Cape Winelands

History of the South African Wine Industry

When fine wine is mentioned the countries of France and Italy usually come to mind, but South Africa has a history of winemaking that goes back nearly 4 centuries. South Africa consistently ranks in the top ten wine producing countries and while it may not produce the most wine, South Africa produces some of the finest wines in the world.

Wine in South Africa has a history that dates back to the exploration of the noted Dutch East India Company, who landed in South Africa in 1652. They established a supply depot on the site of modern day Cape Town and a Dutch surgeon named Jan van Riebeeck was placed in charge of the station’s management. Part of his task was to plant vineyards for the production of wine and grapes which were to be used to prevent scurvy among the sailors during their long voyages while traveling the spice route. Seven years later, in 1659, the first grapes were harvested and crushed.

Simon van der Stel, who succeeded Van Riebeeck as the Cape of Good Hope’s governor, purchased a 1,900 acre estate just outside of Cape Town and established the wine estate of Constantia with the goal of improving the viticultural quality of the region. The estate was allowed to fall into disrepair after the death of Van der Stel, however in 1778 Hendrik Cloete purchased the estate and restored it to its former glory.


In the early part of the 19th century many growers abandoned wine making and instead chose to plant orchards or alfalfa (to supply the ostrich feather industry which was growing rapidly). Those growers who chose to continue to replant grape vines began to choose grape varieties like Cinsaut, which had a higher yield. By the early 20th century the number of vines that had been replanted numbered over 80 million, resulting in a wine lake (a glut of surplus wine). In some cases the wine that couldn’t be sold was dumped into the local streams and rivers by producers. This imbalance between the supply and demand depressed the price of wine and prompted the government of South Africa to provide funding in 1918 to form the KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika), which means Co-operative Winemakers’ Society of South Africa. The association began as a co-operative, but soon grew in prominence and power to the point that it set the prices and policies for the entirety of South Africa’s wine industry. In order to deal with the glut of wine, the KWV set minimum prices that encouraged growers to produce fortified wines and brandy, as well as restricting yields.

Until the latter part of the 20th century South African wines received minimal attention from the wine world. The lack of recognition was in part, because of the many boycotts on products of South Africa in protest of the system of Apartheid. In the late 80’s and 90’s, after Apartheid had ended, the world market was opened to them and South African wines experienced a rebirth and began to gain recognition again. In response to this, many of South Africa’s producers quickly adapted and began to utilize new wine making and viticultural technologies. The KWV was reorganized and became a private business that sparked an even greater incentive for improving the quality of the wines. This was due in part to the fact that many wineries and owners who had become accustomed to the price fixing structure purchasing their surplus stock for distillation had to become increasingly competitive by focusing on the creation of quality wines. In 1990 fewer than 30% of the grape harvest was used for producing wine for the consumer market and the other 70% was thrown out, sold as juice or table grapes, or distilled into brandy. The South African wine industry has undergone such a transformation that by the year 2003, those numbers were reversed with an amazing 70% of the harvest producing wine for the consumer market.

South African Climate

Located at the southernmost tip of the continent where the Atlantic and Indian oceans converge, most of South Africa’s wine regions enjoy a Mediterranean climate due to the coastal influences. The winter months tend to be cool and wet with springtime frosts being a rare occurrence. The growing season, which lasts from November through April, is generally warm and dry. Annual precipitation, which occurs mainly during the winter months, can range from 9.84 in. in regions such as Klein Karoo, to almost 60 inches in areas near the Worcester Mountains. The coastal regions that lie in the “rain shadow” of the inland mountains receive more rain than those which are further inland making irrigation a necessity in some areas.

The majority of the wine regions of South Africa would fall under a Region III classification on the Winkler scale, which would make their climate and growing conditions similar to those in areas of the Napa Valley in California. There are also warmer regions, such as Klein Karoo, that would fall into the category of Region IV, which is similar to Tuscany. There are some new plantings in cooler areas such as Walker Bay, which would be somewhat similar to the wine region of Burgundy. With such varied climates within a relatively small region, it is no wonder that South Africa is quickly gaining a name for its various quality wines.

Along with the varied climate, the unique geography also plays a large role in the South African wine industry. The soil among the different wine regions varies as much as the climate does. There is a huge range of soil types among the different (and even within the same) vineyards as well as macroclimates that are influenced by the geography of this vast region. There are over 50 different soil types in the Stellenbosch wine region alone. Each soil type and macroclimate produces a subtly different flavor in the finished product and many wine masters can pinpoint the origin of a particular wine right down to what part of the vineyard the grapes were grown in.

Wine Regions of South Africa

The Wine of Origin, or WO, program dictates how the different wine regions are defined, as well as how they can appear on the wine label. In some ways it is similar to the AOC system of France, but the WO concerns itself with only the labelling without placing regulations on such things as what varieties are permitted, yields, irrigation, or trellising methods. Under the WO, the regions are categorized by Geographical Unit, Region, district, and wards. The geographical location is a very broad definition of area and is usually defined by political boundaries (as are districts and regions), while the ward is the most precise level of origin that can be defined by each wine’s unique terroir.

Constantia is the oldest of South Africa’s wine region and is located to the south of Cape Town on the well-known Cape Peninsula which extends into the Atlantic. Having the ocean on both sides of the region is one of the reasons that this ward creates wines that are so distinctly recognizable. The cooling effect of the ocean allows the grapes to ripen slowly over a comparatively long ripening period. A wide range of grape varieties are grown in the region, but one of the most notable is Sauvignon Blanc. Because of the climate and soil of this region, it is well-known for its fine dessert wines with fruity flavors.

Stellenbosch is second only to Constantia in age and is one of the larger districts. This district produces approximately 14% of South Africa’s wine annually and is about 28 miles to the east of Cape Town. Surrounded by mountains, the climate in Stellenbosch is also influenced somewhat by its proximity to False Bay. Its nearness to the bay serves to keep the temperatures at just around 68 degrees F. during the growing season (slightly warmer than the Bordeaux wine region in France). There are seven separate wards in Stellenbosch and they are particularly well known for producing red wines that demonstrate a high terroir distinction, particularly their Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinotages, and Shiraz. White wine production in this district is largely centered around Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with some Chenin blanc planting being done in the western portions of the district.

Paarl was the center of South Africa’s wine industry for the majority of the 20th century. The KWV made its home there as well as the Nederburg Wine Auction, where the reputation of many estates and vintages was established. Over time however, the wine industry’s focus shifted more towards Stellenbosch as Stellenbosch University took a more prominent role in the industry because of its innovative winemaking and viticulture programs. As the power of the KWV transferred to a private business, the spotlight drifted further away from Paarl. In recent years several wards in Paarl, such as Wellington and the Franschhoek Valley, have produced several highly terroir driven wines that have brought a renewed interest to the area. In particular, the Cape Camonix Pinot Noir from Franschhoek and a Bosman Family Vineyards Pinotage have made names for themselves in recent years.

These are just a few of the many wine regions of South Africa. While these are some of the older, more established areas, new areas are being planted every year. With new technology in viticulture and winemaking areas that were unsuitable for growing grapes may soon be producing new and lively wines for the consumer market. In a country that is renowned for its vast diversity of both flora and fauna, it comes as no surprise that South African wines are rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world market.