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Wines of South Africa

South Africa is a melting pot of cultures. Indigenous inhabitants, settlers, immigrants, slaves and miners – all have played a role in populating this ancient land. Anyone who has visited cannot fail to notice the diversity and vibrancy of the people.

Award-winning wines, a variety of events and festivals, a wide range of activities from hiking to mountain biking and whale watching, world-class accommodation, cutting edge restaurants, designer golf courses and stunning scenery are all part of the enticing mix. Travel to the place of origin to learn more about South African wine, to uncover regional secrets and simply to slow down and enjoy life's special moments.

Respect for our people and the environment

A San word/verb that is associated with good fortune (as in having enough to eat or to gather) is ≠hannuwa, meaning to be ‘comfortable, happy, good, nice or fortunate’ (Bleek 1956). It is a collective word suggesting a life of harmony and plenty; in other words, success in sustaining life. 

Wines of South Africa is using ≠hannuwa to encapsulate the philosophy of the wine industry as embodied in the pledge signed by the producers: to farm sustainably; to be a custodian of the land and preserve it for future generations; to nurture a culture of respect among the people who work on the farms and in the cellars; to promote an environment of dignity, equality and upliftment for all; to protect the unique and valuable biodiversity of our winelands; and to safeguard the rich heritage of South Africa’s winelands.

San Rock Art Bushmanskloof
(Image: Bushmans Kloof)
San rock art.

Our History

Africa is the cradle of mankind. National Geographic's well documented Genographic Study indicates clearly that human migration began in Africa around 60 000 years ago.

Earliest South African peoples were the pastoralists (the Khoi-Khoi) and the hunter-gatherers (the San) who were known collectively as the Khoisan.

Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias is credited with being the first Westerner to make landfall and 'discover' South Africa in May 1488 but there is archaeological evidence that the Phoenicians and even the Chinese had already done so.

The establishment by the Dutch East India Company of a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652 had one single aim: to provide fresh food to the company's merchant fleet on their voyages to India and surrounding areas. 

Khoi San Sa National Library
(Image: South African National Library)
An illustration from Bogaarts's Historische Reizen (1711) depicts the Khoikhoi way of life with the Dutch settlement in the background.

Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, planted a vineyard in 1655, and on 2 February 1659, the first wine was made from Cape grapes.

There were many setbacks in the beginning, chiefly because of the farmers' ignorance of viticulture. Things improved when Van Riebeeck was succeeded in 1679 by Simon van der Stel, who was not only enthusiastic but very knowledgeable about viticulture and winemaking. He planted a vineyard on his farm Constantia and made good wine from the outset. Later, Constantia was acquired by the Cloete family and their wines became world-famous. To this day, Constantia wine is mentioned when the world's finest examples are discussed.

The Dutch had almost no wine tradition and it was only after the French Huguenots settled at the Cape between 1680 and 1690 that the wine industry began to flourish. As religious refugees, the Huguenots had very little money and had to make do with the bare essentials. They also had to adapt their established winemaking techniques to new conditions. But with time their culture and skills left a permanent impression on our wine industry, and on life at the Cape.

The first half of the 19th century brought prosperity to the industry. The British occupation of the Cape, in addition to Britain's war with France, created a large new market for Cape wines. The vines at the Cape increased within 45 years from 13 to 55 million and wine production from 0,5 million to 4,5 million litres.

Franschhoek Huguenot Monument
(Image: Artist Studio)
Franschhoek Huguenot Monument.

However, 1861 brought disaster. Britain finally resolved her differences with France, and South Africa's wine exports collapsed. In 1886, the disease phylloxera was discovered at the Cape and decimation of the vineyards followed.

The year 1899 saw the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War. The wine industry was in chaos. A proliferation of new plantings caused overproduction and 25 years of hardship followed.

It was Charles Kohler who set out to alleviate the situation. His efforts led to the creation in 1918 of the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV). An umbrella for its farmer members, the KWV brought stability to the industry, placing it on the road to growth and prosperity. The foundation was laid for today's thriving wine industry.

South Africa is unique in that it can pinpoint precisely when its wine industry began: 02 February 1659. The first Governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, wrote in his diary: "Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes..."

