chardonnay (7%).
Red varieties are a bit more evenly balanced, with Cabernet Sauvignon (11%) and Syrah, or Shiraz (10%) topping the list. Pinotage (7%) and Merlot (6%) are close behind.
There are other minor varieties in the Country for both reds and whites, battling to share the remaining 18%.
Like Australia, in South Africa wines need to be made with at least 85% of the same grape to be labelled with the variety name. Because of the wide spread of grape varieties adopted in the Country, wine styles can differ quite consistently.
For example, South African examples of Chenin Blanc wines are usually dry, or with a little bit of sweetness that enhances its yellow apple and jasmine scent.
Forreds, Syrahs have ripe blackberry and blueberry flavours, but many also have peppery and meaty hints. While Cabernet Sauvignons are full-bodied and all about ripe black cherry, bright mint and cedar.
Klein Constantia was born and raised during the split of the original Constantia estate in 1712. The name literally translates to “Little Constantia” from Dutch and Afrikaans. The estate as we know it today was completely revamped in the 1970s. After years of abandonment following the phylloxera epidemic, the vineyards were revamped to kick-off a new age of winemaking.
Vergelegen is one of the most famous wine estates in the world. Located six kilometres away from the shores of False Bay, near Cape Town, its history is tied to the development of viticulture in South Africa itself. The estate has been rated among the top 100 in the world.
Located in Swartland, in the Western Cape Province, David & Nadia is a family-run winery estate on the Paardebosh Farm with a focus on different soil types and mainly bush vineyards with as little intervention in the cellar as possible. They are considered some of the most exciting winemakers on the Swartland wine scene.