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  ABC Wine Issue 5, February 2003   
South AfricaSouth Africa  Contents 
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South Africa

With an enological history of about 350 years, the country now offers a good and interesting selection of wines, from whites to reds, from sparkling to fortified wines

 The African continent is certainly not among the main wine producers of the world, despite of its wide surface, just few African countries produce a modest quantity of wine, however one of them is considered to be as an important wine producing country, not only in Africa, but also in the world: South Africa. With an unsuspicious historical tradition of about 350 years, in South Africa wine was made before they started making it in California and in Australia, the country is now the seventh wine producer of the world.

 Despite the fact the country shows a slight delay if compared to the other wine producing countries of the world, mainly because of the political events happened during the course of the last century, South Africa propose to the world interesting white and red wines and the expectations are for a rapid and important development towards quality and set good premises for the future productions. A considerable quantity of grapes cultivated in South Africa is still used for the production of concentrated must and for the production of spirits, as well as for the production of ordinary wines generally sold in 5 liter boxes. (1.3 gallons) The production of wine in South Africa is mainly run by cooperatives, however, from the middle years of the 1980, there is an increasing number of new private producers which mainly aim for the production of quality wines.

 The production of wine in South Africa is practically and equally divided between white and red wines and the yearly pro capita consumption is of about 9.5 liters. (2.5 gallons) The grapes cultivated in the country are mainly of French origins, except the local Pinotage, a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut used for the production of interesting wines. The fame of this grape is nowadays an indisputable South African mark and the cultivation of Pinotage was spread, even though in a very limited extent, in other countries such as California and New Zealand. The main white berried grapes cultivated in the country are Chenin blanc, here known as Steen which is also the most cultivated grape, Colombard, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria, Sémillon and Crouchen, here known as “South African Riesling”. Among red berried grapes, the most cultivated ones are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Merlot, Cinsaut and Syrah, here in South Africa, as well as in Australia, this grape is known as “Shiraz”.


South Africa
South Africa

 The most productive wine area of South Africa, which is also the one that coincides with the historical area of the country's wine origins, is Cape of Good Hope, located in the southern area of South Africa near Cape Town. The wine history of South Africa began in the middle of the 1600 and was pioneered by the one which is popularly considered as the father of the viticulture and wine making of South Africa: Jan van Riebeeck. With the intention of creating a supply station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company heading to the far east countries, this zealous 33-years-old dutch surgeon, which had no notion or knowledge about viticulture and wine making, understood crews and sailors stopping by this place would have loved to find there wine and spirits. He ordered from France, the exact place of origin is uncertain, however it is believed they were Chenin Blanc and Muscat of Alexandria roots, some vines to be planted in South Africa and, finally, after many failed attempts because of fires started by the local people in the vineyards as well as sparrows which were particularly greed of grape's berries, in 1659 he succeeded in harvesting grapes and in producing, for the first time in history, south African wine.

 In his diary, dating February 2nd, 1659, Jan van Riebeeck wrote «today, praise be to God, for the first time we pressed Cape's grapes and made wine». His excitement is certainly understandable, however a chronicler of those times wrote that the wine was incredibly astringent and was only good for “irritating the bowel”. Moreover, the wine that was shipped to Holland was often rejected and sent back to the sender. Despite the scarce appreciation for this wine and, according to what history tells and the very discouraging results from the first experiments, the way for the wine making in South Africa was set and there also was plenty of room for improvements.


 

 Some years later, two important events happened which gave a strong impulse and development to the wine making of South Africa. The new governor Simon van der Stel, who came to South Africa in 1679 and, disappointed by the strong acidity of local wines, decided to establish in 1685 the most prestigious winery of the whole history of South African enology: Constantia, whose fame excelled with the French wines of those times as well as with the renowned Hungarian wines of Tokaj. Another event which contributed to the improvement of the quality of South African wines was the coming, after the establishment of the Constantia winery, of about 200 refugees French protestant Huguenots, fleeing from France because of the religious prosecutions as a consequence of the revocation of Nantes edict, which brought their experience, surely providential, to the local wine making techniques.

 Constantia wines represented a rather singular case because it was the only wine coming from the so called “New World” which excelled, sometimes surpassing, the wines produced in Europe and for many years it was a preferred wine in the Royal courts of Europe; Napoleon himself, during his exile in the island of St. Helena, used to order Constantia wines in order to alleviate the torments of his fate. The renowned wines of Constantia were sweet and produced as red and white, the latter was highly esteemed and most looked for. White Constantia was produced with Muscat à Petit Grains and some Muscat of Alexandria was probably added as well as Pontac, a red berried grape whose origins are not certain. The fame of Constantia wines was reached mainly for the merits of the second proprietor of the winery, Hendrik Cloete, which bought and restored it in 1778. The fame of these wines started declining after the occupation of the British troops as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars as well as because of the general decline of the South African wines that began in 1861.

 To make things worsen and to complicate the declining condition of the South African enology, just like any other wine producing country of those times, in 1886 the terrible phylloxera devastated the country's vineyards. The effects of this parasite lasted for about 20 years and in the beginning of the 1900 local producers started planting vineyards again, mainly Cinsaut grapes, in the aim of giving a strong impulse to the enology of the country and, in fact, this led to a over production of grapes and started a serious financial crisis for the enology industry of South Africa. This financial crisis led in 1918 to the establishment of one of the many cooperatives of South Africa, the KWV, Koöperatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid Africa. (South African Co-operative Winegrowers Association)

 The purpose of this cooperative was to set production limits in order to avoid over productions and, as a consequence, to set minimum prices for wines. In a relatively short time, the cooperative became very strong and no wine could be produced, sold or imported in South Africa without the participation of KWV. Despite this cooperative is still active and controls about the 25% of the wine and spirit exports of South Africa, now it lost much of its power and currently is run by a group of private companies. No matter this company had the merit for having contributed to the stabilization of prices as well as regulating the wine production, the domination of KWV left little chances to the creativity and personal initiative of producers and this practically led to a delay both in quality and progress of wines, whereas in other countries these two aspects were rapidly developing in a determinant way.

