South African wine

Wine from the “Dark Continent”? To many European and American wine drinkers, this is a strange concept. In fact, there are vineyards all over Africa. Algeria and Morocco have been producing wines for decades, and modern wine-making has been set up in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya.

But it is down south in the Cape, where climactic and topographic conditions simulate those of the old wine countries, that the continent’s finest wines are produced. Today, the best of South African wine is up there with the rest, while in the “easy-drinking” category no one beats us!

History has a way with wine, and the Cape’s wine culture, which goes back 350 years, is one that both reflects the country’s troubled colonial and apartheid past – but also shines with the potential and expectation of the modern wine world.

From that long history comes a wine tradition of tastes and styles with its roots in the classic “Old World” of France, Germany and Italy, but also an acute awareness of the contemporary consumer, as has been defined by wine-making in the “New World” of California and Australia.

It has often been said that South African wine is in the unique position of straddling both these wonderful worlds.

It offers marketing possibilities that can be harnessed for the challenges of the new global economy. It can offer the wine-drinking world all kinds of new flavour experiences. It can also show the way to handle such sensitive issues as labour relations in the reality of the beautiful Cape winelands.

Wine for the modern market

In the post-apartheid era, since 1994, South African wine has returned to the world arena with significant impact, growing from some 50-million litres exported that year to topping 139-million in 2000, representing more than 25% of good wine production.

It is still increasing, and Cape wine is reaching even more consumers in more countries. According to the latest figures from exporter association Wines of South Africa (Wosa), international sales for 2001 increased 17.8% compared with 2000, despite the global recession.

Internationally, the industry is small, ranking 16th with about 1.5% of global plantings, but production, at seventh position, accounts for 3% of the world’s wine.

As in most established wine-producing countries, new plantings are taking place at a pace and new varieties of wine grapes as well as new regions are being explored as the country finds itself at the frontline of modern market requirements.

Of the 105 566 hectares under wine grapevines (compared with 98 203 hectares in 1997), according to the latest official statistics, 21.38% is chenin blanc – by far still the country’s most widely planted variety. Sultana (11.28%), a grape that is also used for non-alcohol purposes, is next, followed by colombard and chardonnay.

Cabernet sauvignon comprises the majority of red varieties (a mere 8.36% of total vineyard plantings) in present vineyards, followed by pinotage and shiraz.

White varieties still represent more than two-thirds of the total, but this has moved from an imbalance of 15% red and 85% white in 1990. In 2000 more than 80% of all new plantings were red, with shiraz, cabernet and merlot at the top of the list. At the same time, 87% of all vines uprooted were white, mostly chenin blanc, white French and colombard.

There is a shift from chardonnay to sauvignon blanc, a varietal which lends itself to a larger range of styles and quality levels.

All in all, in the year up to the end of 2000, 6 042.7 hectares of new vines were planted.

In 2000 the total grape crop was about 1-million tons, from which 830-million litres of wine were made by 355 active cellars, of which 185 were non-estate “private producers”, 92 registered “estates”, 69 co-operatives and nine producing wholesalers.

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