It is not uncommon for politics to collide with industry and trade within any country. In modern times, this scenario may be the most applicable to South Africa. Despite a long history of impressive winemaking, the country’s 20th century apartheid state prevented much of the world from knowing and appreciating the seasoned skills of the region’s vintners. However, after the dismantling of apartheid policies and the post-1990 introduction of new political reforms, South Africa’s isolation was coming to an end, and the world reacquainted itself with the supple, strong and creative wines from a region whose geographic beauty ranks among the world’s most visually stunning.
South Africa’s history of winemaking dates back to the mid-17th century. Viticulture was set in motion by Dutch settlers who introduced vines from their homeland and quickly began to establish new vineyards to produce wine for consumption as well as
Due to climate factors, South Africa’s winemaking takes place almost exclusively on the Western Cape located at the southernmost part of the continent. Summers tend to be long and warm, but are readily tempered by the cool winds from the surrounding Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In tandem with generous weather, the complex terrain of mountain ranges, valleys and plateaus delivers a diversity of soils that can accommodate a broad spectrum of varietals. Currently, South Africa has over 140,000 hectares of vineyards dedicated to Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon being the first and second most widely planted, respectively. Chenin Blanc is historically important to South Africa, as not only does it yield its most esteemed dry whites, but it also placed the country on the winemaking map centuries ago as the grape most used for creating brandy, South Africa’s first significant export. However, the one varietal most closely associated with South Africa is Pinotage. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, this signature hybrid was developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold, a professor of viticulture, and is exclusive to the country. With its high tannins, dark fruit flavors and almost smoky earthiness, the grape is controversial among wine enthusiasts for its unpredictability; still, it is part of South Africa’s wine identity, and continues to be grown for single-varietal wines as well as Cape blends.
Although there are many coastal regions that contribute to South Africa’s wine industry, four in the Western Cape are the most widely known and productive. Stellenbosch, which lies east of Cape Town, is perhaps the country’s most celebrated region, and is predominantly known for its Bordeaux-inspired reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. More recently, white varietals have been planted as well, especially Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Historic and revered, Stellenbosch houses the University of Stellenbosch, which has been a respected teaching center for viticulture and oenology since the later 19th century. To the east of Stellenbosch lies Franschoek, known for its iconic verdant mountain backdrop. Distinctly French in style, Franschoek was the primary settlement of the Huguenots who came to South Africa to avoid religious persecution. The full-bodied, assertive red wines from the region also reflect a French influence, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz being its dominant varietals. To the northwest is of Franschoek is Paarl, South Africa’s second oldest wine producing area. Paarl boasts of peppery reds – especially Shiraz – as well as crisp dry whites, and is considered a bit more progressive and daring than its counterparts. This is due to its creativity: it produced the first white Pinotage, and the first wine blend of Tempranillo, Tannat and Tinta Amarela – a port-type combination representing Spain, France and Portugal. Finally, hugging the coast on the southwest border is Constantia, South Africa’s first wine producing area and home to its first estate. Established by Simon van der Stel, the governor of the Cape of Good Hope and for whom it is named, Constantia’s main contributions to the industry are its confident and fruity Sauvignon Blanc, multiple Bordeaux-inspired red blends, and the legendary Vin de Constance, at one time the most highly desired dessert wine in the world with devotees including Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
In 1973, South Africa instituted its own version of classification called the Wines of Origin (WO) Act. Akin to France’s AOC or Italy’s DOCG, the system divides wine regions into sections from largest to smallest – units, regions, districts and wards – and defines the wines accordingly. The two main South Africa WOs are the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, with the Western Cape appellations accounting for 98% of the country’s total wine production.
Although South Africa has suffered major obstacles, both natural via the 19th century’s phylloxera plague and political from apartheid-driven isolation, its current wine industry is thriving. Producers are becoming increasingly well-versed in new styles and techniques, and are eager to maximize their use of the land through smart, creative and sustainable farming. With respect for the past but an eye clearly fixed on the future, the country is readily embracing the challenges that come with being a world-class wine presence.