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- History - A history of South African wine and winemaking

History of South African Wine

Winemaking in South Africa begins with Simon van der Stel, Commander of the Dutch Colony at the Cape of Good Hope. In1685 van der Stel planted his first vines and named the site after his benefactors daughter. With its fertile soil, sloping hills, and ocean breezes, Constantia's growing conditions were near-perfect; for the next two hundred years, this would be South Africas grand cru.

Despite its limited circulation, the sweet red dessert wine called simply Constantia was well known in high society across Europe. Napoleon himself specifically requested Constantia during his exile at St. Helena, and British writers such as Dickens and Austen sang its praise.

Outside of Constantia, however, South Africas wine industry seemed less blessed. Early efforts in the nearby Stellenbosch and Paarl faced heavy government regulation and a variety of difficulties.

By 1812, the Capes wine industry had entered its heyday. Thanks to a war with France, British import duties favored African wines over French, and exports from the Cape were booming. But bad weather and a ruined crop in 1825 marked the beginning of a steady slide, and Britain gradually began to raise tariffs on wine from the Cape. In 1859, mildew devastated vines, and in 1886, phylloxera aphids took a heavy toll. Like their European counterparts, winemakers on the cape planted new vines grafted onto resistant American rootstock, but the industry would soon be devastated yet again by Boer war.

The Twentieth Century to 1994

South African winemaking in most of the twentieth century was synonymous with the Co-operative Winegrowers Association of South Africa, or KWWV. Founded in 1918, the KWV aimed to defend farmers through collective bargaining. Within years, it had imposed a minimum price on wine and guaranteed farmers that it would buy up excess wine.

Unfortunately, the KWVs policies valued quantity over quality, and South African wine suffered as a result. But that wasn't all Apartheid took its toll on the wine industry as well. Even when the Cape managed to produce fine wines, anti-Apartheid trade sanctions meant that international markets were off limits.

End of Apartheid through Present

In 1994, everything changed. The ANC won the national elections, Mandela became President, and Apartheid ended and everything changed. In a few short years, the KWV stripped of most of its regulatory power and Cape wine farmers were thrust into a free market. Exports shot up, négociants sprang up overnight, and many of South Africa's wine co-operatives would soon become proprietary companies with shareholders. In short, the KWV model was dead.

The real success stories of the new system have been small boutique wineries. Since the end of Apartheid, they have spread across the Cape, clustering in the booming Stellenbosch district. Thanks to these small wineries, South African wines are today undergoing a major renaissance and are steadily gaining favor in with international wine drinkers.

Today, South Africa has emerged onto the international scene as a world-class wine producer. New wineries are opening at a steady rate, and South African wines are gaining recognition in key markets abroad.

- Overview - An overview of South African wine.

Overview of South African Wine

For much of the twentieth century, the story of South African wine was one of excessive regulation by the KWV cooperative practices that veered strongly toward anticompetitiveness. The KWV had a standing policy of purchasing excess wine, so the incentive to produce quality wine was low at best.

All that changed when Nelson Mandela became President in 1994 and Apartheid ended. Almost overnight, boutique wineries and négociants sprang up across the country and the culture of winemaking changed from one of quantity to one of quality. Exports shot through the roof as international customers snapped up anything and everything the country could offer after such a long isolation from the international market.

Today South Africa is a land of excitement and experimentation, as growers plant a variety of grapes and try to find the best wine for the land. The country has yet to decide on a true specialty, but some of the majo contenders are Pinotage, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.

Major

- Constantia

Constantia

Overview

Home to the first vineyard in the Cape, Constantia occupies a special place in the lore of South African winemaking. Although it has never produced more than three or four percent of South Africa’s wines, Constantia is historically responsible its country’s best-regarded bottles. For the two hundred years following 1685, Constantia was known around the world for its sweet dessert red wines, praised such iconic celebrities as Napoleon, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can follow the Constantia Wine Route out of Capetown and visit Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg.

History

In 1685, Simon van der Stel, Commander of the Cape of Good Hope, granted himself land in a fertile valley, planted vines and called his farm Constantia. Today a suburb of nearby Capetown, the Constantia takes its name from Van der Stel’s original farm. Since Van der Stel’s first harvest the vineyard was a success, and sweet Constantia red dessert wines occupied the cellars of European high society for two hundred years. The district was hit hard by the phylloxera aphid infestation in 1886, and the following Boer War gave it little time to recover. After a largely dormant period, Constantia began once again to produce fine wines in the 1970’s. Groot Constantia, part of Van der Stel’s original vineyard, is once again producing wines of international acclaim. Today Constantia is a ward in South Africa’s Coastal Region recognized for its premier whites, notably sauvignon blanc, Semillon, and muscat.

