South Africa truly offers us many wonders and one of these wonders are our wines. The nectar of the gods is one of the country's prize export products.
Our ancestors showed us the way and, by trial and error, we have learned to produce some of the best-quality wines in the world. As an indication, in South Africa approximately 108 000 ha are given over to grape production, earning this country a ranking of twentieth in the world for total vineyard area. However, in terms of total wine production in litres, South Africa ranks seventh in the world.
Of the 108 000 ha planted under grapes in South Africa, some 98 000 ha are used to make wine, the remainder being planted with table grapes. This article caters for the needs of both experienced wine connoisseurs and novice wine lovers and gives the novice some tips on wine tasting, as well. Other topics include a brief overview of the wine industry of South Africa, a list and description of some of the better known wine routes that allow visitors access to various vineyards and cellars, a discussion on the different wine styles as well as our main grape varieties (cultivars) and the wines made from them. Finally, it covers a history of the wine industry in South Africa.
There are several factors that influence the success of a vineyard and dictate whether a particular area will be suited for this activity. The climate and soil will have to work together with the life cycle of the vine to enable it to grow and bear fruit to the standards required. These factors also influence the type and quality of the wines produced.
The climate refers to hours of sunshine, availability of water (rain or irrigation), humidity, wind, hail and frost. A typical Mediterranean climate has been found to be ideal for the planting of vines, but two other moderate climatic strips, between 30 and 50 degrees latitude (north and south) are also ideally suited for planting vineyards. South Africa is one of the countries that falls within this strip. Our long sun-drenched summers give the grapes time to produce enough sugar. The rainy Western Cape winters with their cool sea breezes have ideal temperatures, ranging from 0 to 10 degrees Celsius.
The vine is a relatively hardy plant and its roots are able to draw all its nourishment from nearly any type of soil. In rich soil, the vine's roots will grow close to the surface, but in rocky soil, the roots will grow down several metres to find what they need to survive. The ideal soil for growing vines has been found to be gravel and small pebbles. The bottom layer has to drain well, but large rocks are not suitable because they obstruct the path of the roots. As the province where by far the greatest quantity of wine is produced, let us take a look at the most important Western Cape soil types:
• The granite soils found against the mountain slopes retain water well.
• Malmesbury Shale is crumbly and also retains water well.
• Table Mountain Sandstone soil is sandy and retains just enough water.
• The Bokkeveld Shale in the warm river valleys is a fertile, alluvial soil.
As a rule, the soils in South Africa differ greatly, and not only between different regions and provinces, but sometimes even within the same vineyard, often because of the diverse landscape.
Because South African soil is infected with Filloxera, all vines are grafted before they are planted.
Vines are dependent on some ideal climate and soil conditions during each stage of their life cycle to allow them develop as they should. Vines only start bearing fruit at about three to four years of age and are commercially valuable for about another 25 or 30 years.
Spring (September to November): This is the time for active new growth. By the end of October pollination takes place. The vines need good weather conditions with plenty of water, interspersed with dry periods. Frost should not occur too often and winds should preferably not reach storm strength. This is the time to plough and fertilise the soil.
Summer (December to February): This is the time for growth and ripening. The vines need relatively dry weather and long, warm to very warm days. The growth of the grapes is controlled and when they are ripe, the grapes are harvested and pressed. Autumn (March to May): To prepare for winter, the vines build up reserves and the wood grows hard. The roots develop during this season and need regular rain or irrigation. The leaves colour and fall off and, as soon as the vines are bare, all the shoots, except the bearers are pruned. Fertilisation and irrigation (where needed) are used.
Winter (June to August): Winter is the vines' rest period, when the vines are pruned. The plants need low temperatures and enough rain. After the rains, the vines are pruned and the soil fertilised.
A winter-rainfall region, such as the Western Cape, is therefore ideally suited for wine production. However, in several other regions in the country irrigation is used to simulate these ideal conditions.
It is not only the finished product that holds such a strong attraction for domestic and international visitors. The vineyards and estates where the grapes are grown and worked on to produce the various types of wines are popular tourist attractions. The estates represent centuries of history and tradition and their elegant buildings take us back to earlier times of carriages and ostentatious winter balls. Often, the descendants of the early wine farmers still live on their ancestral estates. Many of the wine estates have excellent restaurants offering traditional South African dishes, international cuisine as well as packed picnic lunches. Some wine estates also have live entertainment and host regular shows at their open-air theatres.
The Western Cape is traditionally seen as the wine province and this is indeed where most of the vineyards and cellars are found, but wine is also produced in the Northern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga.
