South Africa’s wines: From 1650s to today

Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 11:31 PM

Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed a significant increase in quality wine from South Africa. Grapes, though, have been grown in and around Cape Town since the 1650s.

The South African wine industry began as a result of the need for the Dutch East India Company to set up a supply station for sailors on the spice routes between Europe and the Indies. The region was deemed viable for grape growing because of its Mediterranean-like climate. With the realization that the grapes could be turned into wine, the infamous Constantia wine estate was built with nearly 2000 acres under vine.

As with virtually all grape-growing regions, the year 1866 proved to be devastating as a result of phylloxera, the vineyard-destroying vine louse. After nearly twenty years, South Africa was able to replant the industry with over 80 million vines, mostly of high-yielding cinsaut. Much of the wine was unsellable and literally was poured into local rivers. The next era of South African wine resulted in brandy and fortified wines. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the aim to produce world class wines finally blossomed.

The country boasts 11 WOs, or Wines of Origin designations. As with all wine-producing countries, there are only a few WOs that produce quality wines while others make bulk wine. Several of the WOs are simply too hot to produce elegant wines, with the hottest regions utilizing the heat for fortified wines and distilling.

Two of the cooler climates are Walker Bay and Elgin. Both of these regions benefit from coastal influence. Walker Bay, southeast of Cape Town, is relatively cool and is well-suited to the Burgundian varietals of chardonnay and pinot noir. Meanwhile, Elgin, just northwest of Walker Bay, is showing promise for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.

Perhaps the most renown region is Stellenbosch. This WO lies just northwest of Elgin and east of Cape Town. Arguably the finest wines come from here, with varietals that are also the most popular. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, pinotage, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc have all thrived in this climate, cooled by the Atlantic breeze. Here, wines of elegance and finesse are the norm with a daily average temperature of only 70 degrees. This climate results in grapes of slow maturation and ultimately lower alcohol contents. The government’s Oenological and Vitcultural Research Institute, the Stellenbosch University Oenology Department, and the Wine and Spirit Board are all here. It is the home of South African wine.

Paarl is inland, with minimal coastal influence, and as a result is considerably warmer than the other WOs. Its summer temperatures reach the upper 80s and low 90s, similar to conditions in Napa. This, in turn, equates to fuller, lusher wines with higher alcohol contents. Warm but not hot, this region boasts world class wines that are bigger than those of Stellenbosch.

Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at