With a long and fascinating history of growing grapes and making juice, over 300 years, why is this region only now getting attention? Just over 10 years ago, you couldn’t even find South African wines on the bottom shelf at the grocery store; Now, you find them at nearly every boutique wine spot. And honestly, many are finding their way to the more mainstream market. Today, let’s explore the rich and complex history of winemaking in South Africa.
South Africa is a relatively large country, roughly 3 times the size of California. However, grape cultivation is really only possible in the south western tip of the country, aptly named the Western Cape. Within the Western Cape, there are many smaller regions with their own smaller districts and wards. For example, Stellenbosch is a district within the Coastal Region, which itself is a sub-region of the Western Cape.
While South Africa, to many, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful wine regions in the world, it is also one of the warmest, if not the warmest. Due to this particular climate, the Western Cape continues to remain the most viable region to grow grapes. When you grow in a hot climate like this you have to take several things into consideration. A major problem with warmer climates is that grapes will ripen too quickly or over-ripen. Typically, with warmer climates, you are going to receive more fruit characteristics, a higher alcohol and a lower acidity. In order to get fruit that will create a balanced wine without intense intervention, grapes in South Africa are, for the most part, grown on the coast. In this coastal environment there is a significant drop in temperature due to the winds coming from the Atlantic as well as the cold currents coming up from the Antarctic.
While it is technically considered a New World wine region, South Africa actually has a much longer relationship with winemaking than Australia or even the United States. During the 1600’s, the Dutch East India Company utilized Cape Town in the Western Cape as a port on the way to India. Settlers in the port town had planted grapes and attempted to make palatable wine, which at first was thought to be a preventative for scurvy. Their attempt was unsuccessful, the wine was absolutely terrible. However, with the arrival of the 2nd Governor of Cape Town came his ambition to make a better, high quality wine. He sought out the best possible land and began to make a dessert wine called Constantia. This worked well as dessert wines were in high demand world-wide well into the 1800’s. At the time, Constantia was just as famous as Royal Tokaji in Hungary or Sauternes in France. Unfortunately, Phylloxera destroyed nearly all the vines in the early 1900’s and dramatically changed the wine landscape in South Africa. Since 1990, less than 30% of grapes grown are used for wine production. When Apartheid ended in 1994, it dramatically changed the landscape of South Africa and many boutique vineyards have found a home in the Western Cape. For the past 10 years or more, South African wines have started finding their place among our favorite wines.
Come join us on Tuesday to learn more about South Africa and it’s incredibly rich and diverse history with winemaking!