Diamond and Wine Route
This route follows in the footsteps of the diamond prospectors of yesteryear and boasts a man-made hole (diamond mine) at Jagersfontein. The wine cellars of Landzicht and Wilreza in the semi-desert Jacobsdal area are also on this route. Jacobsdal boasts two private wine cellars, the Wilreza Private Wine Cellar and Restaurant and the Landzicht Wine Cellar that offers wine tours that will allow you to taste and buy. Wilreza sells white wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grand Cru and Late Harvest and red wines such as Pinotage and Wilrouge, as well as sweet wines and grape juice.
Loopspruit is situated some 32 km north of Bronkhorstspruit, on Road R568 towards Ekandustria/KwaMhlanga. The Loopspruit vineyard and cellars produce lovely wines as well as the potent but traditionally South African "witblits" (raw spirit/moonshine) and "mampoer" (home-made brandy). The Loopspruit Wine Estate is the most northerly wine estate in South Africa and is located on the banks of the Loopspruit River. Daily tours and wine tasting are offered. Taste and buy to your heart's content.
Orange River Valley
Irrigation is the name of the game in the Orange River Valley and the considered and careful redistribution of water sustains an area that yields agricultural products of world standard. The "fruit of the vine" ends up at the Orange River Wine Cellars Cooperative as excellent wines.
Wine tasting and tours of the facility on the lower slopes of the Tierberg are also offered. Towns that are important for those who are interested in wine tours and who wish to buy wines are Groblershoop, Kakamas, Keimoes and Upington. However, there are several other areas in the province where grapes are grown and wines are made, such as Hartswater, Modder River and Douglas.
The exceptionally fine wines of the Western Cape are enjoyed by casual drinkers and connoisseurs from all over the world. The tradition of winemaking is intricately interwoven with the history of the Cape and to a large extent has shaped the culture of the region. Today, visits to wine farms are among the most popular tourism activities of the Western Cape. Apart from affording an opportunity to taste and buy fine wines and learn more about winemaking, they are also a novel way of touring the lovely countryside and of viewing historical places, appreciating Cape Dutch architecture and sampling the excellent cuisine. Wine routes have been mapped out to allow visitors access to most of the vineyards in the province. Many of these vineyards have restaurants and also make cheese to complement the taste of their excellent wines.
The valleys and hillsides of the winelands, known locally as the Boland, are awash with vineyards. Some of the best-known wine routes are the Stellenbosch Route (the oldest wine route in the country) and the Constantia, Franschhoek, Wellington, Paarl and Helderberg wineroutes.
Constantia Wine Route: Constantia's status as the birthplace of South African winemaking is undisputed. This route is smaller than the other wine routes, but the natural beauty of the area, its history, architectural elegance and the high quality of its wines make it well worth the trip.
A visit to Constantia brings immediate intuitive understanding of why the Governor of the Cape in 1685, Simon van der Stel, could not resist making this his private property, which he named Groot Constantia (Great Constantia). Constantia wines are sought after worldwide and have won many accolades for their superb quality. The Constantia Wine Route can be reached within twenty minutes from Cape Town's city centre. For more information on the route, visit the website at http://www.constantiawineroute.co.za Durbanville Wine Route: The Durbanville Valley lies just twenty minutes away from Cape Town and is home to some of the most respected and award-winning winemakers in the country. The area is primarily a wine-producing district and there are six active win-making cellars. Durbanville Wine Valley is best known for its Blanc and is especially noted for its Shiraz. Information on Durbanville's Wine Route can be accessed by visiting http://www.winetoday.co.za Franschhoek Wine Route: Franschhoek, which means "French corner", was established over three centuries ago when French Huguenots settled in the area. Their contribution to the country's history and culture is honoured by the Huguenot Memorial and Museum. The Franschhoek area contains some 21 estates and offers wine sales and tasting. Two of the most popular estates on this route are Bellingham and Boschendal.
Helderberg Wine Route: The majestic Helderberg Mountain Range guards this wine route and gave it its name. Only 15 minutes drive east of Cape Town International Airport, the drive takes one into the heart of the Helderberg region. The region lies near Somerset West and other well-known wine-producing districts, namely Paarl and Stellenbosch. The Helderberg Wine Route comprises some 19 farms and also includes the largest, private port producer in the world. For more information about the Helderberg wine route, visit its website at http://www.helderbergwineroute.co.za
Klein Karoo Wine Route: The Klein Karoo Wine Route is situated on the easternmost point of the winelands, some distance from the other, perhaps better-known routes, along Route 62.
