The History of South African Wine

A (Very) Brief History of Wine

Wine is actually a surprisingly old product, with historical evidence pointing to it being part of ancient civilisation around 6000BC, across Persia (Iran), what is now modern-day Georgia (north east of Turkey) and arguably even China.

A fixture in ancient Greece, its dominance grew throughout Europe during Roman (and Christian) times, when it was widely used for ‘communion’: an important ritual religious offering. Following the fall of the Roman Empire in 395AD, during medieval times it was monasteries and monks who then stepped in, venturing into winemaking and wine preservation to ensure a steady supply.

Fun fact: Dom Pérignon was a French Benedictine monk!

Abbeys and monasteries were subsequently built all over France, with wine becoming intrinsically intertwined with French culture. Did you know that nearly every strain of international grape originates from France? It was also here that the concept and ethos of ‘terroir’ was formed – and over time, the establishment of large commercial vineyards realised.

So how did vines reach South Africa, I hear you ask? During the 1600’s, Europeans began colonising the world – and many took with them their winemaking skills and practices. The first vines were brought to Cape Town and planted by Dutch settlers in 1655, setting in motion the birth of South Africa’s wine industry as we know it today.

South Africa is known as a ‘New World’ wine producer, alongside Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, the USA and others. ‘New World Wines’ tend to be from climates which are generally warmer than those of the ‘Old World’ (Europe and the Middle East). The result being grapes which are generally riper, slightly higher in alcohol, more fruity and full bodied than their Old World counterparts.

History of South African Vineyards

South Africa first wine was bottled by the city’s founder, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1659. He was tasked with planting and managing the vineyards, as it was a way to ward off scurvy amongst the sailors. In those early days, the planters chose high-yielding grape varieties to ensure plentiful wine and harvesting, mainly Cinsault.

Wine production was then taken over by the Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, who had arrived in South Africa in 1679 from Holland. He not only had an extensive passion for wine, but first hand winemaking experience. In 1685, he established the first winemaking farm in an area behind Table Mountain, known today as Groot Constantia. This large estate went on to produce a world-famous wine of the same name, savoured by nobles and royals around the world and putting South African wines on the global map.

Winemaking in SA prospered until the 1880’s, when the disastrous insect pest Phylloxera arrived, devouring almost all of the vine roots in the country. Winemaking came to an abrupt halt and with no cure, the wine industry imploded. It was only several decades later that a solution was found and vineyards were once again able to flourish, however in the intervening years many wine producers had gone bust or been bought out by fruit farms – so supply vs. demand became an issue. This led to the formation of growers ‘co-operatives’ such as KWV. These co-ops dominated the industry for many generations, setting the prices and standards for the South African wine industry as a whole.

Since the end of Apartheid in 1994, wine exports have boomed – and the focus of the wine industry has started to shift. More and more smaller wineries are emerging with a focus on boutique wine making: growing quality grapes and making premium wines in smaller amounts, which truly reflect their ‘terroir’. These are exciting times.

South African Wines

Making wine is not as easy as planting vineyards and processing the fruit into the beverage we all know and love. There are a lot of factors involved including climate, topography, soil quality and much more.

The ‘terroir’ of the region is what makes South Africa so viable for vineyard planting. Terroir being the environmental factors which influence the successful production of a crop. It combines elements like a growth habitat and farming practices, as well as the climate itself.

South Africa’s predominantly Mediterranean climate, coupled with its mountains and relative proximately to the ocean, lends itself to creating some truly unique wines. Each region tends to specialise in particular grapes which specifically suit that area’s terroir.

For example, the Stellenbosch region is relatively hot and dry, with granite and sandstone soils, exposed hills, sheltered valleys and sufficient winter rainfall. Many red grape varietals thrive in this climate, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage, and Shiraz. These varietals also grow in other areas, but their different terroirs – that is exposure to the sun and winds, access to water, soils and topography – means the same varietals from those others areas would all taste slightly different. Terroir is everything when winemaking.

Moving further away from the Cape, you’ll find more remote areas such as the semi-arid Klein Karoo, which has a micro climate ideal for fortified, port-style wines and Muscadels (among others). Head towards the southern coasts and you’ll find ‘cool climate’ regions such as Hermanus, Stanford and Cape Agulhus, where unique soils and oceanic maritime breezes cool the vines, ideal for varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

You’ll find a wide range of wines in South Afria. Chenin Blanc is the widest planted varietal, accounting for 18% of vineyards. This is followed by Pinotage, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinotage is a bold red South African specific varietal, created in 1924 when Hermitage (Cinsault) was successfully blended with Pinot Noir and is a must try on any visit!