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SA Wine History

South African Wines: Yesterday and Today
The answer lies... in the Sun!
South Africa is now one of the top ten wine countries in the world, in terms of production and quality. The country has been making wine since 1659, shortly after the arrival of the Dutch. But French Huguenots and German immigrants impacted the wine in a big way and so quality improved gradually. The wines became world famous in the 18th and 19th centuries when the wines of the Constantia region (closest to Cape Town) were demanded by Kings, Queens, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The wines of this region were written about in novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But in the late 19th century, fame and fortune were destroyed by the dreaded Phylloxera virus which also wiped out all the vines in Europe and it took some years before the industry fully recovered.

In the 20th century the wine industry was dominated and controlled by a quasi-governmental institution called KWV, created in 1918, which accidently went on to become, and is still to this day, one of the biggest brandy producers in the world. Systems of wine classification and control slowly made their way into the wine industry. But the quality was not there, because South Africa was growing mainly Chenin Blanc grapes to satisfy the demands of KWV, this giant co-operative that was initiated to try to overcome the problems of wine over-production in the country.

During the dark years of Apartheid, South African products were boycotted internationally so exporting wine became more and more difficult, and South Africa entered a period of withdrawal and decline from the fast changing wine marketing world that was starting to develop in Australia and California.

In 1993, KWV was stripped of its controlling powers by the last white president of South Africa, F W de Klerk. It is now a public company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and competes against all the other wineries in the country…..instead of trying to “control” their production. In 1994, after South Africa’s famous election on April 27, Nelson Mandela led the country onto the World Stage. And our wine makers had to catch up…………..QUICKLY.

So in the 17 years since then, nearly 75% of all the vineyards in the country have been ripped up and planted to more popular varietals that are demanded by restaurants and members of the public around the world.

South Africa now dominates the wine scene in the United Kingdom. In the UK, they now officially import MORE South African wines than wines from France. Why? You may ask……

Because……South Africa, which is internationally recognised as one of the world’s most diverse and scenically beautiful countries, has LOTS of Sunshine. And Sunshine means………that the tannins in red wines are softened, making the wines easy to drink at a young age. This is what people want in the age of twitter, e-mail and fast food. They want to drink NOW. Apart from a few serious collectors, they are no longer prepared to wait 20 years for a good Bordeaux to ripen.

South Africa is now recognised as one of the world’s leading producers of Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. Shiraz, because our climate and soil is very similar to the Rhone region in France where this varietal is planted extensively. And Sauvignon Blanc because we have more plant species in South Africa than any other nation on earth, and this complexity has added a new dimension to our soils. Couple that will very cold winds that blow off our icy coast, and you have the perfect recipe for crisp, refreshing, but often complex Sauvignon Blancs.

South Africa also has its own grape varietal which confuses some of the visitors to the country. It is called PINOTAGE. Invented by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925 at the University of Stellenbosch, PINOTAGE was created by grafting a pinot noir vine onto a cinsaut vine (in those days known as Hermitage). The result is a riot of wine that has not performed well internationally because it is very fickle about where it is planted and how it is treated. This wine often carries smells and flavours of stewed bananas, coffee and dark chocolate. The bad versions smell like acetone….! But let it be known, South Africa is the world leader in the production of this varietal. Pinotage wine goes well with rich stews and venison. If you see Pinotage in the Seychelles imported by SEYWINES, you can bet that it is a good one!

South Africa also now produces some of the best Viognier and Chenin Blancs in the world. Chenin masters such as the Raats Family, Ken Forrester and L’Avenir (owned by La Roche) have taken the grape to new heights.

South Africa is always ready to try new things so some wineries like Fairview and Steenberg are experimenting with a range of Italian varietals like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. And Malbec production is low but the quality is good.

Also look out for the growing number of South African “Champagnes” or Sparkling Wines made in exactly the same way as they do in France.

There is a World of Choice when it comes to South African Wines. So come. Taste. Order. And celebrate life….

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