Read more on the Wines of South Africa web-site about three centuries of Cape wine

Liberated by the advent of democracy in 1994, the South African wine industry has gone from strength to strength, with exports reaching 320 million litres in 2019. 

Nelson Mandela
(Image: IOL News)
Former President Nelson Mandela's iconic first speech after his release from prison.

Geography

South Africa boasts some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world, traceable back to the first super continent some 1 000 million years ago. The constant interplay between these ancient soils, soaring mountains, valley slopes and coastal breezes results in a natural environment exceptional in its biodiversity. 

This information is a summary from the Wines of South Africa web-site. For more comprehensive information on terroir, please click here

Table Mountain

Table Mountain is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and also one of the most distinctive symbols of South Africa. This flat-topped mountain is one of the oldest on earth – millions of years old, it is six times older than the Himalayas, for example, and five times older than the Rockies.

Sandstone began forming underwater 800 million years ago and although a relatively soft rock, it was strengthened by magma bubbling up from the earth's core. This cooled underground and formed granite – the rock which is obvious throughout the Cape nowadays, most noticeably in a pluton outside Paarl.

Around 300 million years ago, the mountain was at sea level during an ice age. Ice sheets flattened the layers of sandstone, leading to the distinctive flat table top. Through the movement of the various continental plates, stresses of abduction and adduction led to the lifting and subsidence of parts of the earth's crust. Table Mountain's granite component meant it was able to withstand the pressures but it rose upwards, instead of folding as other sandstone areas in the Cape did. That's why the mountains are called the Cape Fold Mountains, and that bending of the rock is visible in the striations and structure, particularly near Worcester.

Weathering by means of wind, ice, fire and water has shaped this distinctive geographical feature. The flat face of the mountain is the result of wave action when the sea once crashed into it. It stands on a peninsula connected to the southern tip of Africa by means of the Cape flats, a sandy expanse which was once part of the seabed. The Cape has been considered geologically stable for the past 65 million years.

De Grendel 6
(Image: De Grendel)
Table Mountain views from De Grendel.

Soils

Variations in weather patterns over the years along with various inundations by the sea gave rise to great soil diversity over short distances. Soil provides the major influence on the vine's growth, since it is both the anchor for the vine, and provides moisture and nutrition. But the bedrock plays a role too – since granitic bedrock forms acidic soils which can restrict root growth. The soil's structure and texture are also important – permeability and water retention in clay soil is different to that of other soils.

In the coastal zone, the general pattern is sandstone mountains, often situated on granite intrusions, surrounded by shale at lower altitudes. Inland, shale parent material and river deposits usually predominate.

Reddish and yellowish-brown soils are usually associated with granitic hills – such as those in Bottelary, Malmesbury and Darling – and the granitic foot slopes of sandstone mountains like those of Table Mountain, Stellenbosch, Helderberg, Simonsberg and the Hottentots Holland mountains. These soils, often on steep slopes and at altitudes of 150–400m, are relics of past, high rainfall tropical era, are highly weathered and acid, very stable and well drained with good water-retention capacity.

Other granite-derived soils occur on gently undulating hills between the mountains and seas, around 20–150m altitude in a zone frequently inundated by the sea because of land uplifting and recession. Soils consist of coarse sand, often with yellow-brown gravel on wet clay. Extremes in wetness and drought in these soils curtail vigour – and make these good soils for consistent performance and good quality wine when combined with exposure to cooling sea breezes.

Malmesbury shale landscapes usually surround granite domes or plutons, and are adjacent to the sandstone on granite mountain ranges. Soil types vary here from stony, weathered rock residual soils on hill crests, to strongly structured soils on mid and food slopes, but with the weathered shale substrata usually within reach of vine roots.

Southernmost tip of Africa

Popular belief has it that it is at the southern end of this peninsula that the two oceans – the warm Indian Ocean and the cold Atlantic Ocean – meet. Oceanographers have been able to prove that the cold waters of the north-flowing Benguela Current from the Antarctic mix with those of the warm Agulhas (or Mozambique) Current flowing southwards down the east coast in the region of Cape Agulhas, the real southernmost point of the African continent.

