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 winelands 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
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.
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.
Important developments between 1650 and 1890
- 1652 The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) set up a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope under the command of Jan van Riebeeck.
- 1655-56 The first vines were imported from France, the Rhineland and Spain and successfully planted in the Company’s gardens.
- 1657 The DEIC released 49 officers who became South Africa’s first free burghers. Each was given a small land grant to farm.
- 1659 The first wine was produced at the Cape. Van Riebeek wrote in his diary on 02 February: “Today, praise be to god, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.”
- 1678 The town of Stellenbosch was established by Governor Simon van der Stel.
- 1680 Van der Stel planted some 100 000 vines in the Constantia valley.
- 1688 Some 150 French Huguenots emigrated to the Cape, bringing with them their winemaking skills. They settled mainly in the Franschhoek valley.
- 1761 Constantia exported wine to Europe. By 1788, the luscious dessert wines of Constantia win acclaim throughout Europe.
- 1886 The phylloxera disaster destroyed millions of vines at the Cape
Important developments since 1900
- 1906 The first co-operative winery, the Drostdy Ko-operatiewe Keller Beperkt, was founded in Tulbagh.
- 1918 The Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) was formed, saving the industry from disaster.
- 1925 Professor Perold successfully cross-pollinated Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut) to develop South Africa’s own grape variety, Pinotage.
- 1935 Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) Limited was founded.
- 1936 Nederburg wine farm was bought by Johann Graue, a German immigrant who used cold fermentation for making white table wine in the 1950s.
- 1940 The Wine and Spirit Control Amendment Act was passed to control the minimum price for good wine.
- 1945 Distillers Corporation was founded.
- 1950 Gilbeys SA was founded.
- 1955 The Viticultural and Oenological Research Institute (VORI) was founded. Today it is known as Nietvoorbij.
- 1959 SFW launched Lieberstein, a semi-sweet table wine which revolutionised wine-drinking habits in South Africa.
- 1961 The first Pinotage, a 1959 under the Lanzerac label, was marketed.
- 1964 Lieberstein sales topped 31-million litres, becoming the world’s largest selling bottled wine.
- 1965 SFW, Monis and Nederburg amalgamated.
- 1968 Distillers built the Bergkelder with its maturation cellars tunnelled into Papegaaiberg in Stellenbosch.
- 1971 Stellenbosch Wine Route, the first wine route in the country, was founded.
- 1973 The Wine of Origin legislation was instituted.
- 1975 The first Auction of Rare Cape Wines was held at Nederburg.
- 1979 The Cape Wine Academy (CWA), the wine industry’s general education body, was founded in Stellenbosch by SFW in October.
- The restructuring of the Liquor Industry by government sanction took place.
- 1980 Regulations regarding the residual sugar content of table wine changed – for the first time provision was made for wine exceeding 30g per litre.
- 1983 The Cape Winemakers’ Guild (CWG), an independent association, was formed.
- 1984 Flavoured wines introduced to the market.
- 1985 The inaugural CWG wine auction was held.
- 1990 Changes in the Wine of Origin legislation.
- 1990 The SA Wines & Spirits Export Association (SAWSEA) was established.
- 1991 First National Bottled Wine Show and inaugural Veritas awards.
- 1992 The quota system was scrapped.
- 1992 Merger of KWV wine courses with the CWA.
- 1992 The Méthode Cap Classique Association was formed.
- 1993 The Port Producers’ Association was formed.
- 1995 The Pinotage Association was formed.
- 1995 KWV International was founded.
- 1996 Stellenbosch Vineyards (Pty) Ltd was founded.
- 1997 KWV Registered as a private company on 01 December.
- 1997 ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij was founded.
- 1998 The new Liquor Bill, a three-tier system, was approved by parliament.
- 1998 The CWA was registered in an independent Trust.
- 1999 The new Liquor Bill rejected as unconstitutional and referred back to parliament for amendment.
- 1999 The South African Wine Industry Trust was established to advance the transformation of the wine industry and promote exports.
- 2000 The inaugural Cape Wine 2000, showcasing South African wines, was held.
- 2000 SAWSEA was renamed Wines of South Africa (WOSA). An independent, non-profit company representing all exporters of South African wines, its aim is to build Brand South Africa internationally.
- 2000 The Chenin Blanc Association was formed.
- 2000 SFW and Distillers Corporation merged to form one company, Distell.
- 2001 The Muscadel Association was formed.
- 2002 Cape Wine 2002 – a major success for the South African wine industry.
- 2002 Joint venture between Australia’s BRL Hardy and Stellenbosch Vineyards (SV) was announced – a first for the local industry.
- 2002 The SA Wine Industry Ethical Trading Association (WIETA) was established.
- 2002 The Shiraz Association was formed.
- 2002 The KWV split into two separate entities: a commercial company, KWV Limited, and Wijngaard Co-operative, which provides services to and looks after the interests of producers.
- 2002 White wines were bottled under screwcaps by several South African producers.
- 2002 The CWA was transferred by Distell to an independent group of management specialists called pointBreak.
- 2004 Cape Wine 2004 was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC); a resounding success, it attracted wine media and buyers from across the country and around the globe.
- 2004 South Africa celebrates 10 years as a peaceful democracy.
- 2004 KWV wines now available on the local market.