country has had the best and worst of the wine industry. It may
have the most perfect weather and soil for growing wine grapes in
the entire world. There is almost never rain at harvest, no frost,
a long growing season and classic soils. That's the good part. Unfortunately,
all these natural benefits were completely stifled by apartheid
in the late '70s and '80s. Unfortunately for them, there was more
progress in global wine technology during this period than at any
time in recent memory. South Africa was isolated from the wine industry
and stuck in a provincial political system. It had a big jump to
make in order to compete globally in the '90s. That jump was made,
however, and quite successfully at that.
South Africa's principle grape-growing districts are all huddled
at the very tip on the country around the Cape of Good Hope. Grapes
were planted in Constantia by Dutch traders in the 1650s for the
purpose of making wine. It was the first stop for ships sailing
from Australia to Europe and wine was believed to cure scurvy, a
common problem for sailors at the time. From Constantia the vine
spread to South Africa's best known area, Stellenbosch, just 10
miles to the east; Paarl, home of their best fortified wines; and
Swartland, the fine wine capital.
In 1918 a cooperative of over 5,000 growers called the KWV was formed
to limit overproduction and stabilize inventories and prices. For
70 years the KWV was all that those outside the country knew about
South African wines since there were less than 80 growers who bottled
their own wine.
In less than a decade, South Africa has gone further faster than
probably any wine-making nation in the world. The KWV is still the
largest producer, but each year its piece of the pie is being chipped
away by artisan winemakers hungry for the worldwide recognition
they were denied for so long.
The most widely planted grape here is Chenin Blanc, known as Steen.
It is a versatile grape making lovely, melon-scented dry and semi-dry
wines as well as rich dessert wines. Pinotage, a cross between Pinot
Noir and Cinsault, has become the most distinctive wine in South
Africa. It's flavor profile ranges from a light and refreshing to
complex, dense and spicy.
The newer area of Swartland is racing to the fine wine forefront
with stellar Sauvignon Blanc and many an outstanding Shiraz and
Pinotage. South Africa is catching up very quickly with the rest
of the world's fine wine producers. Typically, as quality and recognition
rise, so do prices. South Africa is a good value right now in the
fine wine arena. But, that is subject to change with increasing
Although best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and
Pinotage, Stellenbosch produces a host of wine types including port
style wines and some excellent Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.
Stellenbosch returns lower average yields than hotter, more extensively
irrigated inland regions. It is the source of only about 16 per
cent of the country's total wine production although it boasts the
greatest concentration of leading estates, an extensive wine route
network, and scores of restaurants. Estates and cellars particularly
famous for their wines include Alto, Delheim, Grangehurst, Hartenberg,
Jordan, Kanonkop, Lanzerac, Le Bonheur, Meerlust, Morgenhof, Mulderbosch,
Neil Ellis, Rustenberg, Saxenburg, Simonsig, Stellenzicht, Thelema,
Uitkyk, Vriesenhof, Vergelegen, Vergenoed, Warwick, and Zevenwacht.
Paarl means pearl in Afrikaans and houses the headquarters of the
South African wine industry. The Co-operative Growers' Association
(KWV) handles the annual surplus, producing port-like fortified
wines, brandies, and other spirits (gin, vodka) and liqueurs (including
the mandarin-flavoured Van der Hum). Paarl's latitude, 33.4 degrees
south-Jerez in Spain is on a similar northern latitude-is cited
as a reason for the quality of South Africa's solera-system flor
sherry style wines, first made by the KWV in the 1940s. Paarl is
a warm region. A few well-known estates market a spectrum of wines,
reds and whites of the classic varieties, sparkling wines, port
style wines, and recently even estate-matured brandies. The district
reaches north into Tulbagh (a separate area of origin) and Wellington
and east toward Franschhoek (meaning `French corner'), home of the
first French Huguenot settlers. The best-known cellars include Backsberg,
Bellingham, Boschendal, Cabriere, Fairview, Glen Carlou, L'Ormarins,
La Motte, Plaisir de Merle, Veenwouden, Villiera, and Welgemeed.
The biggest producer is Nederburg, with a comprehensive range of
40 labels; it produced the Cape's first botrytized wine, labelled
Noble Late Harvest, from Chenin Blanc in 1969.
Swartland is a bit warmer than the rest accounting for its specialties
of fortified and robust red wines. An occasional outstanding Sauvignon
Blanc and Shiraz imerges, but the main Swartland is generally considered
the home of South Africa's best sherry and port-styled wines.
Wine of Origin (WO) legislation introduced in 1973 ended decades
of a labelling free-for-all which made it impossible for the consumer
to tell what wine came from where. The government set up a certification
system which set some order to the labelling chaos.
Blended wines qualify for a varietal statement provided the variety
makes up at least 75 per cent of the blend; and at least 75 per
cent comes from one harvest. The balance may come from the preceding
or subsequent year. Blends which do not claim single varietal status
may state the grape composition.
Participation is voluntary and about 35 per cent of Cape bottled
wine is certified. Non-certified wine is liable to spot-check analysis
for health requirements.
Wine for certification is submitted to the government-appointed
Wine & Spirit Board. The wine must pass an analytical test and is
blind tasted by a panel which may reject wines judged faulty or
atypical, and often does. The designation `Estate' is the Cape's
equivalent of the French Chateau, or Domaine. All the wine must
originate from and be fermented at a registered, demarcated estate.
The definition of an estate is loose. Two vineyards owned and operated
by one proprietor may be miles apart but their crops can be blended
and qualify for a single estate label, provided the authorities
deem the `ecological circumstances' similar. An estate cellar may
not vinify more than half its production in non-estate grapes, and
these must be separately demarcated in bulk and must be bottled
under a non-estate label.