The Klein Karoo wine cellars offer wine enthusiasts a range of exquisite world-class ports, dry wines and brandies. For more information on the wine cellars of the Klein Karoo, visit the wine route's website at http://www.kleinkaroowines.co.za
Paarl Wine Route: The main road of the town of Paarl is lined with exquisite Cape Dutch buildings. Taking this route allows visitors to view many historic estates and to savour the wines produced in this lovely region. Paarl, meaning "pearl", is a fifty-six kilometre drive from Cape Town. Among its most popular estates are Nederburg, Backsberg, as well as South Africa's first black-owned winery, Nelson's Creek Estate. For more information, visit the wine route's website at http://www.paarlwine.co.za Stellenbosch Wine Route: Stellenbosch has already celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the wine route, which was established in 1971. Stellenbosch, founded in 1679, is the second oldest town in the Western Cape and its wine route is the oldest in the country. All the estates on this route lie within a twelve kilometre radius of the town. The wine route consists of some 44 cellars and the wines of these cellars are rated among the best in the world. Most of the estates can lay claim to a fascinating and long history and this legacy is also open to scrutiny by interested visitors. Savouring the tastes and experiences offered by the wine route is an experience definitely not to be forgotten! For more information on the individual wine cellars in the Stellenbosch Wine Route visit its website at http://www.stellenbosch.co.za.
Wellington Wine Route: The town of Wellington is situated amongst lush vineyards and olive and fruit orchids at the foot of the Hawekwa Mountains. The route leads to some of Wellington's most prestigious wine cellars where visitors can taste and buy the wines or enjoy leisurely lunches under the trees. Wine enthusiasts and casual visitors alike will gain value from a visit to the Wellington region. For more information, visit its website at http://www.visitwellington.com
If you wish to buy South African wine and want to be sure that it is of a quality and standard acceptable to you, you should also know more about the concept, "Wine of Origin".
The South African wine industry is some 300 years old and in 1972 legislation was tabled to recognise and protect the unique characteristics of wines that are grown in specific area and belong to specific cultivars. Thus, South African "Wines of Origin" came into existence. An exclusive range of these wines are exported to selected international markets, affording the entire industry more exposure and acceptance in the international arena.
Wine of Origin Information
A Wine of Origin can be identified by the following information contained on its label:
Origin: The guarantee that 100 per cent of the wine originated form the area named on the main label. The label will also carry the words, "Wine of Origin" / WO. The identity number is printed vertically on the label.
Estate: The estate name on the label guarantees that the wine is made from grapes grown on the estate, although the wine may have been bottled somewhere else. The main label will carry the name of the estate as well as the term "Estate wine".
Year of harvest: This guarantees that at least 75 per cent of the wine was made from grapes harvested during the year indicated.
Cultivar: A specified minimum percentage of the grapes used for making the wine are from the cultivar indicated on the main label.
Veritas Double Gold and Gold Seals: These are the highest awards earned by the wine at the
National Wine show, Veritas.
Demarcation Areas for Wine of Origin
Estate: An estate may consist of more than one wine farm, as long as all the farms have the same climate and ecology and as long as the estate is managed as one unit and has its own production facilities. The wines may only carry the vineyard's label if they are made from grapes grown in the vineyard.
Ward: A ward is a smaller, homogeneous area and usually lies within the borders of a district.
District: A district is a geographically demarcated area, e.g. Stellenbosch.
Region: A region consists of a number of districts or parts of a district or it may be a separate unit. Regions are demarcated for the following purposes:
• To demarcate a region of origin for a specific type of wine that is produced in an area where the borders of districts overlap;
• To create a framework within which blended wines can be identified.
This section tells us more about the different types or styles of wine and how they are produced. There are two styles of wine. Wines in which alcohol is produced during the fermentation process are called natural wines. If additional alcohol is added to the wine, such wine is called a fortified wine.
Some natural wines are:
White wine (dry / semi-dry): Grand Cru, Blanc de Blanc
Semi-sweet / sweet: Late Harvest, Natural Sweet, Special Late Harvest, Noble Late Harvest
Blanc de Noir
These are described below.
White wine (dry / semi-dry): Grand Cru, Blanc de Blanc: Dry white wines are usually light- to medium-bodied, with a prominent fruity character. These crisp and dry wines are best enjoyed young, as an aperitif or with light dishes. Wood-matured white wines are more full bodied, with the wood imparting spicy or vanilla undertones. One to three years of bottlematuration will enhance these wines, which make good partners for seafood or white meat dishes.