What cannot be disputed is the influence of these maritime wind movements on the Cape winelands, providing moist fogs and cooling breezes at crucial times.

Agulhas Wine Route
(Image: Wesgro)
Cape Agulhas, where two oceans meet.

Cape Floral Kingdom

The Cape winelands are located in the Cape Floral Kingdom – one of six such plant kingdoms in the world. It is the smallest, yet richest, and is home to over 9 500 plant species. Table Mountain alone has more floral species than the entire United Kingdom. One of the 36 most recognised biodiversity hot spots – 70% of the plants found here are found nowhere else on earth – the Cape Floral Kingdome is a world heritage site.

There are places where more than 25 000 plants have been found in one sod of soil a metre square (10.75 square feet) and 10 centimetres (4 inches) deep. Many species are found in very site-specific areas, sometimes occurring only in a single square kilometre (0.40 square mile). This huge variety of species has evolved over time by adapting to nutrient-poor soils and specific microclimates.

Diversity of soils is matched by diversity of climate and geography, creating a treasure trove of winemaking possibilities. The options really are endless. This is already demonstrated in the flavour profiles which make a Sauvignon Blanc from Elim so different to one from Elgin – or a Shiraz from Paarl so different to one from Stellenbosch.

Preserving this unique natural heritage is also in the nature of the South African wine producers, many of whom have farmed their land for generations. They are keen to identify what is unique, rare and special on their farms, find ways to preserve the fynbos and renosterveld (indigenous vegetation) of the Cape Floral Kingdom, and minimise the further loss of our threatened natural habitat.

Breedekloof 01891 Bo
(Image: Breedekloof Wine Valley)
South Africa's national flower, the protea.

Winds

Slope orientation and topography play a major role in terroir – and South Africa has a dramatically varied topography. Individual wine farms often have a variety of slopes and soil types as a result of the underlying geology. One farm in Stellenbosch boasts north-, south-, east- and west-facing vineyards on its 105 hectares! Obviously the topography affects wind, which has a role to play in viticulture.

Any viticulturist will tell you how important row direction is when planning new plantings. This is done for a number of reasons – sun exposure and prevailing wind direction, either for cooling or drying.

The country's first commercial wind farm is located on the West Coast, in the hills around Darling – coincidentally, it's also one of the prime areas for cool climate Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa. The pilot wind project was located at Klipheuwel, at the centre of a triangle formed by Paarl, Stellenbosch and Philadelphia. What makes the Western Cape ideal for this form of green power generation are the two prevailing winds – the southerlies and the northerlies.

The effect of these winds can be felt in virtually every vine growing region. The west coast is known for its rolling mists and fog banks, the result of the winds passing over the cool Benguela current from the Antarctic and encountering the warm landmass. Darling, for example, experiences strong, cool winds on a daily basis while Elim has gale-force or storm-strength southeasters in summer. Areas such as Constantia and parts of Stellenbosch are in view of the sea, so the maritime influence is marked. Further inland, the cooling influence of the sea breezes can be felt as far as Robertson.

Viticulture & Wine Growing Areas

The wine industry in South Africa is undergoing an exciting period of change, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Winemakers are experimenting with new varieties of vine, as well as new clones of existing varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Large-scale experimentation with rootstocks is taking place to establish which planting material is particularly suited to conditions at the Cape, co-ordinated by the Vine Improvement Board.

As in other New World countries, viticulturists are hard at work matching vine varieties to soils and meso-climates in order to achieve the best results. Vineyard life in South Africa is similar to Europe's although South Africa's viticultural year begins in September. While preparations for the vintage are being made in Europe, the vines in South Africa are just beginning to bud.

Once buds have formed, the vines must be kept free from pest, disease and weed, and are often pruned if growth becomes too vigorous. Flowering normally takes place in November and in December the young grapes begin to swell and grow. At this stage the vines are often 'topped' to improve air circulation around the grapes and thus minimise the risk of fungus or rot.

