From wannabes to world leaders: Milestones that put South Africa wines on the map

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Jan van Riebeeck was documented as bringing the first vines to South Africa. That wine was first made from French Muscadel grapes in 1659, and was initially intended solely for export to the trading port of Batavia. For the next 250 years we continued making wine, the arrival of the French Huguenots undoubtedly adding incentive and quality. But other that the great sweet wines of Constantia of the 1800s, we were never really regarded internationally as a serious threat, as most of our export was sweeter wines and “sherry” — and that in bulk. 

Internally we were not a nation of great wine drinkers either, so it’s no big surprise that we started building up huge surpluses. Enter the KWV in 1916 to effectively control that surplus and the industry for the next 60 years.

So often, it the most dynamic individuals who start a trend and in this case was NC Krone, of Twee Jongezellen in Tulbagh, who pioneered the cold fermentation of white wines in South Africa. This spread quickly as at that time, wine merchants were used to white wines that were amber-coloured (and probably a bit oxidised), and were skeptical of the new clearer wines.

However, when NC Krone’s wines won first prize for 12 of the 13 categories at the South African Champion Wine show in 1959, everyone sat up and took notice.

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Though still not a first league international player, South Africa certainly opened some eyes when Stellenbosch Farmers Winery launched Liberstein – a semi-sweet table wine that probably did what Blue Nun did in the UK market, only far more effectively. In 1964, 31 million litres were sold and it was the biggest-selling bottled wine in the world.  

Special recognition must go the to Jack and Bill Winshaw, who established Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. The Winshaws had the vision and  the wherewithal to start growing the quality wine market and boost the process for our wines to become internationally recognised.

Probably the most significant step on South Africa’s journey into the international market was the introduction of the Wine of Origin Scheme in 1973. Once again, this was a visionary approach and, as it it was essential to get all producers committed and on board, the barrier for entry was lowered – in the first years, initially, you only needed 30% of a varietal to be able to call it by that varietal! 

Today we are world leaders in terms of product integrity and traceability when it comes to wine. What you see on the label is what you get in the bottle, and with the pedigree going right back to the vineyard.

The Wine and Spirit Board’s unique certification seal confirms every South African wine’s varietal, vintage and origin. 

South Africa’s wine industry players share wines and they share knowledge. They might be fiercely competitive, but it is always heartening to see openness and mutual respect prevail.  

So it was that even during the years of sanctions against South Africa. Trading became exceedingly difficult, but winemakers could still travel to and fro. The return part of the journey normally had some good wines in the luggage to share amongst fellow professionals.

In South Africa’s determination to get international recognition, and hopefully market share, conventional wisdom dictated we had to make wines as close as possible to those wines from other countries that were garnering all the international accolades.

Marlborough, New Zealand, is one example, and the likes of Cloudy Bay became the benchmark for our Sauvignon Blanc. One overzealous winemaker even introduced some greenpepper flavours into his wine to get those herbaceous, asparagus overtones.

In red wines it was the likes of Penfolds shiraz; so many were focussed on producing wannabe wines.

The release of  Nelson Mandela from Robbern Island permeated every pore of this country when it finally happened, and we were no longer automatically classed as pariahs. Our collective confidence received an incredible boost.

Savvy winemakers on the block realised that our best bet was not to try to play God, but to take what was god-given and make wines that reflected our soils, our climates and ourselves. 

What a change there was – gradual indeed, but then wine is nature! 

We were putting wines out that were not Australian in style, not New Zealand, nor French. They were proudly South African!

In the last 25 years, South African wines have grown more in quality and recognition than in the last 250 years. More than one international commentator has said some of the current offerings coming out of South Africa are equal to the best in the world.  

But it is not only the Sunday special and smart stuff — our everyday wines sold in the UK multiples and supermarkets are known for being well-made, “healthy” wines reflecting our climate and vineyard practices.

Highly respected UK wine writer Tim Atkin MW has visited South Africa every year for the last decade, and for the last eight years has published what has become a definitive South African wine report.  

One of the most important trends in the post-apartheid wine scene has been the emergence of a group collectively known as the “Young Guns”. Some of them are looking a little greyer and more lined than they did 25 years ago – who isn’t? – and not all of them were even around in 1994, but these smaller producers have been a vital part of the Cape’s emergence as one of the world’s most exciting wine scenes. 

As Atkin has said: “In just one generation Cape wine has taken a giant step forward.