Off-dy and Semi-sweet white wines are typically unwooded, light to medium-bodied wines with a sweeter taste. Some of these improve after a wait of one to two years, but most should need no bottle-maturation. These may be enjoyed as aperitifs or with anything from fish to desserts.
Late Harvest and Special Late Harvest: These wines are medium- or full-bodied sweeter white wines benefiting from two to three years of bottle maturation. As their name implies, they taste of late-harvested ripe grapes, with those having Botrytis (noble rot) evoking comparisons with honey. The lighter styles make good aperitifs, and the fuller wines are best with desserts or blue cheeses.
Noble Late Harvest: The wine is full-bodied, with Botrytis lending it its sweet flavour. Although drinkable on its release, the wine improves after three to four years in the bottle and is best enjoyed after dinner with desserts and blue cheeses.
Rosé: Rosé wine can be dry, semi-dry or semi-sweet. This wine could be made by mixing red and white grapes, but the most popular method involves using red grapes and leaving the peels lying in the must for 6 – 24 hours during fermentation. The juice is then separated from the peels and the same steps are followed as in white wine production. Rosé wines are usually light and these fruity wines are sweet and are best drunk when young, either as aperitifs or with light meals.
Blanc de Noir (White from black): This wine can be dry, semi-dry or semi-sweet. Winemakers use red grapes to produce Blanc de Noir, but they only leave the peels in the juice for a short time to give the wine its characteristic "blush". Blanc de Noir ranges from being almost colourless to pink. It is usually light and made only from red grapes and is best drunk within a year of its release as an aperitif or with a picnic meal.
Noble Late Harvest: These wines are made from white grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, a fungus. If the weather conditions allow, the juice will evaporate and leave behind high concentrations of sugar, acid and flavourants.
Red wines: Red wines may be light-, medium- or full-bodied. Those made for early drinking will be soft, with a low tannin content and may not be wooded. Where wine has been stored in young oak barrels the wine has a cedary, spicey, vanilla character. The best red wines are released after two to four years of ageing, and may then take six to ten years to reach their full potential. Depending on their variety, their fullness and age, they make good partners to anything from chicken to hearty casseroles and cheeses.
Nouveau: Nouveau (New) wines originated in France and were originally produced from Gamay grapes, but South Africa also produces white and red nouveau wines. These wines are called "new" because they are bottled only a few short weeks after harvesting to capture that young, fresh, fruity taste.
Light wines: Light wines have a low alcohol content and are ideally suited to the more modern, health-conscious market. These wines can be either red or white.
Flavoured wines: Flavoured wines are semi-sweet and can be red or white. Only natural flavourants are allowed to be added to these wines and their alcohol content is not less than four per cent.
Sparkling wines: Many people mistakenly refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne. The term Champagne may actually only be used to indicate wines produced by using the bottle fermentation method in the Champagne region in France. Sparkling wines may be light to medium-bodied, off-dry or sweet, white or pink. Several methods are used to produce the bubbles that characterise sparkling wines. Carbon dioxide may be pumped into the wine under pressure or produced by a further process of fermentation in the tank or in the bottle itself. The latter are best enjoyed after one to three years of bottle-maturation.
Sparkling wines are classified according to their sugar content: Brut: extra dry; Sec: dry; Demi-sec: semi-dry; Doux: sweet.
Since 1992, South Africa has referred to its sparkling wines as wines prepared by the Cap Classique method. Basically this means that the base wine is produced first, using either white or red grapes, with carbon dioxide then being allowed to develop in the wine.
There are four methods that allow carbon dioxide to develop in wine:
Cap Classique method: The second fermentation process takes place in the bottle through the interaction between added yeast and sugar.
Transferral method: The second fermentation process takes place in the bottle, the wine is then poured out, filtered and pumped under pressure into clean bottles.
Charmat method: The second fermentation process takes place in a sealed tank (cuvee close). This method is considered to be cheaper and requires less manpower.
Carbonisation: The base wine is allowed to cool off in a sealed tank and is injected with
carbon dioxide. The wine is then bottled under pressure.
This term is used to describe wines whose alcohol content has been increased by the addition of brandy or wine spirits. South African legislation lays down that the alcohol content of fortified wines should be between 16,5 and 22 per cent. Fortified wines can be made from red or white grapes and can be dry, semi-sweet or sweet.
The following wines are included in this style:
Muscadel and Hanepoot
Sherry: This fortified wine takes its name from the town Jerez in Spain. The most popular grape used for making sherry in South Africa is a non-Muscat white grape, Chenin Blanc. The styles of sherry are pale dry, medium-dry, full cream and Old Brown.
