Wine in South Africa

When we say wine in south Africa, we are talking about a wine country in transition, often with problems of identity and image for the consumer. don't forget South Africa has the world’s most attractive vineyard areas. They are perfect for wine tourism and this area is in development now.

South Africa is the World’s 7th largest wine producer – about 3% of world’s production: 100 million+ bottles per year - but only 33rd in terms of per capita consumption - 8 litres per capita - while UK 23, France 56.

South African wines are dependent on exports. WOSA (Wines of South Africa) was established to promote exports. All exported wine is subject to quality checks.

UK is South Africa’s largest export market. Equally, South Africa is 4th largest UK supplier... and growing. South African wines are increasingly supported by major UK retailers.

South African wines have a new positioning statement and they proudly state variety is their nature.

Grapes and wine types

Historically, there was a big emphasis on fortified wines, sherry, port and brandy.  They are now less important.

South Africa displays both Old and New World styles. There are many blends. Its wines are more restrained than many New World wines. South African wines can offer depth and complexity.

Grapes 1990 2009
 
Chenin Blanc 32 18
Sauvignon Blanc 4 9
Chardonnay 2 8
Other white grapes 46 21
Total white . . . . . . . 84 56
 
Cabernet Sauvignon 4 12
Shiraz 1 10
Merlot 1 7
Pinotage 2 6
Other red grapes 8 9
Total red . . . . . . . 16 44

Grape/wine importance

The country is moving from white to red production and to international varieties.

1990: 15%  red: 85% white
2003: 55% white: 45% red

This came about because 80% of new vines planted in 1990 were black grapes - Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. While 87% of vines uprooted were white grapes - Chenin Blanc and Colombard. In the future, we  will see even more emphasis on red wine, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Chenin Blanc is still the most widely planted white grape - 18% of all wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted black grape – with a 12% - but Shiraz is the fastest growing - now about 10%.

Many, many grape varieties grown throughout wine areas…sometimes just a few producers.

Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, is a major South African variety but still suffers from early quality image.

Brief history of wine in South Africa

First plantings in 1655 by Dutch East India Company but only accelerated with the French Huguenot settlements (Franschoek) 1680 - 1690.

Wines of Constantia in 18th century were amongst world’s most sought after - Vin de Constance.

During the first half of 19th century, there is great wine prosperity under British occupation and British war with France - France was no longer a supplier of wine to the UK. Then came some disasters…. 1861 England and France end war… 1886 Phylloxera… 1899 Anglo-Boer War… KWV and state control then apartheid.

Under Apartheid, with exports restricted, quality and investment suffered greatly in the wine sector.

There have been changes since the end of Apartheid in 1994. KWV transformed - lost its powers. There has been big investment in wine.  Changes have been for the better. On trend to remark is the increased emphasis on Fair Trade and black empowerment.

Key issues with wine in South Africa

South Africa has no simple identity. South Africa is less aggressive than Australia and, generally, the wine is higher priced than Chile. However, the two major export  brands tend to be modestly priced. First Cape is 4th largest brand in UK with £90 million sales – it grew 135% in 2009.  Kumala is also a significant brand, a .British developed brand designed primarily for UK market. Quality producers are generally not known because of issues such as limited distribution. They are also .significantly higher priced.

The country still predominantly beer drinking. It also l has a legacy of low quality, local wine; often produced from overcropped vines.

Pinotage, the big red wine hope of the mid 1990’s was oversold and often of poor quality. South African wine image development set back.

Chenin Blanc (called Steen in South Africa) could be better marketed and deserves to be.

Increased value of Rand, the local currency, has made wine exports more expensive and it is more difficult to compete in low priced markets. The higher priced, quality wines lack heritage and suffer of restricted distribution, not useful yet to balance the exports.

South African wine quality is comparable with world’s best. The red blends - Cabernet Sauvignon based – are the big way forward. The clear message from recent seminars was that South African producers had embraced quality rather than quantity and were able to produce world class wines. The producers had gained great confidence since the end of apartheid, had invested in better quality control and were far more in tune with the world market and what other countries were producing. An underlying message, however, was that South Africa should not be trapped simply into copying, meeting or beating wines from the rest of the world.

There is talk about the wonderful diversity of terroir in South Africa and the consequent ability to produce wines that were more a reflection of that terroir. "Variety is in our nature" is the current theme of South African wine. Some argued that earlier attempts to create this identity had focussed too much on Pinotage, the grape that is unique to South Africa. Although the quality of Pinotage wine is arguably far better than when first introduced, it has taste characteristics - sometimes described as like rubber or somewhat industrial - that are not universally liked. There is still a tendency to include Pinotage in a red blend when, perhaps, that blend would arguably be better without it.

In Bordeaux typically some grape varieties will perform less well in any particular year and therefore the final blend of Cabernet / Merlot / Petit Verdot / Cabernet Franc will be varied each year.  Perhaps regrettably, South African wine in the UK is dominated by non estate wines such as First Cape and Kumala.

There is the quality of the international grape varieties planted in South Africa. It can be argued that South African Cabernet Sauvignon is so good and reliable that it should be considered as a varietal wine rather than part of what is produced as a Bordeaux blend - by including Merlot and other red grapes. The climate in Bordeaux often necessitates a blend. Possibly, the Mediterranean climate of many parts of South Africa means that grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are reliable and 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines are easily attainable.

There is no doubt that the quality of non estate wines is high and better than several years ago and these are, therefore, wines that the country is happy to produce. However, despite the obvious benefits of selling these major volume products, they perhaps have conditioned many consumer’s views of South African wine, at least respect to reasonable quality, reasonable price. The wines produced by particular estates are often higher priced and have more limited distribution.  It is these wines that best illustrate the variety, distinctiveness and quality of South African wines.