The Cape wine region is the most beautiful in the world – of course. With gentle hills, 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 – this wine region plays an important role in South African economy and has followed the country’s historic journey as part of the fabric of society since the Dutch settled in the Cape in 1652.
The earliest record of grape wine production and viniculture dates back around 8,000 years to Eurasia, modern-day Georgia, from where it spread through Persia, across the Middle East and into Europe, where it had come to play a significant role in religious rituals and had gained status as a drink of refinement. Today, wine is produced all over the world, with global sales of around £240 billion, and still growing.
Of all the places Europeans settled in Africa, the Cape’s temperate climate was the most promising for reproducing this singular reminder of home. Grapes were picked for the first time in the Cape in 1658, in the Dutch East India Company Gardens, and first pressed under Jan van Riebeek.
On the 2nd Feb 1659, the Cape Commander recorded in his journal, “Today, God be praised, wine has been pressed for the first time from the grapes of the Cape.”
The production was small in quantity and poor in quality. Birds, locusts, buck and even wild pigs devastated much of the early crops. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Huguenots from France that the Cape wine production really started to take hold, and by 1681 over 400,000 vines had been planted at the Cape in the main areas of Stellenbosch and Groot Drakenstein. Muscadel and Constantia wines became extremely popular in Europe and the Cape wine industry started a steady expansion.
But a horrendous phylloxera attack in 1886 nearly wiped out the country’s wines when the pale yellow, microscopic insects infested the vines of Contstantia and Helderberg.
Many wine farmers went bankrupt. But, there were two government-established nurseries in Paarl, two in Stellenbosch and one at Worcester which were able to provide phylloxera-free rootstocks from America, and thus help the industry rebuild.
Early attempts to export table grapes to Europe failed until 1905 when packing and transport methods improved dramatically. By 1910, 44,803 boxes of grapes were exported to Britain and the European continent, and the industry slowly started to recover.
In 1940 state-controlled winemaking cooperatives were introduced to help support the industry. The most dominant was the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika (KWV), which brought stability to the growers, but did nothing for the quality of the wine.
Their focus was on quantity and bulk distribution, and South Africa started to develop a reputation internationally for inferior wines. This, and later, sanctions against the country’s policy of apartheid played a role in preventing the growth and development of some of South Africa’s most talented winemakers.
The Wine of Origin Scheme was introduced in South Africa in 1972. This helped define the regions and districts in the wine industry, which in turn protected the distinct qualities of wine from each area, the different grape varieties and their vintages.
This legislation recognised the 13 wine of origin appellations and the main areas of production which are Worcester (20,500 ha), Robertson (13,500 ha), Paarl (18,000 ha.), Stellenbosch (17,500 ha is the most important fine wine producing district), Malmesbury, Montagu, Ceres, Tulbagh, the Cape Peninsular and Caledon. Today, added to this, is the Swartland with 15,000 ha., the Olifants River with 10,000 ha., and the Orange River (5,000 ha), the coastal Elgin (near Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost tip), West Coast and Langloof.
The ending of apartheid in 1994 brought a much-needed boost to the industry. Suddenly, markets opened up and international expertise and an exchange of ideas and best practice became available. New vines were planted, not grown before in South Africa, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc began to complement the more traditional Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.
KWV was privatised in 1997, which gave the South African wine industry an opportunity and the freedom to focus on producing high-quality wines. Since then, the South African wine industry has worked hard to develop its own distinct identity, which is firmly embedded in the country’s political development.
In 1997, New Beginnings, the first winery with significant black involvement was founded near Paarl, followed by Thandi Wines, in Elgin, shortly thereafter. By 2004, black winemakers began to make their mark. In 2004 Ntsiki Biyela won the Michaelangelo Award, and in 2009, the Winemaker of the Year Award.
Several black-owned wine labels have emerged since, few own their own farmland, although brands like M’Hudi, Seven Sisters and Thandi Wines are producing grapes from their own farms. While ownership in the industry remains predominantly white, South African wine production is changing.
Exports continued to increase dramatically, between 2006 and 2013 they almost doubled, from 270 million litres to a peak of 525 million litres, as quality and demand increased. The percentage of the grape harvest being used to make wine likewise rapidly and dramatically increased, at just 30% in 1990, today 85% of all South African grapes produced go towards wine production.
The climate in the Cape is, of course, perfect to grow grapes – the balanced combination of the sunny and warm Mediterranean climate (cool, wet winters and warm dry summers), the finest, light viticultural soils (predominantly granitic – ie low pH) – similar to southern Europe – cool mountain slopes, oceanic breezes from the Atlantic and Indian oceans (which help to cool the vineyards and slow the ripening process to create intense fruit flavours).
Today, it is our unique combination of the simple, hands-on, Old World techniques, sustainable farming principles and sophisticated and modern technology, that produces elegant, top-quality wines.
There is an equally important focus on environmental conservation, social upliftment of farm workers and their communities and a broadening of the base of ownership. The industry continues to go from strength to strength as young winemakers are travelling the world for inspiration and initiating their own exciting projects.
Where the South African wine industry was once dominated by white wine production, there has been a notable shift to a 50:50 red/white wine split. Chenin Blanc now makes up 20% of the production, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Pinotage, unique to South Africa, now only accounts for just over 7% of the production, while the most popular red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon (13% of the production), Shiraz (10%) and Merlot (almost 6%).
South Africa is the world’s 9th largest wine producer (producing 3.9% of the world’s wine in 2016). There are over 6,000 wine labels, almost 400 wineries and the South African wine industry exports around 450 million litres of wine globally from 100,000 hectares of vineyards in an area of over 800 km in length. Wine exports were worth R9 billion (£490 million) in 2018, with exports to the UK accounting for the largest share, at around 20% of that total. Counting direct and indirect employment, the wine industry today supports 300,000 jobs in South Africa.
A South African wine trailblazer is the Zimbabwe-born Penny Streeter OBE, who was awarded winner of the South African Chamber of Commerce UK Business Woman of the Year Award 2019. Not only is she one of the most successful businesswomen in South Africa, but she has also built a business empire in the United Kingdom.
Besides her medical recruitment agency, A24 Group, Penny is owner of the Benguela Cove Vineyard in South Africa’s Walker Bay wine region and in 2016 she created the first ‘golf ‘estate in the UK – the Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate in Horsham West Sussex. Here on the estate, she has planted a vineyard of South Africa’s unique grape variety, Pinotage.
The Pinotage grape, a combination of the Hermitage (Cinsault) and Pinot Noir grape, was first created in South Africa by Abraham Izak Perold, a chemist and viticulturist, in the early 20th Century.
Today Abraham Izak Perold’s great-grandson, Gerhard Perold, who is a Somerset-based wine importer and a member of the South African Chamber of Commerce said, “With the UK being one of the largest consumers of wine per capita, South African wine is becoming hugely popular. And so many more British tourists are visiting South Africa. Cape Town and the wine regions are always top of their list to visit, so coming home to the UK, and getting the taste of South African, is not only about the high quality of the wine, but also offers a sense of nostalgia and memories of a great holiday and a wonderful country.”
The industry is not just focused on winemaking, vintners are embracing wine tourism which includes a thriving wedding industry to grape-skin spa treatments, in beautifully restored Cape Dutch manor houses.
The wine industry at the southern tip of Africa reflects so much of what makes South Africa so special. Besides the wine, it is the history, the warm country hospitality and the perfect environment, that makes the Cape wine region the most unique wine region in the world.