Muscadel / Hanepoot: This Muscat-type dessert wine is made from red or white Muscat grapes. The full sweet version is called Jerepigo.
Port: The name originally referred to fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley in Portugal.
Port is a type of dessert wine, in other words, a sweet wine fortified at an early stage to retain residual sugar. Non-Muscat red or white grapes can be used to make port.
Port styles include:
Ruby: fruity, matured for approximately five years
Tawny: more complex, matured in vats for seven to ten years
Harvest year: this port only uses grapes of a specific year, matured for two years in oak vats, further matured in bottles.
White: white grapes are used and matured for a minimum of six months.
LBV: Late Bottled Vintage
Have you ever wondered why winemakers still use wooden vats when there are so many new materials available today?
The main reasons for maturing wine in wooden vats are:
• They lend complexity to the wine;
• The tannin in the wood softens the wine and gives it a rounder taste; and
• Tartrate stabilisation takes place in red wine when it is stored in wood.
The wood most commonly used for making the vats is oak from France, America and Yugoslavia. As South African oak trees grow too fast, the wood is too porous for making vats.
Small vats have a volume of 225 to 300 litres. Large vats can hold 3 600 to 4 000 litres. Because of the high cost of vats, wood-matured wines are more expensive than other wines.
There are some 90 different grape varieties in South Africa that are used for the purposes of wine production. We have selected a few of the more popular varieties to discuss with you.
About 49 per cent of the vineyards in South Africa use only three cultivars: Chenin Blanc, Colombar and Sultana. Chenin Blanc is the most popular South African white grape.
Cabernet Sauvignon is South Africa's most popular red grape. Pinotage is unique to South Africa and was bred locally by Prof. Abraham Perold in 1925. It is a cross between the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut cultivars.
Cabernet Franc: This grape is related to Cabernet Sauvignon, but is softer, with a lower sugar content. This grape is most often used in classic blends. Cabernet Sauvignon: This grape produces top-class wines that develop well with age into spicy, full, complex wines that remind one of blackberries and cedar. The grapes are red small and tough. The wine is often blended with Merlot or Cabernet Franc.
Cinsaut: This grape was previously known as Hermitage. The vine is a strong bearer and the grape is very versatile. The wine can be blended with Cabernets to produce popular drinking wines, for brandy-distilling or port and jerepigo wines. It is mostly blended with stronger wines. Some call it the parent of Pinotage.
Merlot: This grape ripens early as small black/blue berries that form small clusters. The wine has less tannin than most other red wines and is most often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. More and more of these vines are being planted, especially in the Paarl and Stellenbosch areas.
Pinoit Noir: Originally from the Burgundy Region, these are sensitive to local conditions, thus finding it difficult to settle in other areas. The grapes, often used in red wines, produce excellent wines in the cooler regions of South Africa. The wine is normally lighter in colour and has a strong vegetal flavour and aroma. It is often used in Cap Classique sparkling wines.
Pinotage: The pride of South Africa is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut cultivars. Wines from this grape mature into complex and fruity wines, but can also be drunk when young.
Shiraz (also known as Shyra): This noble grape originated in France. The largest vineyards are found in Australia, but numbers are increasing in South Africa. Its wines are deep purple, spicy and smoky and mature into complex wines.
Cape Riesling: For many years misidentified as Rhine Riesling, but later identified as Crouchen Blanc of France, this grape can produce wines with a delicate, fruity bouquet and sharp grassy aroma under ideal conditions.
Chardonnay: This yellow to golden grape originated in the Burgundy Region, but is very popular here. Experiments with oak-ageing and barrel-fermentation have led to production of some wonderful wines that have a fruity taste. This fresh, fruity grape is often used as the base wine for Cap Classique sparkling wines. The grape is easy to grow, buds early and ripens easily.
Chenin Blanc (Steen): Called Steen in South Africa, this is the most widely planted white grape variety in the Western Cape. The grape, with its green berries, is versatile and has a strong fruity taste. The grape can produce a natural wine ranging from sweet to dry, sherry and sparkling wines and can also be used to cut brandy and spirits. The wines can age for ten years or more.
Colombar(d): This grape is planted mainly in the Breede River region (Western Cape). The grape has a good acid content that ensures a fresh taste with tropical fruit overtones. The wines go well with fish. In South Africa it is often used to produce brandy.
Gewürztraminer: The name of this grape means "spice" in German. The grape has a prominent spicy flavour reminding of pepper, flowers and nuts. It produces a light, off-dry wine that goes well with spicy food.
