At the southern tip of Africa, where two mighty oceans meet in the shadow of landmark Table Mountain, lies the fairest Cape in the world. Known locally as the Mother City, Cape Town is the gateway to the South African wine lands and one of the great wine capitals of the world. Here the cultures of Africa, Europe and the East have met and mingled for over 350 years, shaping a city both ancient and modern, rich in colorful history and culturally diverse.
The Cape has witnessed many momentous events in South Africa’s history: the landing of the Dutch settlers in 1652, the British invasion during the Napoleonic Wars, and the rebellion into the interior known as the Groot Trek. This was where, in 1990, Nelson Mandela took his first historic walk to freedom. And it was here, four years later, that Archbishop Tutu described the new South African nation as ‘the rainbow people of God’, and the ‘rainbow nation’ was born.
Today South Africa is a peaceful democracy, a vibrant and exciting country of enormous diversity. This variety is reflected in our wines. With a winemaking history dating back more than 300 years, the industry reflects the classicism of the Old World but is also influenced by the contemporary fruit-driven styles of the New World. This rare combination makes for wines which are complex yet accessible, refined yet powerful, eloquently expressing the unique terroir and people of the Cape.
In the last few years, a dynamic new vision has given momentum to changes within an industry which is innovation driven, market directed, globally competitive and highly profitable. This new ethos has seen the local wine industry emerge as a global enterprise with strong cultural roots and a sense of social responsibility. It has truly come of age. With the advent of democracy, the opening of new markets and exposure to international trends, South Africa can now compete with confidence on the world wine stage. A passionate new generation of winemakers, many with experience of harvests around the globe, are keen to learn, experiment and consolidate. There’s also been a focused shift from grape farming to wine growing.
With new wineries opening up at a steady rate and South African wines attracting increasing acclaim internationally, Su Birch, CEO of WOSA, says: “A growing visibility in key markets abroad, the recognition by foreign trade and consumers of the value South African wines offer across price ranges, and the rise in South African wine tourism have all contributed to aggressive growth. Positive international media coverage has also played a key role. South Africa has the advantage of being able to supply foreign markets with regionally diverse wine styles which highlight the Cape’s biodiversity.”
The History of South African Wine Back to the Beginning To follow the history of the vine and winemaking from the very beginning until now, we must take a winding route that stretches back over a period of more than 7 000 years.
Few facts are known about the early years although it is generally accepted that wine was made for the first time in Persia, with evidence of wine production dating back as far as 6000 BC. From there, winemaking spread to Egypt, where written references to wine dating back to 5000 BC have been found. At about that same time, they began making wine in Phoenicia. By 2000 BC, the Greeks and the Cretans had also begun producing wine. The Cretans in particular became famous for exporting quality wine.
By 1000 BC, the inhabitants of Sicily, Italy and most countries in North Africa had begun planting vineyards, and 500 years later wine production spread to Spain, the south of France and Arabia. In about 100 BC, wine was also made in northern India and China. Winemaking then spread to the Balkan States and northern Europe.
The history of wine virtually ground to a halt for the next 1 000 years as the decline of the Roman Empire and Europe’s Dark Ages curtailed its development. Explorers in the 16th century accelerated the pace again and by 1530 the vine had spread to Mexico and Japan. Some 30 years later Argentina imported vine plantings, followed a short while later by Peru. The next milestone was the planting of vineyards at the Cape in 1655. California followed in 1697, and Australia and New Zealand in 1813.
The development of wine cultivation has over the years gone hand in hand with the spread of civilisation. Looking back at the early days of the vine and its product, it is obvious that while winemaking methods and advanced techniques produce different styles of wine, the basic principles have changed very little. It is interesting to note that viticulturists selected and propagated varieties thousands of years ago. They understood cloning techniques and made distinctive and excellent wines for export.
The ancient Greeks had no fewer than 18 adjectives to describe wine and the Romans made more than 80 styles. Some Roman wines were apparently still drinkable after being stored for 200 years. They developed many of the sophisticated viti- and vinicultural techniques still in use today.
Three Centuries of Cape Wine Early Days 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. But much more evolved than that – the establishment of a trading station led to a flourishing wine industry and later to the birth of a nation.
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. Van Riebeeck strongly encouraged farmers to plant vineyards although initially they were most reluctant.
There were many setbacks in the beginning, chiefly because of the farmers’ ignorance of viticulture. Things improved when Van Riebeeck was succeeded in 1679 by Simon van der Stel, who was not only enthusiastic but very knowledgeable about viticulture and winemaking. He planted a vineyard on his farm Constantia and made good wine from the outset. Later, Constantia was acquired by the Cloete family and their wines became world-famous. To this day, Constantia wine is mentioned when the world’s finest examples are discussed.
The Dutch had almost no wine tradition and it was only after the French Huguenots settled at the Cape between 1680 and 1690 that the wine industry began to flourish. As religious refugees, the Huguenots had very little money and had to make do with the bare essentials. They also had to adapt their established winemaking techniques to new conditions. But with time their culture and skills left a permanent impression on our wine industry, and on life at the Cape.
Cape Wines Development The 18th century was a difficult phase for the wine industry. There was resistance to Cape wines from the European and Far East export markets and the quality of some Cape wines left much to be desired. A critical shortage of oak vats made it difficult to age wine properly. Some of the vats used for exporting wine had previously even been used to brine meat. Meanwhile, the industry struggled to identify the best varieties for each district and to adapt winemaking techniques to local conditions.
The first half of the 19th century brought prosperity to the industry. The British occupation of the Cape, in addition to Britain’s war with France, created a large new market for Cape wines. The vines at the Cape increased within 45 years from 13 to 55 million and wine production from 0,5 million to 4,5 million litres.
However, 1861 brought disaster. Britain finally resolved her differences with France, and South Africa’s wine exports collapsed. In 1886, the disease phylloxera was discovered at the Cape and decimation of the vineyards followed.
The year 1899 saw the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War. The wine industry was in chaos. A proliferation of new plantings caused overproduction and 25 years of hardship followed.
It was Charles Kohler who set out to alleviate the situation. His efforts led to the creation in 1918 of the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV). 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.
The Timeline This is a chronicle of some of the important milestones in the South African wine industry from the start of the 20th century until today.