Within the last 20 years, wine in South Africa has experienced a true renaissance. Winemakers attach more importance to quality than quantity; the past has shown that too many yielded grapes are harmful to the winemakers. South Africa as a wine country has been in existence for much longer. In the middle of the 17th century, the first settlers planted vines on the Cape of Good Hope. After 200 years of constant growth and a boom, the end of the 19th century had severe problems of economic and ecologic nature. Cheap French wine and louse infestation made life difficult for the winemakers. The 20th century was defined by strictly regulated wine cultivation and political issues. The monopoly of the KWV inhibited a healthy development of the winemakers and the Apartheid made for political trouble.
Dutch Doctor Plants first Vine
In 1652, the ship’s doctor Jan van Riebeck founded a fort at the foothills of Table Mountain to provide Dutch ships with provisions. Early on, he decided to grow wine. This made sense as wine was considered to be a clean alternative to water for a long time which was especially important for sailors of these former times. The terroir seemed to be suitable for wine growing, so in 1655, Jan van Riebeck planted the first vine in South Africa.
Simon van der Stel Founds Stellenbosch and Constantia
Simon van der Stel is considered to be the founding father of South African wine. He founded the winery Stellenbosch in 1679 and another one called Constantia six years later. In the Old World, dessert wine from Constantia was popular as early as the end of the 17th century. Stellenbosch is known for its premium wines; as a matter of fact, most premium wines still originate from this region. Van der Stel’s traces are therefore noticeable even in the new millennium.
Cheap Competitors, Vine Pest and Spoiled Wine
As time went by, wine from South Africa developed into a popular product all over Europe. One of the largest markets was Great Britain which imposed an embargo on imports of French wine in the middle of the 19th century. This changed in 1861; the import was not only allowed, but lower customs made French wine significantly cheaper than its South African equivalent. Great Britain was no longer a suitable market.
Slightly time-delayed, the vine pest affected numerous wine plants in South Africa in 1885. Some years ago it had caused much destruction on the farms in Europe. Vine roots could not take in any nutrients, and whole stretches of land became deserted.
Despite these problems, South Africa’s winemakers put all their effort into creating wine in high amounts. In 1918, South Africa produced more than half a million hectolitres of wine. Large parts of it were spoiled though and could not be sold. The overproduction damaged price as well as quality of the wines. As a general rule in viticulture, it is said that higher yields and decreasing wine quality go hand in hand. Winemakers literally had to dump the wine into the rivers, thousand of litres of it.
Cooperative and Trade Sanctions
As a reaction to the many problems, the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbuwers Vereniging – abbreviated KWV – was founded. It was supposed to control demands and stabilise prices. Yet the monopoly position of the KWV caused new problems. In 1957, it introduced a quota system and restricted the areas that winemakers were allowed to cultivate newly. The cooperative also controlled the import of new grape varieties. This caused a stagnation of the wineries, which not only in the world of wines means a step backwards.
In the 1980s, many nations penalized the regime in South Africa to protest against the Apartheid. Wine from South Africa could only hardly be sold or not at all.
With the end of the Apartheid in 1994, the situation for the winemakers improved. Today, renowned wineries pay attention to premium wines to be at the top in the global competition, not only in terms of quantity.