I have been visiting the South African wine regions for a while now. Why? Because the South African (SA) wine story is changing. Before, say, the last decade, SA Wines barely made the bottom shelf of your local supermarket.
This was because grape quality wasn’t great and most of the wine produced in the country went directly to be distilled into brandy. However, nowadays SA wines have emerged as both some of the best valued red and white wines and in the highest quality.
I wanted to write about South African wines in this post so that after reading it, you might try a glass/bottle when next visiting your local wine retailer. But first, a little history.
Introduction to South African Wine History
The establishment by the Dutch East India Company of a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652 had one single aim: to provide fresh food to the company’s merchant fleet on their voyages to India and surrounding areas.
Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, planted a vineyard in 1655, and on 2 February 1659, the first wine was made from Cape grapes. This led to the planting of vines on a larger scale at Roschheuvel, known today as Bishopscourt, Wynberg.
As with many regions, the South African Government saw a need to take charge, and so they did, creating the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt, or simply – KWV, in 1918.
Not only did the KWV step in to prevent overproduction, but they also pushed for better viticultural and winemaking techniques. It was an umbrella for its farmer members, the KWV brought stability to the industry, placing it on the road to growth and prosperity. The foundation was laid for today’s thriving wine industry.
KWV had a standing policy of purchasing excess wine, so the incentive to produce high quality wine was very low. This continued throughout most of the 20th century. In 1990, less than 30% of the grapes produced in South Africa was used to make wine; as mentioned above, the remaining 70% of grapes were used to distil brandy, sold as table grapes or were simply discarded.
In 1990, less than 30% of the grapes produced in South Africa was used to make wine, the remaining 70% of grapes were used to distil brandy, sold as table grapes or were simply discarded.
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The End of Apartheid
In 1994 when Apartheid ended and the sanctions on South African export was lifted, boutique wineries and wine sellers bounced up all over South Africa. The focus of winemaking in SA changed from producing high quantity, to producing excellent quality.
International consumers bought up everything they could get their hands on after South Africa had been isolated for so many years. However, unlike the AOC of France that has been the base of many countries wine regulatory systems, the KWV was not as concerned with restricting growers to certain varietals, but rather just to focus on quality and the standards of information on the label.
The wine industry in South Africa has grown immensely since then as wine-makers experiment and plant a variety of grapes to try and find the best grapes for their unique terroir. South Africa does not have a specialty grape yet, but contenders include Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
The South African Wine Regions
There are more than 60 official appellations in South Africa, with 5 regions, 22 districts and 55 wards. Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia are three of the best known, wine-growing areas which are situated in close proximity to Cape Town.
Rich in South African winemaking history, Constantia still produces a number of wines from the same vineyards that were first planted 350 years ago. As this small peninsula of land juts out into the water, it receives oceanic influences that are quite beneficial to growing grapes.
Stellenbosch and Paarl
Just slightly to the east, but in the western shadows of one of South Africa’s mountain ranges, are the two other popular regions of Paarl and Stellenbosch.
Stellenbosch is the second oldest ward in the country, founded in 1678. The Stellenbosch Mountains tower over these vineyards, and many compare this region to Bordeaux with regards to its temperature.
Paarl has been considered the epicentre of South Africa’s wine industry, as it once was home to the KWV (mentioned earlier). Though Stellenbosch has grown enormously in popularity as a wine region, many still look to the very terroir driven wines of Paarl, especially in its wards of Franschhoek Valley.
A Working Trip to the SA Wineries
On my recent trip to discover new SA producers and build relationships, I would like to point out that I did some manual labour at Glenwood Vineyard, in Franschhoek and spotted a Rhino at the Rudi Schultz Winery.
Glenwood is a very special place. Located in the little-known valley of Robertsvlei, 2km from the town centre, the farm and winery are surrounded by aspects of outstanding natural beauty.
It has been family owned since 1984. Whilst there, I was invited by DP Burger (pic above) to lend a hand with the harvest activity. DP has been winemaker and viticulturist for 29 years and the property’s Grand Duc chardonnay vineyard is 34 years old.
The main varietals are Chardonnay, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. In fact, last Friday’s Patrick’s Pick was a 2018 unoaked Chardonnay from Glenwood Estates.
Rudi Schultz is the proprietor and winemaker of the winery bearing his name. His wines are sourced from a single vineyard in the Bottelary Hills ward of Stellenbosch, 16 miles from the ocean, at an elevation of 348 feet above sea level.
Winemaking runs in the Schultz family, as Rudi’s older brother Carl and younger brother Gunther are also talented winemakers. The unicorn depicted on their label is part of the coat of arms of Rudi’s wife’s family and the picture below is the Rhino that I spotted amongst the vines.
South African Grapes
South Africa produces all the classic global varietals, including Chenin Blanc (called steen in SA), Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc.
The unique Pinotage varietal, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, was developed in the Cape in 1925 by Abraham Perold, Stellenbosch’s first professor of viticulture.
Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape in South Africa, and the only grape with significant old vines plantings; Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted red variety, but the gap is closing as Syrah plantings continue to grow.
South Africa Wine Industry Statistics
For some of the wine nerds amongst you – here is an excellent link to a site displaying many SA wine industry statistics.
New World Fruit, Old World Elegance
While wine has been made in South Africa since the 17th century, standards in the early 1990s left much to be desired. Since then, progress has been rapid on all fronts and right now, the wines have never been better.
As with the sports teams, it took South Africa’s wineries a few years to come back up to international standards following Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Now they’re back with a vengeance. If anybody watched the Rugby World Cup Final last year, they will attest to that!
The Cape wine region is the most beautiful in the world with its gentle hills and sea views from Constantia and Durbanville. The majestic mountains in Stellenbosch and Paarl, the rugged interior near Robertson, the lush greenery of Franschhoek, the extreme temperatures of Tulbagh and the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde make this annual wine discovery trip one of my favourites.
New World fruit, Old World elegance – that’s what South Africa offers at its best.
If I can help you in any way, with wines from any of the regions mentioned above – don’t hesitate to contact any of the wine team here in Green Acres.
As always – enjoy the wine and friends you’re with.
Talk Soon – James.