The roots of the South African wine industry can be traced back to the exploration of the Dutch East India Company when a supply station was established in Cape Town. Cape Town was then only a stop for ships and crew to pick up fresh produce during their journey along the spice route to India. Jan van Riebeek was given the task to manage the station and plant grapes to produce wine; falsely believing the eating of grapes and the wine created from them would prevent scurvy and other diseases between sailors during their long voyages. In 1659 the first South African wine made from French Muscadel grapes were successfully made.
In 1685, another Cape Governor, Simon van der Stel, purchased a large estate, now known as Constantia. He took a keen interest in the production of wine in the Cape and recruited more French winemakers. Van der Stel imported many grape varieties to his estate including Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Palomino and Muscat. His dedication to high quality soon garnered the wines of Constantia a reputation for quality across Europe. After Van der Stel’s death the estate fell into disorder and was divided into three parts: Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia and Bergvliet. Groot Constantia was recovered in 1778 when Hendrik Cloete purchased it. Cloete replanted the vineyards and rebuilt the cellars in an attempt to revive the state’s standing.
Many cultivators have given up on winemaking during that time, choosing instead to plant orchards and alfalfa fields to feed the growing ostrich feather industry. The growers that did replant with grapevines choose high yielding grapes such as Cinsault. By the early 1900s more than 80 million vines had been replanted, resulting in a ‘wine lake’. By 1918 serious over production lead to great quantities of wine being poured down the local rivers and streams. The low price caused by the imbalance between the supply and demand prompted the formation of KWV who 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.
KWV had a standing policy of purchasing excess wine, so the incentive to produce high quality wine was very low. This continued throughout most of the 20th century. In 1990, less than 30% of the grapes produced in South Africa was used to make wine; the remaining 70% of grapes were used to distill brandy, sold as table grapes or were simply discarded. In 1994 when Apartheid ended and the sanctions on South African export was lifted, boutique wineries and wine sellers bounced up all over South Africa and the focus of winemaking in South Africa changed from producing high quantity to producing excellent quality. International consumers bought up everything they could get their hands on after South Africa has been isolated for so may years.
The wine industry in South Africa has grown immensely since then as winemakers experiment and plant a variety of grapes to try and find the best grapes for their unique Terroir. South Africa does not have a specialty cultivar yet, but contenders include Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. For more information on the different cultivars, their origins and pairings visit our friends at Wine Turtle.
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