History of South African Wines
South Africa’s Wine Heritage – A short historical guide
The intriguing history of South Africa’s wine industry coincides with the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck, an official of the Dutch East India Company (“VOC”), who founded the first Dutch colony in Cape Town in 1652. So describing South African wines as “New World” is quite an understatement, given its roots in the start of Dutch Colonialism. It’s also quite ironic given the fact that the Dutch colonisers were more well-known for their beers, not their wines!
As the wine industry grew, however, the VOC did little to improve the quality of wine production in the area, and the resulting wines left a lot to be desired. The celebrated acclaim of today’s South African wines was definitely not an overnight success story! The quality of the vintages only started to improve 20 years later, after the arrival of Simon van der Stel, who succeeded Jan Van Riebeeck in 1679.
Simon van der Stel founded the Constantia vineyard in 1685. It is South Africa’s oldest continuously operating vineyard and is still producing excellent wines today. Records show that it was exporting wine to Europe in 1761, an indication of its acceptance by Europe’s more established wine connoisseurs.
It is also noteworthy that previous to his involvement with the wine industry, Simon van der Stel had established Stellenbosch in 1678, a town that would later grow to become one of the most famous wine regions of South Africa and well-known around the world.
But despite the advancements made by van der Stel during that time, the Dutch were still not considered highly skilled wine producers. It’s been said that the South African wine industry only started to flourish after the arrival of 150 French Huguenots, who settled in the Drakenstein and Franschoek valley between 1689 and 1690.
Interestingly, other sources state that this account of events is highly exaggerated, and only one or two of those initial French Huguenots knew how to make wine. It’s more likely that the improvements in South African wine quality stem from the expertise of French settlers that arrived at the Cape during the 18th century.
The French were not the only ones to settle in South Africa at that time. Another famous vineyard, Nederburg, was founded in 1791 by a German named Philippus Wolvaart, who acquired 49 hectares of land in the Paarl Valley. Like the Constantia vineyard, the Nederburg vineyard continues to exist, and its wines are available worldwide.
18th and 19th Centuries
Although the wine industry continued to develop, three main problems became evident during the 18th century: local demand could not absorb the wine produced, foreign demand only increased during periods of war when the supply of European wines dropped, and the quality of the wine was still not on a par with European vintages. These issues persisted into the 19th century and a boom/bust scenario defined the early history of South African wines.
A strong military presence at the Cape in the 19th century and Britain’s introduction of preferential tariffs on South African wines – a response to Napoleon’s blockade of European ports – increased demand and brought prosperity to local Cape vineyards. However, the boom was short-lived, and Cape wine exports collapsed after 1861 when Britain lifted the preferential tariffs.
Then disaster struck in 1886. An infestation of phylloxera forced vineyards to destroy millions of vines. In an effort to revive the ravaged South African wine industry, winemakers introduced a phylloxera-resistant American rootstock to the area. The Western Cape’s government-established nurseries also began cultivating this rootstock and by 1900, the industry was recovering.
Further support for the industry came during the Boer War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902. The large British military presence at this time temporarily propped up the demand for wine in the area. But the drop in demand when the Boer War ended and the spree of new plantings following the phylloxera infestation resulted in a huge overproduction. Wine prices dropped, and the South African wine industry plummeted into yet another crisis situation.
This issue of constant overproduction had been persistent throughout the history of South African winemaking. A solution had to be found if South African wines were ever going to prosper.
Co-operative Viticultural Union of South Africa
Enter Charles W.H. Kohler. Born in Calvinia in October 1862, he made a fortune in the gold industry and eventually settled on the farm Riverside, near Simondium in the Drakenstein area. He was moved by the crisis that the wine industry found itself in and believed the best solution was to unite all vineyards into one co-operative that could regulate both wine production and prices.
On 13 December 1916, Kohler presented his draft for the co-operative’s constitution at the Paarl Town Hall. It was approved by the delegates present as the Co-operative Viticultural Union of South Africa, later changed to Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, Beperkt (“KWV”). By the end of 1917, around 90 percent of all vineyards had signed up, and the KWV was officially registered on 8 January 1918.
