South Africa is known as a maker of New World wines. That label is deceiving. As my wife and I prepare for a trip to that country’s winelands, I’ve been researching the country’s rich oenological history and have found a tradition as rich as the abundant gold deposits in Johannesburg.
Almost twice as large as Texas, it has 1,800 miles of coastline. It is the only wine region in the world sandwiched between two oceans: the Atlantic and the Indian. Jan Van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company planted the first vines in the Cape of Good Hope in 1655.
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 planted a vineyard on his farm Constantia and made good wine from the outset. Later, Constantia wines became world-famous.
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. Since that time, South African wine has had its peaks and valleys, ranging from the decimation of vineyards by the disease phylloxera, the Anglo-Boer War, overproduction, international trade sanctions in the 1980s as a protest against apartheid,
In 1990 apartheid was abolished and South Africa’s first democratic elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela’s support helped the reemergence of South African wine and he toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace prize with South African wine from the Cape region.
The wine industry in South Africa is undergoing an exciting period of change. Once known for a proliferation of low quality white wine, the industry is realigning itself to compete globally. Only recently a 10-year trend of planting more reds has shifted back to whites.
Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted variety. Other top grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Colombard, Shiraz, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Chardonnay. Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, is considered the signature grape of the country. Also produced are Methode Cap Classique (MCC) wines, outstanding sparkling wines made in the traditional method of Champagne.
The southern areas are the heart of the South African wine industry. We will be visiting Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, which is a ward in the Paarl wine region. There will be more to come as we prepare for our epic journey.