History of South African Wine
Many people imagine South African wine to be a new product, something that has only been produced for the past hundred years or so. This is a completely false opinion, with South African wine owing itself to Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch administrator, and founder of Cape Town, which today is the centre of the South African wine industry.
The important date, however, is 2 February 1659, in which the first ever recorded wine was produced from South African soil by van Riebeeck himself. Riebeeck, the son of a Dutch surgeon, was requested to manage the station that is modern day Cape town, and to establish vineyards for wines and grapes that could protect sailors from scurvy as they journeyed along the African spice route. As recorded, the first South African harvesting and crushing took place on 6 April, 1652.
It was only after Riebeeck’s death in 1677 that the Constantia estate was founded by Simon van der Stel (first Governor of the Cape) in 1685. Van der Stel intended to produce higher quality wines in South Africa, so founded the 1’850 Acre Constantia Estate, now a thriving suburb of Cape Town, which is situated at the east foot of the Constantiaberg mountain. His first wine, ‘Vin de Constance’, soon became well known, it being a sweet yet unfortified dessert wine blended from Muscadel, Pontac, Muscat de Frontignan, and small amounts of Chenin Blanc.
Following Stel’s death, the Constantia Estate fell into a dilapidated state, but was purchased in 1778 by Hendrik Cloete. Cloete renovated the estate and soon earned Constantia a name in Europe for it’s Muscat Dessert wines. When South Africa became a British Colony in 1815, vast amounts of of South African wine were exported to Britain, in fact, over 1 million Gallons (4.5 million litres) were exported to Britain by 1859. This success, however, prevailed only to the 1860, as the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty reduced the tariffs that had always benefited South African wine in favour of French Wine Exports. Exports hastily dried up following this disaster for South African exports.
It should be noted that an epidemic of phylloxera and powdery mildew destroyed the Constantia vineyard from the early twentieth century, and the great age of Constantia ended. However, production of Vin de Constance has recently resumed at Constantia, since the purchase and renovation of the estate by Duggie Jooste in 1980.
The South African wine industry did, however, recover, perhaps a bit too much! At the turn of the last century over eighty million vines had been replanted, resulting in a huge wine lake effect, with sellers resorting to distilling their excess wine into brandy or industrial alcohol, or even just tipping it into streams. In response to this, the South African government founded the ‘Koöperatieve Wojnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt’ or (KWV) in the year 1918. To deal with the excess wine, the KWV intensely restricted production processes and wine prices.
Statistics from the Oxford Companion to Wine show that in 1990, only 30% of all grapes harvested in South Africa made it into wine, with all others being distilled into brandy, sold as whole grapes and juice, or simply discarded. However, in 2003 the figure had inverted, with 70% of grapes making it into bottles as wine.
Wine regions in South Africa
In 2003, South Africa owned 1.3% of the world’s vineyards, with 270’600 acres. The average production of Wine per annum in South Africa totals up to 264 million gallons, which unbelievably places them 8th in the top 10 wine producing countries of the world. The following are the four most notable wine producing regions of South Africa:
Constantia – South of Cape town on the Cape Peninsula. This estate, due to it’s marine-surroundings, enjoys a long slow ripening period in the summer, and moderate yet wet winters. The soil is made up mainly of Table Mountain Sandstone, with high amounts of Granite and Loam. Most noted for it’s Sauvignon blanc grapes.
Stellenbosch – The second oldest vineyard region in the country, and produces around 15% of South African Wine. Founded in 1679, the area is located 30 miles east of Cape Town. The surrounding mountains steady the climate, with temperatures averaging at around 20 degrees Celsius during the summer. Boasts a wide range of soil types from decomposed granite, to sandy loam. The region is best known for it’s production of red wine.
Paarl – Paarl was known as the centre of South African wine for most of the last century. The home of the KVW as well as the Nederburg Wine Auction. Attention gradually moved to Stellenbosch where the University attracted more wine-making influence with it’s courses and technology. Best known for it’s fortified wine. Franschhoek Valley – First vineyards established by Hugenout Settlers from France. The area boasts some higher altitude vineyards which produce flavoursome white wines with high acidity levels.
Franschhoek Valley – First vineyards established by Hugenout Settlers from France. The area boasts some higher altitude vineyards which produce flavoursome white wines with high acidity levels.