Muscat d' Alexandrie (Hanepoot): This grape is extremely versatile and very widely planted. It is most often used for dessert wines, but also for natural wines and for raisin production. The wine has a strong flowery bouquet.
Sauvignon Blanc: The wine from this grape is often combined with Sémillon and Muscadel to produce distinctly peppery, grassy wines. These wines are often aged in wood.
Sémillon (Green Grape): The wine from this grape is full, yet subtle, with little acid and is often used in blends.
Weisser (Rhine) Riesling: This cultivar has adapted well to the South African soil and climate.
The wines are full and honey, spicy flavoured and their fruit acids develop well with bottleageing.
SOME TIPS ON WINE-TASTING ETIQUETTE
Are you looking forward to your first wine-tasting expedition on one of South Africa's famous vineyards, but you are not exactly an expert on wine-tasting etiquette? Do not despair – with these few practical tips, you will not feel too much out of place.
No smoking: Smoking spoils the experience for the smoker and for everyone else. Rather savour the bouquet of the wonderful wines.
Temperature of wines: The ideal temperature for drinking white and rosé wines is cool, not too cold. Red wines should ideally be drunk at 18 degrees Celsius (room temperature).
Sequence of tasting: If you are in an adventurous mood and want to taste all the wines the cellar has to offer, keep the ideal sequence in mind. It will make your tasting experience more enjoyable. Dry before sweet, young before old, normal before choice, dry, semi-dry and semisweet before red, red before sweet.
No other aromas and smells: Try not to apply perfume or aftershave before you arrive. These aromas influence the aroma of the wine.
Impediments: You will not be able to fully appreciate the wine-tasting experience if you have a nasty cold, have brushed your teeth immediately beforehand or have recently eaten a heavily flavoured meal.
Clarity: Wine needs to be clear, not turbid or cloud.
Colour: The colour of the wine tells you much about the age and quality of the wine.
Purple: very young, not fully developed.
Ruby: in passage from young to mature.
Garnet / brick: mature.
Brown / amber: very mature, indicates oxidation.
Green tint with straw / citron: very young.
Straw (with green tint): normal colour of dry, semi-dry and semi-sweet.
Yellow gold: normal for dry, sweet or matured wines.
Yellowish brown (old gold): very old or indicates oxidation.
To truly appreciate the aroma of the wine, turn the glass, let the wine rotate in the bottom of the glass, smell, rotate the wine again and smell again.
Try to discern whether you smell the following:
Clean and hygienic: Wine should smell like wine, not like anything else.
Characteristic grape flavour: Some types of grapes have a very distinct flavour and experts should be able to discern between them.
Added flavour: It is not only experts who are able to distinguish a unique flavour. For example, some wines have a very definite berry flavour.
Taste / Flavour
Acidity: Acidity is what makes a wine come to life. Without it, the wine has no zest. If it is too acidic, the wine will taste acrid.
Body: A good wine should have substance, best described as the ability to "fill the mouth".
Tannin: All young red wines need tannin in order to have a longer, more active life. Normally white wines do not have it. Tannin is extracted from the kernels, peels, stalks and the wood in which the wine is matured.
Balance: All the components of the wine need to form a harmonious unit.
Aftertaste: Ideally, the aftertaste should be young and fresh and the longer it lingers, the better the wine.
When Jan van Riebeeck first set foot on African soil in 1652, his imaginative mind was already carrying the germ of an idea that would eventually result in a very successful wine industry.
His assigned task was to establish a halfway station at the southern tip of Africa. Fresh fruit and vegetables had to be grown to supply ships on the route between Europe and the Orient to save the sailors from scurvy. Scurvy occurred when crews and passengers on the ships did not eat enough fresh food containing the necessary vitamins.
Soon, the ambitious Van Riebeeck began experimenting with vines and wrote away to his masters in the Dutch East India Company for permission to plant vines and make wine. His motivation was well-founded. Wine had already been found to combat the onset of scurvy.
Wine had also been found to last longer in the wooden barrels than water. The first batch of vine cuttings he received was ruined, but the second batch, believed to have been taken from vineyards in France, arrived in good condition. The warm summer sun and the winter rains proved to be the right combination and the cuttings soon grew into a modest vineyard in the Company Garden.
The next important phase occurred in early 1657 when some of the Company's servants were released from service and contracted to farm independently to supply passing ships. These "Free Burghers" were given tracts of land, tools and planting materials (including vines) to start off with.
