Wine in South Africa
South Africa has a long association with wine, going back nearly 400 years. Wine quickly became a major export for the colony, and by the end of the First World War the growers in the area around Cape Town were flourishing. The South African Wine Farmers Association was founded in 1930, with assistance from British wine agents. During the 1970s, the government introduced Wine of Origin labels, which located each of the farms within a series of wine wards. All of the wine given ‘single vineyard’ status must come from within that ward. Groups of wards in a particular area are called districts, and districts are described as belonging to particular regions. These labels help wine tasters to understand where each particular wine has been grown and distilled.
The earliest wines were grown around the Cape Town area in the mid 1650s, being developed by members of the Dutch East-India Company. The vines appear to have been planted in order to provide grapes, and wine was originally produced in 1659. By the end of the 17th century the famous Constantia wine estate had been established by Simon Van der Stel, the governor of the Cape area. Constantia is still a wine producing area, and anyone who enjoys sampling wine is familiar with this region. From the end of the seventeenth century until the third quarter of the eighteenth, wine production in South Africa fell considerably. Revival was only really begun in 1778, with the development of dessert wines which were a great favourite of the British owners.
Wine production and exports, particularly to the British Isles, were particularly strong during the early nineteenth century, when a dispute with France caused high taxation for the latter’s exports to Britain. This was only ended in the 1860s, and from this time South African wine exports were considerably diminished. This was exacerbated by the arrival of Phylloxera, a blight caused by aphids, which would practically wipe out South Africa’s vineyards. Many former growers abandoned vines, and started to grow ordinary fruit orchards instead, as well as developing Ostrich farms.
Wine growing in South Africa did not really recover until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the planting of millions of vines caused a Wine Lake (an access of wine). This caused the price of South African wine to plummet, resulting in the government developing a Winegrowers Co-operative known as the KWV. This co-operative eventually came to dominate the wine industry in South Africa, setting minimum prices for wine, and restricting wine yields, thereby helping to restore the former price of South African wines.
As the 20th century advanced, South Africa became increasingly isolated, in part due to the sanctions imposed due to Apartheid. The country’s wine industry at this period remained very insular, and few outside of South Africa knew about the many interesting wines which were being produced there. During this time, wine growers who were interested in developing new vines were often forced to import plants secretly. This sometimes resulted in mistakes being made in the identification of grapes, so for example supposed Chardonnay vines turned out to be Shiraz or Auxerrois Blanc. After the end of Apartheid the mistakes were corrected, and true Chardonnay grapes are now the third most widely grown white grape within South Africa. The end of the KWV’s dominance in the 1990s also allowed wine growers to be more competitive, with some choosing to grow table or juice grapes, rather than those reserved for wine. As South African wine became more popular, growers again turned to wine production, so that by 2003 over two thirds of all South African grapes were being used to create collections of much-loved South African wine.