A brief history of South African wine

By Jamie Goode | 25 November 2013

Cape Dutch Gable

History brings perspective. In order to understand the present, it's helpful to glance backwards, to put current events into context. So I thought it would be useful to take a whirlwind tour through the history of wine in South Africa. (For anyone who wants a more involved account, I'd heartily recommend the recent book by Tim James 'The Wines of the New South Africa: tradition and revolution', published by University of California Press, which covers this in more depth.)

We know to the day when the first South African wine was made. The date was February 2nd 1659, and this was recorded in the diary of Jan van Riebeeck, one of the members of the Dutch East India Company who had settled in Table Bay to form a victualling station for ships (arriving in 1652). Initially, there had been no plans to colonize the Cape, but the European population kept growing, and with it, the vineyard area gradually increased. By the end of the century there were more than a million vines planted, Stellenbosch was settled, and some wine had even been exported to Europe.

Most of the wine being made was pretty bad, apparently. The farmers were forced to pick grapes early because of the threat from hungry birds, and so acid levels would have been sky high. Winemaking was pretty rustic and lacked any hygiene. There was one exception: the Cape's first governor, Simon van der Stel, was granted the Constantia estate, where he made an exceptional sweet wine that was to gain international acclaim. 

By the end of the 18th century, some four million litres of wine were being made annually, most of which would have been drunk locally, or sold to passing ships. It was in the early years of the 19th century that the Cape passed from Dutch to British control, and because of increased settlement and more ship traffic, this resulted in a doubling in size of the vineyard area in just a couple of decades. By 1825, 31 million vines were planted, and wine accounted for more than half the value of the Cape's exports. This boom was not to last, though, and led shortly to bust as overplanting coincided with reduced export demand, sending prices plummeting by 1840.

One of the problems was the poor quality of the wines. Reports from the time describe Cape wines in very unflattering terms, with the one exception continuing to be the wines of Constantia. And the Cape wasn't spared from the phylloxera plague that decimated vineyards worldwide in the 1880s. Phylloxera arrived in the Cape in 1886, and by 1890 a quarter of vines had been destroyed. The solution, replanting on American rootstocks, was delayed by shortages, and the result was that some vineyards weren't replanted at all.

This is where we come to the biggest story in the recent history of South African wine: the formation of the KWV, or Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika to give it its full name. The idea behind the formation of this super-cooperative was to avoid the perennial problems of overproduction and price collapses that beset the wine market. Initially formed in 1918, the KWV steadily grew in power, and the vast majority of wine farms joined up. In 1924, the government gave the KWV power to fix the price of wine that was to be used for brandy production. In 1940 this power was extended, and KWV set the price for table wine, too. Then, in 1957, the KWV were allowed to set quotas for wine production.  Effectively, power in the wine industry was centralized to this single organization for the majority of the 20th century. Farmers simply grew grapes - as many as they could, because the system incentivized quantity over quality - then sold them to cooperatives who made the wine, and the KWV would market and sell these wines.

However, the quota system made no distinction between good and bad quality wine, and prevented ambitious producers from exploring new vineyard areas in order to make exciting wines.

While the KWV wasn't great news for high quality wine production, one positive thing it achieved was the Wine of Origin scheme, which was conceived in 1973. This appellation scheme, with its hierarchy of regions, districts and wards, also legislated the 'Estate Wine' concept: a wine farm producing wine from its own vineyards. At this stage there were a handful of farms making 'Estate' wine, including most of the best wines that were being produced. This number was to grow during the 1980s.

Although some good wines were being made (I have tasted some superb old bottles from the 1960s and 70s), the South African wine industry was relatively isolated because of apartheid-induced sanctions. These started in the 1960s, but became much more formal and widespread in the mid-1980s. This hit exports hard and prevented the exchange of viticultural and winemaking expertise with other wine countries.

But there were signs of increased interest in quality wines in the domestic market. John and Erica Platter's wine guide was first published in 1980 with 1250 wines, and by 1990 the guide was listing around 4000. Some perspective is needed though: even in 1990, almost half the vintage was still going to the KWV for distillation.

The big change was the end of white minority rule in 1994. This is effectively the start point for the modern South African wine industry, and the changes over the last 19 years have been quite dramatic. The KWV ended its quota system in 1992, dropped the minimum pricing in 1994, and was converted into a private company in 1997. It still exists, but only as a large wine producer, not a regulatory body. The wine industry was now free to grow, innovate and change, and it has been busy doing this over the last couple of decades.   

So, in a sense, while South Africa is the oldest of the 'new world' wine countries, with a history of wine production going back 350 years, you could also say it's also one of the newest and most dynamic. If you were to draw a list of the top 50 South African wines, I'd wager that the majority weren't being made even as recently as 15 years ago.

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Looking for South Africa wines in the UK? Click here to review the South African wine guide for more information.

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