Thus, the Cape Colony expanded and crops were planted deeper inland. The Free Burghers were simple people, trying to establish a new future in a new country and, for those who persisted, their efforts were gradually awarded. They knew nothing about cultivating vineyards and making wine, but they toiled the earth and learnt from each other. As the Free Burgher society grew, crops and vines were grown ever deeper inland. The early vineyards were simply structured, the vines tied to stakes thrust into the ground, a method probably learnt from German mercenaries who worked with the Dutch East India Company. The vines were generally more hardy than some of the other crops and their survival rate encouraged farmers to plant more.
Within seven years, by 1659, Van Riebeeck triumphantly recorded in his diary the production of the first batch of wine. No mention was made of the quality of the wine, although it is safe to assume that it did not taste very good.
Enthused by his success, Van Riebeeck soon sought out a larger area, where he established a proper vineyard, planted with cuttings taken from the Company Garden.
More and more Free Burghers explored deeper inland, finding favourable conditions. The word spread and more people arrived at the Cape, geared to make this new land their home.
In order to survive and thrive, the farmers learnt from their mistakes, they learnt to read the weather conditions and their crops and they learnt to take advice from those who knew better and to apply it.
Most of the grapes produced were used for eating, but gradually more of the farmers tried their hand at winemaking. Their methods were primitive and definitely not very hygienic and the quality of the wine was poor. The wine contained many impurities and was stored in containers that had already been used for other liquids.
The reaction to the first exports from the Cape was very critical. The wine did not travel well and its chemical structure and balance was affected by the vibration of the ships, changes in weather conditions and micro-organisms.
The First Improvements
In 1679 Simon van der Stel arrived on the Cape scene. He was to greatly influence the quality of the winemaking process. He was a cultured, well-travelled gentleman, a man who knew about wine and its production. Van der Stel quickly turned his hand to reorganising the way things were done in the Capr Colony. Within a few weeks he had made a tour of the Cape and marked out a fertile valley for new development. The town would later be named after him and it is still the best known wine region in South Africa, namely Stellenbosch.
He quietly overcame the stubborn contention by the Free Burghers that their wines could not be improved and he produced a quality of wine that was positively received in Holland.
Van der Stel also introduced some administrative measures to improve the state of the farming industry. For every "morgen" (an old Cape land measurement approximately equal to 0.8 ha) planted with vines, six morgen had to be planted with other crops. He introduced new cultivars for the region and also instituted measures to encourage farmers to improve the quality of their wines. A committee was appointed to visit farms and to fine farmers if they did not keep to the rules.
In addition to the town bearing his name, Stellenbosch, Van der Stel also bequeathed to future generations the grandeur and winemaking tradition of Constantia, his estate in the fertile valley beneath Constantia Mountain. Constantia was a model vineyard where Van der Stel perfected the method of winemaking. His legacy is still carried on on the estate and Constantia has been firmly established in the annals of South African history as a home of fine South African wines.
Arrival of the French Huguenots
While physically far removed, events in Europe still had an important impact on the Cape. In France, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which guaranteed religious freedom to all, forcing Protestants to flee their country. Between 1688 and 1690, the Dutch East India Company helped some 200 Huguenots to settle in the Cape Colony. The Huguenots were skilled in many trades and since France already had a long history of quality winemaking, their arrival introduced a new era in the winemaking traditions of the Cape.
Most of the French Huguenots settled in one valley, today known as Franschhoek ("French Corner"), another icon of the South African wine industry. Many of the French names these Huguenots gave their farms can still be seen on wine bottles today.
Although the new settlers initially experienced some resentment from long-time inhabitants, all the colonists soon became united in their hatred of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, the son of Simon and his dictatorial successor. After some of the Free Burghers showed their displeasure through open rebellion, Willem van der Stel had them arrested and shipped to Amsterdam for trial. However, his sins caught up with him and he was sent into exile in April 1708.
The eighteenth century saw the slow disintegration of the power and organisation of the Dutch East India Company. European countries such as France, Holland and Britain became involved in a series of wars which weakened the Dutch hold on its colonies. The Cape wine farmers reaped the benefits of the isolation of the French vineyards when Britain started importing Cape wines at an accelerating rate.
The long sea journey did not improve the taste of the already poor quality Cape wines, but fortunately for the Cape farmers, the British knew little about wine and were relatively satisfied. For some 50 years, British pounds came flooding into the pockets of the wine farmers. The evidence of the affluence can still be seen in the magnificent Cape Dutch homes which they built. A journey through South Africa's winelands is indeed a journey through time.
