Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New World Wine Producer South Africa

Pictures: View of the beautiful Franschhoek Valley and Christian G.E. Schiller at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg

New World Wine Producer South Africa

South Africa is a New World wine country, with a long wine history. With about 100.000 hectares of land under vine, it accounts for 1.5% of the world's grape vineyards. Yearly production is around 10 million hectoliters, which puts the country among the top ten wine producing countries in the world.

I have traveled in South Africa many times in the past 3 decades, in particular during the period 1989 to 1992, when I used to live in Madagascar. This posting was drafted after having spent 5 weeks in the country in 2010. More postings will follow on, inter alia, the wines (and the people behind them) of Boekenhoutskloof, Tokara, Devon Rocks, Dornier, Ruste en Vrede, Marianne Wine Estate, Stellekaya, Glen Carlou, Diemersfontain, Hamilton Russel and Allesverloren.

Modern South Africa

When traveling in South Africa today, it quickly becomes evident that apartheid is resting in the dustbin of history. South Africa’s current President is the Zulu Jakob Zuma, who is mired in personal and political controversy. The Txosa Nelson Mandela, who had spent more than 25 years in prison during apartheid, was President in the 1990s and is now a revered elder called "Madiba" ("Papa"). South Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup. The Soccer World Cup was hoped to provide a boost to the tourism industry; but indications are that the expected boost did not materialize, at least not fully. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to be wide, but is narrowing and a black middle class is emerging. This, however, is not so much evident in the wine region, which continues to be dominated by the whites; Cape Town even has a white mayor. 99% of the vineyard area is in the hands of whites. The AIDS pandemic is taking a huge toll with the HIV infection rate at about 20 percent.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with winemaker Jean Smit from Boekenhoutskloof

Over the course of the years, I have detected an increasing openness, pride and camaraderie among all the South Africans – white, colored or black, Boers or Brits; Indians, Jews, Zulus, Txosas or Vendas, I met. Nevertheless, this rainbow society with a share of 75% of blacks, has huge challenges to cope with.

Wine History

It all began in 1655, with wine seedlings from Europe, ordered by the commander of the newly formed station of the Dutch East India Company - the largest company in the world at the time - at the Cape, the Dutch surgeon Jan van Riebeeck. He knew that for the long ship journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope, wine was better than water as the latter often got rotted in the barrels, causing the dangerous scurvey for sailers. Four years later, in 1659, Jan van Riebeeck made his first wine in South Africa.

Before the arrival of the European settlers, African tribes had settled in the area. Today, the most influential African tribes are the Xhosas (the most famous Xhosa is former President Mandela) and the Zulus (the most famous Zulu is current President Zuma).

Among the white settlers were former sailors, adventurers and people who left Europe for religious reasons. The latter included the Huguenots who had fled to Holland to escape religious persecution. Many of them settled in Franschhoek and brought wine-making know how to the Cape region.

Another mile stone in the wine history of South Africa is the pioneering work of the Boer Governor Simon van der Stel. He founded the famous Constantia Estate that is viewed as the nucleus of the South African wine industry.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Thys Lombard from Tokara

As the 18th century drew to a close, the Dutch power began to fade worldwide, and the Cape region fell under British rule. When the Brits arrived, 25000 white mainly Boer colonists lived in the region; they were pushed up to the north as the Brits took over the region. As a result of the British rule, the South African wine industry blossomed as it benefitted from preferential treatment in the British market. By 1859 more than 4 million liters of South African wine were exported to Britain. This changed dramatically when as the result of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty in 1861 the preferential tariffs were abolished helping French wine exports to regain the British market. By 1865, exports had dried up to a mere 0.5 million liter.

The turn of the century saw a large overproduction of wine in South Africa. To cope with the surplus, the South African winemakers formed a wine cooperative in 1918, the Kooperatieve Wijnbouw Vereniging van Zuid Afrika (KWV). Initially started as a cooperative, the KWV soon grew in power and prominence to where it would to set policies and prices for the entire wine industry. At the same time, in the second half of the 1900s, the trade barrier of anti-apartheid sanctions ensured that South Africa’s wine exports fell to virtually zero and that the tiny domestic market became the industry’s only consumer.