By all accounts, the KWV appeared to be a success. However, its initial accomplishments probably had more to do with fortuitous events than with the actual management of the co-operative. An unusual shortage of wine in 1916 and the wild speculations of wine dealers resulted in excessively high wine prices. Unfortunately, these high prices fuelled another planting spree, and the inevitable wine surpluses depressed prices yet again. The KWV had no means of controlling the planting of vines, and joining the co-operative was not obligatory. Limitations such as these doomed the co-operative to failure. When prices started to drop, wine producers left the co-operative in droves, and wine merchants flouted the minimum price rule and made deals behind the co-operative’s back.
The KWV turned to the government for assistance and in 1924, the Wine and Spirits Control Act was created. Initially introduced to fix prices of wine used for brandy production, it was amended in 1940 to regulate prices of table wine and again in 1957, to set quotas for wine production.
South Africa’s wine quality was addressed in 1973 when an important step in quality regulation was implemented. The government created the Wine of Origin (WO) Act, a certification system to confirm a wine’s correct organoleptic qualities for its cultivar and age. Since 2006, a wine must now contain 85% of the stated varietal, and if an area of production is stated on the label, 100% of the grapes must come from that area.
1994 – End of Apartheid
Under the Apartheid government from 1948 to 1994, the white minority dictated who could buy land (to the exclusion of Black South Africans), what grapes were planted, where they were planted, and how much wine could be produced. Black workers on wine farms were paid some of their salary in leftover wine, and despite this practice being outlawed in the 1960s, it continued under Apartheid.
Few of the white wine farmers had experience working abroad and modern techniques were frowned upon. As a result, South African wines were behind the curve. And the boycott of the Apartheid regime meant that South African wines lost popularity on a global scale. It was only after the regime fell in 1994 that South African wines staged a comeback overseas, earning their rightful place on the world stage.
Although the vast majority of people in South Africa are Black, the entire wine industry is dominated by white wine farmers, and the end of Apartheid has not (yet) changed this inequality. According to the Western Cape Government of Cape Town, “approximately 60 percent of the country’s 300,000-person wine industry workforce” , for example, Seven Sisters, Thandi Wines and M’Hudi. The tide is slowly turning, and there are notable success stories, some of which we are featuring on our website: southafricanwinecellar.com/shop.
The history of South African wines does not stop with the end of Apartheid. There have been many other milestones since, but listing all of them would exceed the capacity of this brief historical overview. We hope you enjoyed our short tour through the history of South African wines and that it makes consuming the wines of the South African Wine Cellar even more enjoyable.
The Pinotage – How a grape was saved by a cyclist
The year 1925 marks the birth of South Africa’s own grape variety, the Pinotage. It was created by Professor Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, who successfully cross-pollinated Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut). He produced four seeds and planted them in the garden of the Welgevallen Experimental Farm. Then apparently, he forgot about them.
After Professor Perold left the university two years later, Welgevallen Experimental Farm became overgrown. A fortuitous coincidence saved the seedlings during a clean-up of the garden. Dr Charlie Niehaus, a lecturer at the university who knew about them, happened to cycle past the garden when it was being cleaned up and rescued the seedlings. They were left untouched for a further seven years, but in 1935, CJ Theron, who had taken over from Professor Perold, finally grafted the seedlings onto rootstock. Shortly thereafter, the new variety was propagated and named Pinotage.
The first casks of Pinotage wine were produced in 1941 at a small winery in Elsenberg. Later, the first commercial Pinotage vineyard was established in Myrtle Grove, near Sir Lowry’s Pass, but its initial offerings of Pinotage were less than successful.
Although the robustness of the Pinotage varietal made it popular with vineyards, a lack of skill in handling the grapes resulted in a wine of low quality. In 1976, after a group of British Wine Masters criticised the Pinotage for its ‘horrible’ taste, many vineyards decided that the grape variety had no future, and very few producers stayed loyal.
But all was not lost and a turning point in the history of Pinotage came in 1987. The Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year award spotlighted the Pinotage that year, reviving the country’s love for its national wine. Beyers Truter at Kanonkop is the vineyard credited with putting Pinotage on the world map in 1991. That year, Kanonkop’s Pinotage became the first South African wine to win the Robert Mondavi trophy for ‘Best Red Wine’ at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. Finally, after almost 70 years, the Pinotage had become a grape loved and respected by wine drinkers around the world.