South African Wine History & Regions
A little more South Africa wine history and guide to the country's main wine regions.
Dutch East India Company: South Africa is one of the oldest "New World" Wine Regions. Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company first brought grapes to South Africa way back in the 1650s. Van Riebeeck had heard that red wine could prevent scurvy, and, noticing Cape Town's Mediterranean climate, planted a vineyard using red wine grapes imported from France.
Winemaking spread in the region throughout the seventeenth century, and by the late eighteenth century, South African wines were well known in Europe.
British colonial rule: South Africa was under British occupation beginning in 1795, and there most South African wine was exported to Britain. In 1861, though, tariff laws changed, and South African wines were no longer affordable to the British. Then Phylloxera (a root louse that kills vines) arrived in 1886, dealing another devastating blow to the South African wine industry. Growers replanted with high-yield varieties and, faced with a surplus of wine, ended up dumping some in rivers.
Cooperative Wine Growers’ Association: In 1918, a group of growers formed in response to these crises. Known as the KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, or Cooperative Wine Growers’ Association in Afrikaans), they set regulations for the South African wine industry for the next 80 years. Their standards quantity over quality mentality prioritized bulk wine production for brandy and distillation rather than high-quality wine bottles from independent producers.
Wine of Origin system: In 1973, South Africa developed the Wine of Origin system, which officially designated regions and labeling procedures and helped clear up confusing labels. The 1970s also saw the introduction of barrel-aging in French oak, a practice that continues today for both red and white wines. Increase in wine production: By 1990, under KWV's influence, less than 30 percent of the grape harvest went towards bottled wine. For the most part, grapes that weren’t distilled into brandy were sold as grape juice or table grapes. Over the last 30 years, though, wine production increased, and as of 2019, 86 percent of South Africa’s grape harvest was for wine. The KWV co-op still exists, but much of that production is now focused on producing lower yields and high quality wine from independent producers.
South Africa is a world leader in sustainable wine production integrity: Since 1974, the Wine of Origin scheme guarantees the information on the label that states where the grapes came from, the vintage year and the variety or varieties. This quality guarantee was followed by the introduction of guidelines on sustainability as early as 1998 and today over 95% of the growers and cellars stick to the guidelines. These guidelines are constantly improved, and independent auditors audit the farms and cellars. If the farms pass the audit, they can use the sustainability seal. 3 Major South African Wine Regions: South African wine regions are classified (in descending order of size) by geographic unit, region, district, and ward. The wards are the smallest unit other than individual vineyards, and they share elements of terroir such as climate and soil.
Most of South Africa's wine regions are located in the geographic unit of the Western Cape, including these 3 main ones: The Breede River Valley region, which includes the districts of Robertson, Worchester & Breedekloof. The Cape South Coast region, which includes the Elgin and Walker Bay districts. The Coastal region, which includes the historical Constantia ward (established in 1685) in the Cape Peninsula district, as well as the Franschhoek Stellenbosch, Swartland, and Paarl districts.
Want to know more about your wine and it's Sustainability Seal? This seal means that the Wine and Spirit Board, appointed by the Department of Agriculture, certifies that The vintage, variety and origin that are shown on the label are correct. The wine has been produced sustainably, in an earth-friendly manner. The wine can be traced all the way from the vine to the bottle. It was bottled in South Africa – so it is 100% South African!
Check it out! Go to https://www.sawis.co.za/sealsearch.php and enter the numbers on your seal.
Map from CapeClassics.com