It was not until the end of apartheid in 1993/94 that the wine industry started to see a brighter future again, and the renaissance of the South African wine industry began. This renaissance was fueled by a rapid increase of foreign demand for South African wine and substantial investments, financed by foreigners as well as locals. Most of the wineries I visited in October 2010 had come into existence only after the collapse of the apartheid regime. Today, South Africa is a New World wine country, with a long wine history and tradition of winemaking.

Wine Industry

Unlike other New World wine regions, the South African wine industry is strongly influenced by several large wine-cooperatives, including Distel and KWV; in total, there about 60 co-operatives. In addition, there are about 25 trading companies, or negociants, which often operate wineries, but seldom own their own vineyards. Among these are SAVISA, Winecorp, Stellenbosch Vineyards and Graham Beck; Western Wines is among the trading companies that are foreign based and owned; their brand Kumala is by far South Africa’s biggest brand. Over 80% of the total crop is delivered to these large wineries by about 4000 wine growers. However, private wineries have increasingly emerged and seen an impressive growth; there are now about 600 winemakers with their own cellars, most of them in the premium wine segment.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with owner Juergen Heinrich of Devon Rocks

More than half of the total production is exported. The previous Cape powers, the UK and Netherlands, are traditionally the main destinations for wines shipments; but other markets are coming up, including Sweden, Denmark, the USA, Germany and Angola.

The wine industry is firmly in the hands of the whites, both white South Africans and foreign investors. But I had the pleasure to meet Ntsiki Biyela, a female black winemaker, who is producing outstanding wines at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch. Also, the Diemersfontein wine portfolio included a line of wines that was produced in the framework of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program (to promote the black community's involvement in the South African wine industry-including ownership opportunities for vineyards and wineries).

Grape Varieties

Although there has been a significant shift in favor of red wine varieties, reflecting increasing demand for the international varieties Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, white wine is still in the lead, accounting for a bit more than half of the total. Pinotage, which is a native grape of South Africa, also shows an upward trend. Among the white wines, Chenin Blanc is the front runner, followed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Cabernet Sauvignon has become the most widely planted red grape variety, accounting for 25 percent of the red wines. Shiraz seems to like the climate of the Cape very much and produces very intense full-bodied wines. In recent years, Shiraz has been planted in particular in the warmer growing areas. Although Pinot Noir is rarely grown in South Africa, it can be found in the cooler regions Walker Bay and Elgin, producing exceptionally good wines there. Merlot has traditionally been used for cuvees with Cabernet Sauvignon; but winemakers have started to produce 100% Merlot wines.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Raphael Dornier from Dornier

Pinotage is the signature grape of South Africa. In 1925, a South African researcher at the University of Stellenbosch crossed the Pinot Noir with the Hermitage (Cinsaut): This was the birth of Pinotage. It now accounts for more than 20 percent of South Africa’s red wine. It is made in a broad range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine and rosé to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also used for port-style wine and red sparkling wine.

In recent years, many new Chardonnay vineyards have moved into the production phase. Whether fermented in barrels or in steel tanks, the Chardonnay from the Cape region is always elegant in style, combined with refreshing fruit flavors on the palate. Viognier shows its full potential in South Africa and plantings are increasing. Two hundred years ago, Semillon was the dominant grape variety in the Cape region; today it is rather the exception. South African Sauvignon Blancs enjoy an increasing popularity; the plantings are concentrated in the cooler altitudes of Constantia, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Although on a downward trend, some South African wine makers are pushing the Chenin Blanc grape, trying to improve the quality and diversifying into different styles. Other white varieties include Colombard, Gewurztraminer, Muscat of Alexandria and Pinot Gris.

Finally, Cape Riesling is widely grown in the Cape, but is actually not a Riesling, the great grape from Germany, but a Crouchon Blanc, originating in Southern France, but seldomly grown there. By contrast, the noble Riesling is a niche wine, which, until this year, had to be labeled as Weisser Riesling or Rhine Riesling. Only from this year on, Riesling can be labeled as Riesling, without the pre-fixes Weisser or Rhine.

