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South Africa

While the world wine revolution has been well documented, perhaps the finest example of upscale wine ascendancy can be found in South Africa. Its roots trace back as a supply station for the Dutch East India Company, who used (in error) South African wines to ward off scurvy for sailors continuing on the historic spice route.

Even though its beginnings can be traced back to 1655, and its first export attempts to 1669, it is the post-Apartheid (1994 onward) period that has propelled South Africa to its present position as a world leader in top quality wine production. Many insiders consider this evolution as something of a modern viticultural miracle that South Africa has accomplished so much in such a relatively short period of time. If it was not the country’s rich historical wine history, (Remember, the South African wine industry is more than 350 years old) this would not have been possible.

The actual scope of South Africa’s wine production has also changed during the immediate past with actual emphasis on planting and producing both Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Additionally, South Africa’s matchless gift to the wine world, the Pinotage grape (a cross between the venerable Pinot Noir and the Cinsault), is still produced in limited quantities and is considered a remarkable representative of the newly-fueled exploding South African wine industry.

South Africa's vineyards are mostly situated in the Western Cape near the coast. Here, the winegrowing regions are influenced by one of the two mighty oceans that meet at this southernmost tip of Africa - the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. The maritime influences of regular coastal fog and cooling sea breezes, matched with a moderate Mediterranean climate, distinctive, varied topography, and diverse soils, makes for an ideal setting to produce wines of unique character and complexity. South Africa has a winemaking tradition and history dating back over 350 years that blends the traditional elegance of the Old World with the fruit-driven, experimental styles of the New World.

The South African equivalent of appellation is called the Wines of Origin or, WO, was enacted in 1973, and currently applies to around 60 different locations. It classifies wines by geographical units, regions, districts and wards and is based on the French appellation laws. Regions and districts are based largely on political boundaries while wards are mostly defined by terroir characteristics. This WO system is diligently applied and assures quality on the labels and in the wines themselves.

The first decade of the 21st Century has produced a plethora of high quality wines and wineries according to most industry insiders. It has also brought into the country a number of internationally-respected wine figures (Zelma Long {Long Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Estates, Simi Winery, Chandon Estates} and Phil Freese {Robert Mondavi Estates} and winery magnate Charles Banks {Screaming Eagle} of California come to mind) along with a host of younger and hungrier South African winemakers. Some of this latter group have benefited from the fact that some of the older vineyards have been overlooked in the country’s larger wineries’ race to quality and quantity.

Today, South Africa exports about 6.35 million cases annually from slightly more than 245,000 acres under vine. Chenin Blanc (over 18%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (over 12%) are the most planted varietals along with Colombard (11%) Shiraz (almost 10%) Sauvignon Blanc (9%) Chardonnay (8%) Pinotage (6.5%) and Merlot (6%) round out the other top varietals.

The changing of the political climate in South Africa has also brought about the existence of black-owned wineries in the country. Through various Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programs, black ownership and involvement in wineries and vineyards has steadily increased. Sometime in 1997, a new winery called New Beginnings was founded in the Paarl Valley and was soon followed by Thandi (Paul Cluver Wines) in Elgin. In 2001, the Mont Rochelle Mountain Winery in the Franschhoek Valley became the first wholly black-owned winery in South Africa. It was purchased by a Congolese businessman named Miko Rwayitare and continues operation today.

Such is the diversity associated with the modern South African wine industry. On one hand, the old traditions are still in place that produce top quality wines for worldwide consumption. When you add a multitude of new vintners and winemakers all eager for improvement and bent on innovation, the entire wine industry is forced to keep pace and progress forward.