The winegrowing history of South Africa reflects the country’s tumultuous history over the past three centuries.
Much like South African society faced a slow and painful transition that freed its people from European colonialism, the wine industry saw an evolution that continues to this day, during which winemakers began to prioritize quality wines over the bulk production of white wine. In doing so, they raised the prestige of their wines to a level that rivaled their European counterparts.
South Africa’s winemaking history spans 350 years, a period as long as that of many European wine regions. In fact, the old continent prized South African wines in the past, particularly the sweet wine, Vin de Constance.
Obviously the last three centuries of South African history, even if limited to wine, can’t be covered in a single article. This is why we’ve opted for an overview that highlights the most relevant events that have catapulted South African wine to the top division of quality wines.
The end of apartheid and the South African wine renaissance
In no other country has the wine world been shaped as strongly by the political and social context as in South Africa. The end of apartheid not only laid bare many of the shameful realities that marked the years of European rule, but also the many obstacles that the South African wine industry faced due to the country’s political and economic isolation.
The industry’s revolution had to tackle three significant challenges that were very different in nature: strategic, cultural and ecological.
- In terms of the strategic challenge, the large cooperatives that had a monopoly over the bulk production of wine for distillation purposes had to venture into quality wine production. This meant that small-scale growers received better value for their grapes, which allowed them to explore new cultivation areas.
- The introduction of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) marked a turning point in the cultural sphere. The law made it possible for black people to own land and farm it freely.
- The South African wine industry has taken on the role of protecting the country’s biodiversity through its Integrated Production of Wine It calls on the entire sector to promote sustainable winegrowing practices, which is resulting in astonishingly expressive wines, particularly along the Western Cape.
Climate and Geography: A beautiful, complex puzzle
Although one could generally describe the climate as Mediterranean, this would ignore the complex natural idiosyncrasies that make South Africa the country with the world’s most beautiful vineyards and an irregular topography that encourages the nuances and identity of each individual region.
The Benguela current brings in cold Antarctic waters and mitigates the temperatures along the western coast of Africa, which can easily exceed 30 degrees Celsius in the summer. The current is aided by the well-known Cape Doctor, a strong southeasterly wind that carries the cold air inland and cools the vineyards.
The country’s topographic complexity finds expression in multiple mountain ranges across all wine regions, which provide an almost infinite array of row orientations, elevations and soil types.
Grape varieties and wines
South African vineyards have undergone a transformation in recent years: in 1996, 80% of the vineyards were planted with white varieties. By 2010 that figure had dropped to 56%, a balanced split that remains much the same today. This reflects the decision to restructure the vineyards in order to shift production from bulk white wine to quality reds, which in turn are more competitive in the global market.
The indisputable queens of the South African varietal garden are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, two reds that often join forces to challenge Bordeaux’s finest.
Shiraz, Pinot Noir and the largely unknown Pinotage (Pinot Noir + Cinsault) also boast excellent red wines.
As for white grapes, Chenin Blanc (known as Steen) is still the most widely grown, and the reigning queen, of the white varieties despite seeing a reduction in plantings. New wine producers are taking full advantage of the variety’s versatility to make both dry and sweet wines that are on a par with the exemplary varietals of France’s Loire Valley.
Colombard is the second most planted variety, largely used for distilling spirits. Meanwhile Chardonnay is seeing a consistent rise in its prestige, especially in the country’s cooler regions.
Sauvignon Blanc holds no secrets for South African winemakers: light, lively and herbaceous or complex, oak aged, with echoes of dried fruit—they are all magnificent expressions of this variety.
Wine regions and classification
The classification of South African wines resembles a Russian doll. More than 90% of all South African wine comes from the Western Cape Geographical Unit:
Each Geographical Unit is made up of Regions, which contain Districts, which in turn contain Wards (the closest thing to single vineyard wines).
Listing and describing the entire complex system of units, regions and districts in a single article is impossible, which is why we’ll focus on the leading Coastal Region.
The region’s star is the Stellenbosch District, known as the birthplace of the country’s top wines. The climate here is ideal and the variety of elevations and soil types make the district a paradise for Cabernet-Merlot blends, which result in wines with Bordeaux-style spirit and depth.
The Shiraz is also remarkable, offering up lush varietals that are a far cry from their austere French relatives. Here we find ripe black fruit enveloped in a halo of licorice, vanilla, coffee and smoke, carried by oaky undertones that are the hallmark of excellent aging.
When it comes to Stellenbosch’s white varieties, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc steal the show from Chenin, showing these international stars in their very best light.
Paarl is the second most important district in the Coastal Region. Less exposed to the influence of the sea, the district is warmer, although it also has mountain areas that provide a variety of soils and reach considerable elevations.
Constantia Ward: No man’s land
The Constantia Ward deserves special mention—its importance is so great that it doesn’t belong to any district. It is home to some of the oldest vineyards on the Cape.
Surrounded by the suburbs of Cape Town and nestled into the slopes of Table Mountain, the vineyards are exposed to the cold Cape Doctor wind, which benefits the ward’s specialty: Sauvignon Blanc. Here the variety produces white wines with lively, nervy fruit and incomparable freshness.
We haven’t even come close to mentioning all of the units, districts and wards; the list is long, because the vineyards of South Africa, like its population, embody the vitality of a diverse and free people. There is still a lot to be done, but it is clear that South Africa will play a key role in the future of both humanity (whatever remains of it) and wine.