Geography

Temperature

Constantia enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate with generous winter rainfall. Ocean air off the nearby False Bay help keep temperatures mild, and warm summers are moderated by occasional rain and Atlantic breezes.

Topography

A suburb of Capetown, Constantia is a ward inside the Coastal Region of South Africa. Its vineyards lie on the gentle slopes at the foot of Constantia Mountain, and its south-facing hillsides offer spectacular views of the nearby False Bay. Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Durbanville all lie nearby to the northeast. Vineyards in the area and adorn the mountain foothills, running parallel with the beaches of the popular False Bay, and must now compete for space with housing developments in Capetown’s affluent residential suburbs.

Terroir

The soil varies with elevation as you climb the mountain slopes, but it is mostly granite-based and contains large amounts of clay. Higher up, there is an increased sandstone content, but the area remains fertile. Excessive humidity can make red winemaking difficult, and slopes that receive ample sunlight are especially sought after.

Important Varietals

Semillon
Muscat
Sauvignon Blanc
Chardonnay
Cabernet Sauvignon
Shiraz
Pinot Noir

- Paarl

Paarl

Overview

The district of Paarl is named after a large dome-shaped rock formation within its borders. The granite rocks on this peak shine and glow in the sunlight, leading the first Dutch explorers in the region to name the mountain “den Diamant ende Peerlbergh - the Diamond-and-Pearl-Mountain.” The town constructed at the base of this peak was named Paarl after the shining mountain. Today the region boasts some of the best wines in South Africa, and is home to such important historical sites as the Afrikaans Language Monument and Drakenstein Prision, which held Nelson Mandela during his final years of captivity. But there’s more! Paarl is also home to the great Red Route, a tour that offers tasting from world-class red wine cellars, and the district also holds the famous annual Nederberg Auction, a veritable heaven for wine enthusiasts.

History

Paarl is the third oldest European settlement in South Africa. The area was first explored in 1657 by the Dutch, who were immediately awed by the glistening granite of Paarl Mountain. In 1688 Dutch settlers established the first farms in the area, and one year later a group of French Hugenots arrived and began to plant vineyards. Over 300 years later, this French influence can still be seen in the landscape and tasted in the wine. By the mid 1800s, the district had developed an industrial base, and was best known for wine, and the manufacturing of wagons and carts. Paarl is now the second most industrialized city in the Western Cape region of South Africa, but it still maintains its agricultural roots. Farms and vineyards abound, even within the city limits of Paarl itself. Some of South Africa’s best estate wines can be found here, several of which have gained international popularity and prestige.

Geography

Parl lies in the Berg River Valley, bordered by the Parl Mountains and the Drakenstein Range. It lies to the north of the famous Stellenbosch district, and about forty miles northeast of Cape Town.

Temperature

Similar to the Rhône Valley in southern France, the warm summers and wet winters in Paarl make it well suited to the production of fine wines. Summer runs from October through March, with warm weather tempered by cool Atlantic breezes prevailing through the harvest season. Winter is colder, but moderated by the relative proximity to the ocean. The high mountains surrounding the district trap the winter clouds, dropping good quantities of rain to maintain the vineyards with a minimum of irrigation.

Topography

Vineyards grow on the flat valley floor, and have expanded extensively into the surrounding hillsides.

Terroir

There are three distinct soil types in the Paarl district. The mountain slopes are composed of granite-based soil, and as such have very good drainage. The fertile Berg River Valley contains a soil blend of primarily Table Mountain sandstone. Shale is interspersed throughout the northeastern corner of the district.

Important Varietals

Shiraz
Voignier
Mourvèdre
Cabernet Sauvignon
Semillon
Chardonnay

- Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Overview

Generally accepted as South Africa’s greatest wine district, Stellenbosch has become world famous for its high quality estates. Wineries have been in operation here since the early seventeenth century, making Stellenbosch the most densely cultivated areas in the country. Most of South Africa’s leading vineyards can be found here: Mulderbosch, Rustenberg, De Toren, and Thelema to name a few. For those fortunate enough to visit, Stellenbosch offers a well-known winery tour of the best vineyards in the district, the Stellenbosch Wine Route.

