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Home | South Africa | South Africa - The Nelson Mandela Le . . .

South Africa - The Nelson Mandela Legacy

With the passing this week of anti-Apartheid revolutionary turned President Nelson Mandela, tributes abound talking to the strength and courage of this great leader.  “From prisoner to President” the Mandela story is one of conviction, belief and sacrifice to achieve a vision of equality of races in South Africa.  Mandela's decades long struggle to end Apartheid also produced another lesser known part of his legacy – the rebirth of the South African wine industry.

For most of the early 20th century, the South African wine industry was controlled by the white minority under an organization called the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Verenigingvan, or KWV.  The KWV held statutory power to control what grapes to plant, where to plant, production limits, and prices.  The European stalwart grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc were discouraged in favor of varieties with a history in the country such as Chenin Blanc (Steen), Pinot Noir and Cinsault (Hermitage).  Compounding this tight control was the nearly complete isolation from global markets that boycotted purchases of South African products because of the practice of Apartheid.

But with the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) two years ahead of schedule, South Africa began a viticultural renaissance.  By the mid 1990's the South African wine industry was eager to adopt new viticultural and wine making processes.  So called “Flying Winemakers” wine makers who go between the southern and northern hemisphere making wine a year round proposition,  brought international expertise to the country, and quality wines quickly replaced fortified wines.  The transformation has not been without difficulties however.  Poor treatment of black vineyard workers has been only slowly reversed, and black ownership in the wine industry has only recently become accepted, with the M'Hudi Winery the first to open in 2002, followed by Seven Sisters in 2007. 

Like so many aspects of wine, change will take time.  It is clear however, that the future of the South African wine industry is limitless with the shackles of Apartheid lifted by the leadership of Nelson Mandela.


In the seventeenth century explorers from the Dutch East India Company established a supply station at Cape Town considered the half-way point on their months long journey from Amsterdam to Batavia, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  Vineyards were planted to grow grapes and produce wine, frequently used to fight scurvy on the long journey.  The earliest vineyards were planted with Muscat however by mid-century many Vitis Vinifera were brought from Europe, and vineyards of Chenin Blanc and Semillon were established at Constantia.  Under British rule in the eighteen hundreds, South African wine production grew to more than 1 million gallons per year but in 1866 the Phylloxera louse epidemic caught up with the country and decimated wine production.  Rejuvenation took the form of planting high yielding grapes such as Cinsault and Chenin Blanc; however the rapid increase in production ran into decreased demand due to World War I.  South African policy changed to promote grapes to be used for developing fortified wines, and once again the wine industry flourished.  Just as success seemed within reach however, the boycotts of South African products as a result of Apartheid suppressed the wine export industry.

Geography and Climate

Despite being at the tip of the African continent, most of the country lies north of 30 degrees latitude, the beginning of what is generally considered as prime grape growing regions.  Most of the country's wine regions are near either the Atlantic or Indian Ocean, creating a Mediterranean climate favorable for grape production.  The Benguela Current, driven by prevailing southeasterly winds originates near the southern Cape and rushes up the west side of Africa providing cooling breezes to all of southwestern South Africa.  This cooling influence is broken by many relatively small inland mountain ranges with fascinating names such as Holland, Langeberg, Drakenstein, and Hottentots.

The growing season (southern hemisphere) is from November to April, with most grape harvesting done in February and March.  Winters are cold and wet, summers warm and largely rain free.  The climate varies considerably however inland, where moisture has been rung out of the atmosphere, summer temperatures can be downright hot, and irrigation is the norm.

Wine Regions

In 1973 the Wine of Origin (WO) Scheme authorized under the Wine, Other Fermented Beverages and Spirits Act, 1957 was implemented.  Under the system, there are multiple levels of demarcated areas ranging from smallest to largest, they are:

Single Vineyard – Wines produced 100% from grapes from a single vineyard that does not exceed 6 hectares in size.

Estate Wine – Wines produced 100% from one or more vineyards farmed as a unit and the winery is located on the Estate.

Ward – A ward is a small demarcated area generally based on terroir and/or unique climactic conditions.  Wards are frequently (but not always) part of a larger District.  Some of South Africa's most famous wine producing areas are stand-alone Wards such as Constantia.  As of 2010 there were 67 wards in South Africa.

District – A district is a larger demarcated area generally based on geographic conditions such as mountain ranges and rivers.  Some of the better known Districts are Robertson, Worcester, Overberg, Walker Bay, Franschhoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch.

Region – A region is a larger demarcated area consisting of one or more Districts.  There are five regions – Breede River Valley, Cape South Coast, Coastal Region, Klein Karoo, and Olifants River.

Geographical Unit – The WO system was modified in 1993 to include the largest demarcated areas known as Geographical Units.  As of 2010 there are three such Units – Western Cape, Northern Cape, and Kwazulu-Natal.

Courtesy Wines of South Africa
Courtesy Wines of South Africa

The WO system is largely about protecting the geographic origin, and does not specifically regulate viticultural practices such as irrigation, canopy management, yields or trellising.  The WO system applies to approximately 75 grape varieties, all Vitis vinifera, ranging from the well-known Chenin Blanc (Steen) and Pinotage to the more obscure Chenel, Pontak and Roobernet.

Wines Produced

South Africa is the 8th largest producer of wine in the world.  For years white wine production dominated, with Chenin Blanc (Steen) and Colombard atop the list.  More recently however, the resurgence of International red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have resulted in balanced production between red and white wine.  One of the more popular red wines is Pinotage – a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The largest grape varieties in terms of acres of production are Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinotage. 

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·  Elgin - From Apples to Vines
·  Pinotage - Overcoming Adversity
·  Klein Karoo
·  Northern Cape
·  Olifants River
·  Franschhoek Valley
·  Constantia Valley
·  Paarl
·  Coastal Region
·  Cape South Coast
·  Overberg
·  Worcester


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