With the SA Wine Harvest celebrations commencing today, South Africans are celebrating 363 years of winemaking! This is an incredible milestone, especially if you look at how the many challenges the South African wine industry faced in the beginning of its journey.
While South Africa is one of the great wine-producing countries globally, especially among the new world countries, it did not come without a heavy price. Despite several challenges throughout history (including the phylloxera outbreak of 1866 and international trading bans in the late 1970s and early 1980s), South Africa has proven to be a resilient and prestigious winemaking region.
1652 marks the first winemaking venture in South Africa when the Dutch East India Company was established in the Cape. The company aimed to simply provide refreshments for those voyaging through the Cape. This sparked the initial ideas of winemaking, leading to vines being planted a mere three years later.
Jan van Riebeeck, the governor of the Cape, was responsible for the initial vineyards and bottled the first wines in 1659. A major setback followed soon after, as neither van Riebeeck nor local farmers were knowledgeable about viniculture or viticulture.
It wasn’t until 1679, when van Riebeeck’s successor, Simon van der Stel, took charge of the viticulture, that the country’s quality improved dramatically. His experience and knowledge in viticulture helped kick-start the country’s wine production. He was responsible for making wine that will later be admired by the likes of Jane Austen, Napoleon, Louise Philippe (King of the French).
The country’s industry flourished for decades, but the second challenge came in the 1860s, when South Africa’s largest importing country, the UK, dropped the protective tariffs placed on French wine. This made French wine significantly cheaper than South African wines, exiling South Africa almost completely. The challenges continued, especially with the outbreak of Phylloxera and the Angelo-Boar War in 1899. The Cape’s vines were almost completely destroyed between 1855 and 1902, forcing many producers to replant everything they had built over the years.
The restoration of the country’s industry occurred rapidly, and over 80 million vines were planted by 1912 by independent farmers. While this could have led to great success for the South African industry, there was not enough demand for the 56 million litres of wines they produced.
In 1918, KWV (Koperatiewe Wijnbuwers Vereniging) was established in the hopes of managing South Africa’s surplus of alcohol. The first KWV act was passed in 1924, making KWV the only exporting company of all South African alcoholic beverages. By this time, the Co-op owned over 90% of the country’s vineyards, putting them in complete control of the industry.
While the KWV successfully rebuilt the country’s wine industry, the outbreak of World War Two set the country back once more as exports plummeted. This forced the KWV to reconsider their strategy, and as a result, in 1940, they set a minimum price for all wines in their attempt to aid the industry’s recovery. KWV was able to stabilize the industry and continued to implement new and innovative systems over the coming years.
KWV wanted to further manage the quality of South African wines by introducing a system in 1957 that would control how the country grows and makes wine. Similar to the systems in Europe, KWV implemented rules regarding which vines were imported and which grapes were used. Not only did these new rules severely handicap the producers, but so did the international trade sanction to follow in 1980.
The Apartheid system of South Africa, which segregated individuals according to their race, was condemned by many international organizations. As the unrest in South Africa continued, more countries refused to trade with South Africa. This affected several industries, especially the wine sector, since most of the country’s wines were exported to these international countries.
It wasn’t until 1994, when South Africa allowed for its first democratic election, that international trade was opened to South Africa once more.
Understanding how the South African industry started, throughout its struggles, is why this SA Wine Harvest celebration is so important. Not only are we celebrating how South Africa rose to the top, but how it will continue to grow.