 The changes in favor of quality of wine in South Africa began in the middle of the years of the 1980, when radical changes were introduced in the wine industry in favor of small private producers instead of what was simply the norm until then, that is cooperatives. The current production of South African enology is truly promising and the many efforts of the local producers certainly set a new way which will undoubtedly take South Africa to a prominent and prestigious position in the wine making, just like other wine producing countries of the world.

 

The South African Quality System

 The quality system in force in South Africa was introduced in 1973 and, for many aspects, it is based to the guidelines of the wine laws of France and Germany. The system is called Wine of Origin, “WO” in short, and contributed to make things clear and to regulate an indiscriminate system whose main effect was to be origin of confusion among consumers. A wine can be recognized as quality product only in case it positively pass an examination conducted by a proper commission. This commission is instituted by the office which is in charge of recognizing quality wines, the Wine & Spirit Board. Every wine which positively passes the commission's evaluation and examination is certified and can legally stick to its bottle the certification seal of quality, just like the one depicted in figure .


Certification seal ``Wine of Origin''
Certification seal “Wine of Origin”

 Wines can be certified according to their area or ward of origin, vintage and variety of grapes. A wine certified as varietal must be produced with at least 75% of the grapes named in the label and at least 75% must be of the named vintage, the remaining part can be of one or more different vintages, both older and younger than the named vintage in the label. Assembled wines which do not claim a singular variety can state in the label the composition of grapes.

 The system also includes the recognition of “Estate” which can be considered, with proper exceptions and differences, like the appellation “Château” or “Domaine” used for French wines. Wines that can be defined with this term must be produced within a well defined property recognized by the quality system. The definition of “Estate” is however controversial and probably too lax. For example, two vineyards belonging to the same proprietor, even though they are distant from each other many kilometers, can be used, by assembling their harvests, in order to make a wine that can be certified as “Estate”. It should be noted that both vineyards must have the very same ecological conditions and this condition must be recognized by the authorities in charge. Moreover, wines belonging to this category can also be made in a place and aged in another, provided both places belong to the same property. Lastly, it should be noted a wine can indicate in its label only one origin even though it contains wines coming from many regions.

 Sparkling wines produced in South Africa by means of classic method have Méthode Cap Classique as well as “Wine of Origin” stated in the label, the latter term can also appear written in local language as Wyn van Oorsprong. Chaptalization is not allowed in South Africa, as well as other forms of “enrichment”, however acidification is allowed.

 

Production Areas

 The center of wine production in South Africa is located in the so called “Cape”, in the southern part of the country, near Cape Town and Cape of Good Hope. The most important wine areas are certainly Paarl and Stellenbosch, where most of the wine production of the country is made. In South Africa are produced both white and red wines as well as fortified wines and sparkling wines. The climate of the area is favored by the vicinity of the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean, a condition which allow a production of quality wines and, not surprisingly, the best wines of South Africa all come from this area.

 The most cultivated grape in South Africa is Chenin Blanc, here known as “Steen”, used to produce pretty ordinary wines even though it should be noted there are some exception to this and there are some small producers who make delicious wines by using this grape. Despite the fame of Chenin Blanc is declining, white berried grapes are still the most cultivated ones in South Africa, in particular some “international” species such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as other “historical” grapes of the country such as “Cape Riesling”, the name used in South Africa to refer to Crouchen, and Muscat of Alexandria, here known as Hanepoot and which is mainly used to make fortified wines, Riesling, Colombard. Among red berried grapes the most important and cultivated one is certainly Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Cinsaut, Merlot, which is getting more and more popular, Shiraz and the local Pinotage, a crossing produced in 1925 with Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, used for the production of good quality wines as well as ordinary wines.

 The eldest wine production area of South Africa, Constantia, is located in the Cape of Good Hope and benefits both of a cool climate and the vicinity of Atlantic Ocean. This area got famous because of its renowned sweet wine whose production was recently resumed in this very area in the hope of repeating the prestigious and historical glories of the past. In Constantia are also produced excellent wines with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, perhaps the best wines of South Africa, as well as red wines produced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

 About 45 kilometers east from Cape Town, there is another renowned wine area of the country, Stellenbosch, a prestigious town of South Africa known for its university. This town is traditionally considered among the eldest production areas of the country, besides Constantia, as well as being very important both for production and quality. The climate of this area is pretty tempered by the air streams coming from the Atlantic Ocean and the grapes which are mainly cultivated here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinotage which give excellent wines. In this area are also produced good examples of fortified wines in the style of “Porto” as well as wines produced with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

 North from Stellenbosch there is the other important wine area of South Africa which produces excellent quality wines: Paarl. In this area are produced, besides white and red wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines and brandy. In particular, fortified wines are produced with the same techniques used for the production of the renowned Jerez in Spain, and their quality is often comparable to it. The grapes which are mainly cultivated in this area are Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A rather renowned area of this region is Franschoek, the original place where the French Huguenots settled in, known for the production of interesting quality wines, in particular the ones made with Sémillon grape.

 Other wine areas of interest are Hermanus, south from Cape Town, where they produce wines with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Durbanville, west from Paarl, where they mainly produce good white wines. Other South African areas of interest include Worcester, Klein Karoo, Mossel Bay, Elgin and Walker Bay.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 5, February 2003   
South AfricaSouth Africa  Contents 
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