British Occupation of the Cape
When Britain first occupied the Cape from 1795 to 1802, they made few changes to the government of the Colony and the wine farmers experienced little change in their good fortune. But life for the colonists could not remain the same for long. The end of the European wars saw a shift in the balance of power in Europe and in 1806 the British were back at the Cape. This time they would stay for more than a century.
The British took their responsibilities as custodians very seriously. Relations between France and England gradually became more cordial and the British could once again enjoy the taste of good French wines. The British government tried to protect the Cape wine farmers and imposed heavy tariffs on French wines to keep the Cape's wine industry going. However, these measures could not protect the Cape wine farmers against their superior competition for long.
Until 1834, when the British government abolished slavery, most of the work in the vineyards had been done by slaves. The Cape society reacted strongly against the abolition of slavery and many left British territory and re-established themselves further inland, out of British reach. This action would be called the "Great Trek" ("The Great Move"), one of the most important events in South African history, and would eventually determine the shape and borders of modern-day South Africa.
Meanwhile, back in the Cape, many of the wine farmers probably wished that they had left as well. Their income kept dropping as the competition from France proved too strong and to top it all, they also inherited France's problems. In 1854, the vine disease known as powdery mildew, a type of fungus, destroyed many of France's vineyards. Fortunately, the Cape farmers were only slightly affected by this, as the cure of flowers of sulphur had already been discovered by the time the disease was first noticed in the Cape. In 1861, the British abolished the tariffs that had favoured Cape wines above French and many of the wine farmers were driven into bankruptcy.
One of the worst disasters known to the international wine industry struck during the 1860s, following European experimentation with North American vines. The farmers unknowingly infected their own vineyards with the dreaded Phylloxera vastratix epidemic. Although allowed a short respite, the Cape vineyards were not spared. After some three quarters of the vineyards in France had been destroyed, the destructive epidemic found its way to the Cape and in 1885, the first signs of the disease in the Cape were found. Within a few years the Cape wine industry had almost ceased to exist. Scientists then found that the only way to combat the disease was to graft the vines onto the North American rootstock that was resistant to Phylloxera.
Cape farmers started the long and heartbreaking process of rebuilding their vineyards from scratch. When the Government became involved, they instituted strict measures such as restricting the importation of foreign rootstock and enforcing the grafting of rootstocks. They also compensated farmers for their Phylloxera losses and gradually the wine industry recovered.
In 1899, the Anglo-Boer War between the British and the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State swept the country and, when it ended in 1902, the wine industry had to contend with an uncertain economy and for the first time ever, the fact that grape farmers were over-producing. Wine prices dropped and the industry was in trouble again.
The Birth of the Cooperative Concept
The silver lining to this dark cloud was the birth of the concept of the Cooperative, still a feature of the South African wine industry. The South African government instituted a commission to examine conditions in the wine industry and this commission eventually recommended that South African wine farmers start to cooperate. Cooperation would have the benefit of collective bargaining and marketing and shared production costs. Each vineyard would no longer have to produce its own wine but could share facilities, expertise and costs.
The first few years along the cooperative road were bumpy - farmers were unused to working together or to competing against international rivals and they were still overproducing.
The Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging ("Co-operative Wine Growers Association")(KWV) and the present
It was only in 1918 when the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging (KWV) came to life that membership of a cooperative would really start to bear fruit. The KWV, ratified by government, instituted measures such as a quota for grape production, minimum crop prices and shared production facilities. Over the years, the KWV evolved into the powerful organisation it is today, the body that administrates and regulates South African wine and brandy producers.
Since the regulation of the industry started, aspects such as quality, standards and organisation have improved dramatically. It is one of the things that caused South Africa to become a world-renowned wine producer.
Major restructuring took place over the years to ensure that the KWV and the South African wine industry kept up to date with international events and changes. Recent political changes also affected the South African wine industry significantly. These included structural changes, but mainly opened up international markets to South African products. Export deals brokered with European countries benefit the entire country.
Other more recent projects include the KWV Wine of Origin Classic Collection. The project includes alliances with South African cellars and estates with unique soil and climate characteristics.
Other changes in the South African wine industry include alliances and partnerships between international distributors and "independent" cellars and programmes, such as the Wine Industry Trust to redress economic and social imbalances in the wine industry.
Cape Wine Academy. April 2000. Inleidende Wynkursus. (Introductory Wine Course).
Kench, J; Hands, P; Hughes, D. 1983. The Complete Book of South African Wine. Cape Town: C. Struik Publishers (Pty) Ltd.