Wine Growing Regions

Under the "Wine of Origins" (WO) system, wine zones fall under one of four categories. The largest are Geographical Units (such as the Western Cape region), which includes the smaller, but still largely defined Regions (such as Overberg), followed by districts (like Walker Bay) and finally wards (such as Elgin). WO wines must be made 100% from grapes from the designated area.

Picture: South Africa's Wine Regions

Constantia ward: Located south of Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, it is the cradle of the South African wine industry and was through the 18th and 19th centuries regarded as South Africa’s grand cru territory.

Stellenbosch district: the second oldest wine zone, accounting for around 14% of the country's wine production. The seven wards of Stellenbosch-Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch are well known for their red wines.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Franck Malassigne from Marianne

Paarl: For most of the 20th century, Paarl was for all practical purposes the heart of the South African wine industry, as it was the home of the KWV. The importance of Paarl has declined with the emergence of a strong private sector.

The Franschhoek Valley, a ward, was founded by Huguenot settlers who brought with them their winemaking know-how.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with winemaker Nsiki Biyela from Stellekaya

The Breede River Valley, located east of the Drakenstein Mountains, is a warm climate region; the river itself provides easy access to irrigation which makes bulk wine production of high yield varieties commonplace. The Robertson district is located closest to the river along alluvial soils. The Worcester district is responsible for more wine than any other wine region in the country with almost one quarter of the total coming from this area.

The cool climate Overberg region received very little attention until the late 20th century, but its wines are becoming increasingly sought after, notably the wines of Walker Bay with the various Hemel-en-Arde wards and of the cool, higher elevation vineyards of Elgin located east of Cape Town.

The Atlantic influenced West Coast region includes the areas of Durbanville, Olifants River, Piketberg and Swartland. Historically known for its bulk wine production, in recent years, in particular in Swartland, innovative producers making excellent premium wines have emerged.

Sweet and Sparkling Wines

The South African wine industry has a long history of sweet, fortified and sparkling wines.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with winemaker Francois Rhoode and owner David Sonnenberg of Diemersfontein

In the Cape, there are two important sweet wine styles: First, the (botrytised) noble-sweet wines are known as Edel Laat-oes wines. Wine labeled simply as Laat-oes are from grapes harvested late but not infected with botrytis.

Colloquially known as "Cape Port", port-type wines are made from a variety of grapes, such as Shiraz and Pinotage. The styles of "Cape Port" parallel closely their Portuguese counterparts. South Africa also produce sherry-type wines produced in a solera system.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Anthony Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards

Finally, sparkling wines are produced with both the Charmat and the traditional Champagne Method. To distinquish South African sparkling wines (and to now comply with European Union regulations) made in the traditional bottled fermented method are now labeled as Cap Classique. These wines have been traditionally made using Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, but recent years have seen an emergence of the traditional Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Schiller Wine - Related Articles

In the Plane: Wine on South African Airways from Johannesburg to Livingstone in Zambia (Victoria Falls)

Queen Elizabeth II Gives State Banquet in Honor of President Zuma - Neither English Sparkler nor South African Wine Served

Wine Country South Africa: Facts and Figures

Wine Country South Africa: History

Wine Country South Africa: Grape Varieties


  1. Christian - This is a very comprehensive article and I feel one of your very best. Is that your dog Oscar in the picture? I wish you could publish small tiny pocket guides on each country from your blog that I could carry with me to a wine store! Thanks for such a great article! You should perhaps let the reader know you have a Ph.D. in economics aside from your passion for knowing about wine. Cheers

  2. New World Wine Producer!

  3. Antony Hamilton RussellNovember 3, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Dear Christian

    Thank you very much! It was wonderful to see you and I hope our paths cross again soon.

    All the best



    Anthony Hamilton Russell

  4. Thank You very much Dr. Schiller. Your article on South Africa & wines is so interesting and instructive...I've learnt much from it.

  5. Thank You Dr. Schiller - I am proud that SA wines impressed you so much. Many more to taste and I do hope that you'll be back for more!

  6. Great article! Just a small side note: It's Xhosa, not Txosa.

  7. If we talk about South Africasn wines, what you think of Yammé as a brand and as a producer. Send me your comments to