John Poplin on October 19, 2016 0 Comments With its Mediterranean climate and dramatic mountainsides, very few think of South Africa as a force in the world of winemaking. But it’s actually a country that has been producing wine for almost as long as some of the Old World Wine producing regions we know today. It’s a region that has overcome many things in its three centuries of winemaking, and finally in recent years has seen international interest in wines as diverse as its people. History of South African Wine South African wine production really began with the landing of Dutch settlers in 1652, with the subsequent planting of its first vines three years later by its then Governor Jan Van Riebeck in Constantia at the continent’s tip, between the South Atlantic ocean and False Bay to the east. Because wine was thought to ward off scurvy for traveling sailors, this new settlement became a popular stopping point for traders between Europe and India. Though they produced their first wine in 1659, the Dutch weren’t especially known for their winemaking skills, and their first attempts produced rather poor quality wines. Read More About South African Wine The second Governor of the area knew a little more about winemaking, but it really wasn’t until the arrival of the French Huguenots in 1688 that great knowledge of grape growing and winemaking came to the Cape. With its favorable ocean influences and slow ripening period in the summer, wines from the Cape began to take shape, and by 1761 South Africa was exporting its first wines to Europe. But South Africa wasn’t exactly known for its abundance of oak barrels for storage and aging. In fact, some of the vats used by the early winemakers of the region had previously been used to brine meats, which might have been one of the reasons South African wine failed to gain much traction among the Europeans. Eventually, regional winemakers found a niche in dessert wines, and things started looking up for the newly formed wine producing region. Vineyard Disease In the late 1800’s, the South African wine industry met the same fate as France and other wine producing regions when it was nearly wiped out by phylloxera. With the effects of the disease spreading throughout the multiple wine regions of the time, farmers began looking to other agricultural products to take the grape’s place; orchards and alfalfa fields being the most popular. American rootstock was then introduced to the region, and even though it too came with some pesky diseases, South Africa as a wine producing region was back on track. Well, sort of. As with much of the world at the time, there were no standards or regulations on wine, and this led to an overabundance of grapes… and some rather awful wines. Some were so bad that they were even being poured out into nearby water tributaries. I mean, what else does one do with mediocre grapes, and a lot of them? Government Interference As with many regions, the South African Government saw a need to take charge, and so they did, creating the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt, or KWV, in 1918. Not only did the KWV step in to prevent overproduction, but they also pushed for better viticultural and winemaking techniques. As there was still an excess of grapes, it was the KWV that pushed producers into fortified wines and brandy. In fact, a majority percentage of grapes were used for products other than still wines. However, due to its location, many South African wines were still unnoticed by much of the world. Then, in 1948, South African wines took a devastating hit with the beginning of the country’s apartheid policies, essentially cutting off their wines from the rest of the world. Though the apartheid didn’t end until 1994, in 1973 the country introduced their own classification system, the “Wine of Origin” legislation. Unlike the AOC of France that has been the base of many countries wine regulatory systems, the KWV was not as concerned with restricting growers to certain varietals, but rather just to focus on quality and labeling standards. Today, with both the end of apartheid and winemakers jet setting between wine producing countries, South Africa is certainly on the rise again. About the Wine Region Though South Africa has an array of wine growing regions (which they refer to as “Wards”), three of the most popular — where the majority of South African wine is produced — are situated in close proximity to Cape Town. For the most part, South Africa’s soils are comprised of granite, sandstone and shale, but most importantly they include a high percentage of clay. From the more coastal regions to those further inland include over 50 unique soil types, lending to some very terroir-driven wines, which is rather unique for a New World producer. Constantia Rich in South African winemaking history, Constantia still produces a number of wines from the same vineyards that were first planted 350 years ago. As this small peninsula of land juts out into the water, it receives oceanic influences that are quite beneficial to growing grapes. Stellenbosch and Paarl Just slightly to the east, but in the western shadows of one of South Africa’s mountain ranges, are the two other popular regions of Paarl and Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch is the second oldest ward in the country, founded by the second Governor of the South Africa settlement in 1678. The Stellenbosch Mountains tower over these vineyards, and over time they have added to the region’s soil makeup. The nearby False Bay also contributes to the region’s microclimate. Many compare this region to Bordeaux in regards to its temperature. Paarl has been considered the epicenter of South Africa’s wine industry, as it once was home to the KWV. Though Stellenbosch has grown enormously in popularity as a wine region, many still look to the very terroir driven wines of Paarl, especially in its wards of Franschhoek Valley and Wellington. As growing regions continue to stretch to the north and east of Cape Town, new wards emerge. Buy Wine from South Africa on Amazon South African Grape Varietals As with most wine growing regions around the globe, the grape varieties used in South Africa have developed over time. Some of the original grapes grown throughout South Africa’s wards were Cinsault, a drought-resistant varietal, and Chenin Blanc, which the region renamed Steen. Today, Steen is still their most popular white wine. But as Cinsault was overproduced, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah also became popular red varietals in South Africa. In 1925, a viticulture professor created South Africa’s own red wine varietal by crossing the hearty Cinsault with Pinot Noir to create Pinotage. Though the varietal does well in the region, it has been criticized by many for some characteristics that many see as flaws. But there are some great Pinotage wines out there. On the white wine side, more popular varietals like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have also done exceptionally well. The wines themselves are often referred to as hybrids of both Old World and New World styles, many of them offering very rustic flavors that South African people refer to as dikvoet, or “thick foot”. The Cape regions are known for their Port style wines utilizing Pinotage, Syrah, and even some of the Portuguese grape varietals used in Port Wines. The country also produces an array of Sherry style wines called Jerepigo, and sparkling wines, which are locally referred to as Cap Classique. But in the U.S. we will more often see the still wines produced by an array of producers. Still in existence but nowadays privately run, the KWV not only assists in helping producers, but they have a portfolio of their own wines: KVW, Cathedral Cellars, and the Bordeaux style red wine blend called Roodeberg (which means “Red Mountain”) to name just a few. Many high quality producers have evolved over the years, like Boschendal, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, De Wetshof Estate; their wines rivaling in quality some of the world’s best. With its rich history, diversity and determination, South Africa produces some incredible wines that are certainly worth seeking out.