South Africa’s wine industry originated in the 17th century (1652), when the Dutch East India Company established a harbor station in Cape Town to supply fresh food and other goods to its ships on their way to India and the Far East. Eventually, this trading post would give rise to a burgeoning wine industry and, later, the birth of a nation.
The Dutch did not have a tradition of wine making, so it wasn’t until the arrival of the French Huguenots (between 1680 – 1890) that the wine industry began to flourish. Several centuries later, the wines produced in South Africa are capturing the attention of oenologists from all over the world. South Africa did not get the appellation of origin until 1973. The classification process began with the area around the Cape, which accounts for 90% of the country’s production:
Coastal Region. Constantia, Durbanville and Stellenbosch
Overberg. Elgin, Paarl and Tulbagh
Breede River Valley. Worcester, Robertson and Swellendam
These areas were further divided into districts, such as Calitzdorp, Cape Point, Robertson, Paarl, Worcester, Stellenbosch, Tulbagh and Overberg. South Africa’s appellation of origin was finally settled as follows: Western Cape, Stellenbosch, Swartland, Walker Bay, Elgin, Robertson and Elim.
Currently South Africa is the world’s ninth wine producer, with 47% of its exports going to Great Britain, 25% to Germany and 28% to the rest of the world; the United States and Canada are also significant importers. South African winemakers have been carefully monitoring international market trends and have implemented the most advanced cultivation and aging techniques.
In addition, many of the wineries offer high quality tourism amenities with exquisite service in stunning locations. Some even have hotels and restaurants set amidst exotic African landscapes, a true pleasure for all the senses.
The white grape varieties are cultivated in 80% of the vineyards across the country (Chenin Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat of Frontignan, Sauvignon Blanc, Colombard, Cape Riesling and Chardonnay). The most commonly used red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Pinotage, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, Bordeaux Blend, and Cape Blend.
Wineries and wines
We’ll begin our periplus around South Africa’s wine country in Constantia. Located southwest of Cape Town, and blessed with a Mediterranean climate perfect for vine cultivation, the wines from this region have captivated illustrious Frenchmen, such as Napoleon and Stendhal, since the late 18th century. Two wineries stand out: Klein Constantia and Constantia Uitsig. The white wines produced by both labels are fresh, elegant, aromatic and subtle. The Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia is brilliant and suggestive.
Stellenbosch is South Africa’s wine capital, with half the number of wineries in the country. The area boasts a warm, dry climate, and most of the vineyards in this area adhere to ecological viticulture practices. The red wines from this territory stand out more than the whites. The best Pinotage comes from the famous Beyerskloof and Kanonkop wine cellars, and the promising Bordeaux Blend and Cape Blend come from Muratie and L’avenir wineries.
The most distinguished among the whites are the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, primarily at the Vergelegen and Delaire Graff wineries. The latter is perhaps South Africa’s most desirable hospitality and wine destination, with a world renowned spa-hotel surrounded by gardens and amazing views. We should also credit the remarkable products of the Stark-Condé Winery. José Condé produces, with great enthusiasm and love, a delicious Syrah that is poised to conquer the international market.
Paarl, in the interior of this great country, is the largest town in the Cape Winelands. Here, the drier wines have a slightly higher alcoholic strength than in the rest of the country. The biodynamic wines from Avondale Winery shine with their own light, and Laborie Wine Farm is famous for a French-style copper alembic brandy.
If Paarl’s wines are robust, in Franschhoek they are quite mild. A small group of 250 French Huguenots brought their own vine stock and founded the town in the 17th century. The French influence can still be felt in its beautiful Town Hall and in the names of many streets, cellars and restaurants.
Franschhoek ‘s La Motte winery stands for its award winning oenological wonder, La Motte Pierneef Shiraz Viognier 2004. It also received the International Wine Tourism Award in 2003 for its experimental approach to viticulture and regional gastronomy.
South Africa is a clear example of how the geography of wine is evolving in a new epoch. Emerging wine-producing nations have reached a level of quality and professionalism that rival more traditional wine regions. I predict that, in the next 20 years, South African wines will be on the shelves of the world’s major stores, appreciated for their excellent preparation, their sound quality/price ratio and growing popularity.
But my greatest advice would be to visit South Africa, fall in love with its warm hospitality and pristine landscapes; and above all get to know the country’s bright and generous wine culture. ■