History

The Stellenbosch district bears the name of its main city, a quaint university town in the heart of the region. The town was established in 1679 when the Dutch governor of the Cape Colony of the Dutch East India Company, Simon van der Stel, spent one night camping in the brushland along the Eerste River. The town was named ‘van der Stel’s bush’, or Stellenbosch. A few years later, houses began to spring up in the river valley forming a small farming community. Due to the favorable climate and soils, settlers around the town began to produce wine, and they have never stopped. In 1971, after gaining international prestige for consistently producing high quality wines, the district of Stellenbosch created the Stellenbosch Wine Route. For tourists and wine lovers, this tour of the area includes over 100 wineries and cellars where the award-winning wines of Stellenbosch can be sampled and enjoyed.

Geography

Parl lies in the Berg River Valley, bordered by the Parl Mountains and the Drakenstein Range. It lies to the north of the famous Stellenbosch district, and about forty miles northeast of Cape Town.

Temperature

Nestled between coastal mountain ridges, Stellenbosch enjoys a pleasant Mediterranean climate ideal for growing high-quality grapes. Summer runs from October through March, with warm weather tempered by cool Atlantic breezes prevailing through the harvest season. Winter is cool and rainy, but moderated by the proximity to the ocean.

Topography

Vineyards grow on the flat valley floor, and have expanded extensively into the surrounding hillsides. The valley’s altitude is about 300 feet.

Terroir

Stellenbosch lies in a river valley between high mountains. The soil is made of granite along the mountain slopes, as well as sandstone and shale with good water retention. The river valley soil is extremely fertile and contains pockets of the Hutton soil, which the vine-growers love. The particularly granite-rich regions provide ideal growing conditions for red wines, while the areas with a higher concentration of sandstone-based soil produce excellent whites.

Important Varietals

Jonkershoek Valley, located east of Stellenbosch town is famous Cabernet Sauvignon and cabernet blends.

Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, in the south-western foothills of the Simonsberg mountain, produces high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, cabernet blends, Pinotage, and reds in general.

Bottelary, to the north-west of Stellenbosch town is well regarded for its Pinotage, Shiraz, other “warm-blooded” blends.

Devon Valley, north-west of Stellenbosch town, makes primarily red blends

Papegaaiberg, to the west of Stellenbosch town contributes Chardonnay, chenin, merlot, and cabernet.

The rest of the Stellenbosch region, which remains unappelated, is well-known for red blends, chenin, and sauvignon. Throughout Stellenbosch, one can find merlot and chardonnay vines as well.

Minor

- Franschhoek

Franschhoek

Known as the “wine and food capital of the cape,” Franschhoek is a small but important wine region of South Africa. First settled by the French Huegenots, wine has been produced here for over 300 years. In fact, South Africa owes much of its contemporary winemaking techniques and skills to these original immigrants, who brought with them the uncanny French knowledge of viticulture.

Located just east of the famous Stellenbosch region, Franschhoek enjoys a warm climate tempered by relative proximity to the ocean. However, coastal mountains do provide a sheltering influence, making Franschhoek slightly warmer than its neighbor. The most popular varieties produced here are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Merlot.

- Robertson

Robertson

Just over an hour drive from Cape Town, Robertson is rapidly developing a reputation for high quality wines. The warm, dry climate and the lime-rich soil of the Breede River Valley provide excellent growing conditions, especially for white varietals. The pleasant district, often referred to as “The Valley of Wine and Roses,” boasts such vineyards as Weltevrede (which makes an award-winning Riesling), Bon Courage (famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon), and Graham Beck (which produces excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay).

- Swartland

Swartland

A dry district thirty miles northeast of Cape Town, Swartland’s wine production remains dominated by the communal wine-producing system. As a result of the district’s climate, vineyards grow in a non-irrigated, bush-vine formation and produce small quantities of high quality grapes. A large quantity of Swartland’s yield is mixed with grapes from other faster-growing regions to add body and color to the finished wine. Bold, powerful reds and lush whites wines make up the majority of styles produced.

- Walker Bay

Walker Bay

One of the newcomers in South Africa’s wine territories, Walker Bay lies in a complex geological region of mountains, valleys, and coastal zones. As its name suggests, much of the district pushes up against the cool Atlantic Ocean, which keeps temperatures moderate to cool year round. Top-quality areas within the Walker Bay include Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, which arguably produce the best pinot noir in South Africa. Bouchard-Finlayson and Hamilton-Russell are some of the most well known wineries in the district.