A brief history of Wine Production in South Africa

Almost all wine produced in South Africa comes from grapes grown in the Western Cape Province although vineyards and wineries are spreading from the Cape to the rest of South Africa. It is thus important to start at the very beginning, the “discovery” of the Cape.

The first recorded discovery of the Cape of Good Hope was by Portugal ‘s Bartholomew Diaz in 1488. Antonio de Saldanha, a Castelinian-Portugese Captain, was the first European to land in Table Bay in 1503 and named Table Mountiain. In 1580, Sir Francis Drake, an English captain who lead the first English circumnavigation of the world, from 1577 to 1580, sailed around the Cape in The Golden Hind and recorded in his journal “This Cape is a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth”.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a post at Table Bay to provide vegetables, livestock and medical facilities for ships. This was to ward off scurvy for sailors continuing their voyage along the spice route Jan van Riebeeck, the first Governor acquired the Bishopscourt Estate in 1658 and established the first vineyard in South Africa. In 1659 the first South African wine made from French Muscadel grapes was successfully produced. As the market for Cape wine grew, the East India Company brought in a winemaker from Alsace, France, along with winemaking equipment and a cooper to make oak wine barrels.

In 1679 Simon van der Stel was appointed to succeed van Riebeeck as governor of the Cape Colony. Against Dutch East India Company regulations he orchestrated a deal to buy a 1,850 acre (750 hectare) estate near Table Mountain – a grant 15 times larger than the Company’s normal provision. He named this estate Constantia. Between 1688 and 1690s the Cape Colony experienced an influx of French Huguenots. Simon van der Stel, eventually gave the settlers land near Boschendal in what is now Franschoek, known as the “French corner”. The Huguenots brought with them their viticulture and winemaking experience from their homeland. The descendants of these settlers still play a vital role in the South African wine industry, marrying an Old World winemaking philosophy to the technological advances of New World wine.

In the 19th century, South Africa fell under British rule, which proved lucrative for the wine industry as South African wine flowed into the British market. Following the devastation from the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century, many vineyards were replanted with high yielding grape varieties such as Cinsaut. By the early 1900s there was a large excess of wine, creating a wine lake effect which led some producers to pour their unsalable wine into local rivers and streams. The depressed prices caused by this out-of-balance supply and demand dynamic prompted the South African government to fund the formation of the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV) in 1918. Initially started as a co-operative, the KWV soon grew in power and reputation, setting policies and prices for the entire South African wine industry. To deal with the wine glut the KWV restricted yields and set minimum prices, encouraging the production of brandy and fortified wines.

In 1925 Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University bred the Pinotage grape a viticultural cross of two varieties of Vitis vinifera, Pinot noir and Cinsaut (also known as Hermitage in South Africa) combining the best qualities of the robust Hermitage with Pinot Noir, a grape that makes great wine but can be difficult to grow.

For much of the 20th century, the wine industry of South Africa received very little attention on the worldwide stage. Its isolation was further deepened by boycotts of South African products in protest at the country’s system of Apartheid. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and 1990s when Apartheid was ended and the world’s export market opened up that South African wines began to experience a renaissance. Many producers in South Africa quickly adopted new viticultural and winemaking technologies. The presence of flying winemakers from abroad brought international influences and focus on well known varieties such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The reorganization of the powerful KWV co-operative into a private business further sparked innovation and improvement in quality. Vineyard owners had previously relied on KWV’s price-fixing structure, that bought their excess grapes for distillation.

In 1990, less than 30% of all the grapes harvested were used for wine aimed at the consumer market, with the remaining 70% being discarded, distilled into brandy or sold as table grapes and juice. By 2003 these proportions had reversed, with more than 70% of the grapes harvested that year reaching the consumer market as wine.

During the 21st century the growing influence of black Africans in the wine industry has brought a significant change in the South African wine industry. Through various Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programs, black ownership and involvement in vineyards and wineries has been steadily increasing. In 1997, the first winery with significant black involvement, New Beginnings was founded in Paarl and was followed by Thandi in Elgin. In 2001 Mont Rochelle Mountain Winery in the Franschhoek Valley became the first wholly black-owned winery in South Africa when it was purchased by Miko Rwayitare, a businessman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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