January in the Cape heralds the beginning of summer and, as the temperatures increase, early grape varieties begin to ripen. The bulk of the harvest takes place in February and the sugar/acid ratio of the grapes is checked daily so that each variety is harvested at optimum ripeness.

In most South African vineyards harvesting is carried out by hand, although machines are used on some farms. The grapes are picked into baskets and transported in bins to the winery where vinification begins.

Boplaas Harvest
(Image: Boplaas Family Wines)
Harvest underway at Boplaas Family Wines.

South Africa has 93 021 hectares (2018) under vines and the winelands encompass five officially demarcated regions, 28 districts and 87 smaller wards.

The five main regions are the Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo and Olifants River. 

Download the South African Wine Routes Map

Varieties

In keeping with the spirit of renewal in the South African wine industry, in recent years over 40% of the vineyards were replanted as the industry has realigned its product to compete globally, moving from volume production to noble cultivars and quality wines. South African vineyards were once dominated by white grape varieties but the predominantly red new plantings shifted that. In the last four years, winegrowers have started planting more whites than reds, a reversal of the 10-year trend to planting more reds.

Noble varieties which have been cultivated increasingly in the past few years include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which produce top-class white wines, and Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

Although most of the vine varieties cultivated here today were originally imported, up to now six local crossings have been released. The best known of these is a red variety, Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut), which more recently is being cultivated locally on a fairly large scale.

The Stellenbosch region has the most vineyard plantings with 16.2%, followed by Paarl (15.9%), Robertson (13.8%), Swartland (13.8%), Breedekloof (13.6%), Olifants River (10.4%), Worcester (7.0%), Cape South Coast (2.8%), Northern Cape (4.0%) and Klein Karoo (2.4%).

The Breedekloof region currently produces the most wine (21.8%), followed by Robertson (18.4%), Olifants River (11.7%), Worcester (11.5%), Paarl (8.9%), Stellenbosch (8.8%), Northern Cape (7.9%), Swartland (6.9%), Klein Karoo (2.7 %) and Cape South Coast (1.4%).

Sustainable Wine South Africa

Traceability

South Africa leads the world in environmental sustainability and regulated production integrity. From the 2010 vintage, a new Sustainability Seal for South African wines was introduced, which traces the wine from vine to bottle. The seal is a world first, and certifies a wine’s integrity as well as sustainability.

South Africa has some of the most progressive wine legislation in the world. When it comes to production, winemakers promise that wines will not contain substances they should not – and commit to adherence to the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) guidelines in order to protect the environment. This is incredibly detailed, and governs all aspects of growing and making wine. It covers carbon emissions, light and noise pollutions, acceptable chemicals and all aspects pertaining to their use and storage, waste water treatment, transportation of grapes, staff training and conservation of soil, rivers and wetlands.

The IPW system was introduced in 1998 and in 2018, 93.1% of all wine certified adhered to the system, while representing 95.3% of all grapes harvested. 

Swsa Sustainability Seal
(Image: Wine & Spirits Board)
Look out for this SWSA Integrity and Sustainability Certified seal.

Ethical Trade

South Africa is unique in that our wine industry has established the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Initiative (WIETA), an independent, not-for-profit, multi-shareholder organisation established in 2002 and committed to ethical trading, and improving and safeguarding the working conditions of employees in agriculture. In 2012, WIETA introduced a new ethical seal that testifies to reasonable working conditions, based on rigorous and closely monitored qualification criteria. This is believed to be a world first among wine-producing countries.

South Africa has more Fairtrade wines than any other country. In 2018, three quarters of all Fairtrade wines sold in the world originated in South Africa.

WWF-SA Conservation Champions

WWF-SA provides advisory support to eligible and committed wine farms as part of a land and water stewardship programme. Through a voluntary membership model, the organisation works with the environmental leaders in South Africa’s wine industry, known as the Conservation Champions. These landowners commit to biodiversity-friendly farming practices, conserve their natural areas and continually improve their water and energy efficiencies.

Learn more about the terminology of sustainable wine and discover great eco experiences on our blog

Blog Pic Leopard
(Image: Cape Leopard Trust)
A threatened Cape mountain leopard sighted on a wine farm by conservation camera.