Winemaking in South Africa: The Roots of Colonization

Originally appeared on Wide Angle (PBS) website, “Road to Riches” episode, 2003

The Dutch Arrive in South Africa

The beginnings of winemaking in South Africa coincide with the arrival of Dutch settlers to the future republic’s Western Cape in 1652. Commander Jan van Riebeeck had been sent to Table Bay by the Dutch East India Company to establish a foothold at the southern tip of the “dark continent” where the company’s vessels could stop to perform repairs and take on supplies along the route to the lucrative trading posts of the East Indies.

Upon noticing the native peoples eating berries from a species of vine, van Riebeeck wondered if grapevines would thrive in the Cape’s soil alongside the more mundane local fruits and vegetables. Van Riebeeck pointed out to his seniors in Holland that a ration of wine was known to reduce the outbreak of scurvy on long seafaring voyages, and vine shoots were soon dispatched to him. The first cuttings were planted in 1655, and in February of 1659 van Riebeeck wrote, “Today, praise the Lord, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time.”

During the next century, viticulture continued to expand along with the colonization of the Cape region. At the end of the 17th century, winemaking expanded and became more refined under the influence of French Huguenots who had come to South Africa to flee religious persecution. During the 1700s, South Africa garnered an international reputation for Constantia’s dessert wines, which were reportedly a favorite of Napoleon’s while he was in exile in St. Helena. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, South Africa’s vineyards were decimated by war and disease.

During the 20th century, South Africa’s wine industry suffered under apartheid. Wine production and distribution largely came under the authority of the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid-Afrika, which set quotas and controlled the market. Practices such as bootlegging and false labeling were used to dodge international sanctions against South African wine, and the quality of the wines being produced went into decline as vintners were unable to import new and healthy vines. Finally, South Africa’s winemaking industry contracted as it was forced to rely solely upon its lackluster domestic market.

Black vineyard laborers suffered as well. Under the Natives Land Act of 1913, black farm workers had no rights to the land they cultivated, and the “tot” system allowed vineyard operators to pay their unskilled laborers at least partly with the liquor they produced, helping create and maintain patterns of poverty and alcoholism.

New Beginnings

Today, winemaking has become a leading component in South Africa’s agricultural sector. South Africa is currently the seventh-largest wine producer in the world, and exports of South African wine rose by an astounding 26 percent in 2002 alone. Tourism, another rising star in the South African economy, has also increased in South Africa’s wine-producing Cape region as the country has reemerged as a producer of internationally known fine wines.

One reason for the recent success of South Africa’s wine industry has been the drastic improvement in the quality of its product. Not possessing the delicate soils or extended winemaking traditions that Europe has, South African winemakers have turned to technology to aid them in their quest to craft the perfect vintage. Some South African vineyards have utilized high-tech tools such as remote sensing, Global Positioning System, and satellite imagery to help them position their crops in optimal growing conditions and to maximize their harvest. The use of such sophisticated methods has helped South African winemakers improve the consistency and quality of their wines more quickly and with less trial and error.

South African winemakers have also gained recognition recently for having embraced sustainable agricultural practices. In 1998, the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) system was created to promote environmentally friendly growing practices in South Africa. Today, more than 98 percent of South Africa’s grapes are grown according to IPW guidelines.

Another bright spot for South Africa’s wine industry can be found in its various grassroots black economic empowerment projects. Though progress has sometimes been more symbolic than systemic, South Africa’s wine industry has taken some innovative steps toward making amends for injustices committed under the rule of apartheid.

New Beginnings, the first black-owned winery in South Africa, has become a model for small-scale black empowerment projects. According to the New Beginnings paradigm, black farm workers are allowed to purchase arable land or equipment from an existing winery and use its production facilities to create their own special label wines. As projects such as New Beginnings have evolved, they have fostered the development of other educational and social outreach programs in historically underserved agricultural communities. In one area, a radio drama entitled “Sommernet” (which, loosely translated, means “merely”) highlights social issues and promotes interpersonal skills and training to local farm workers.

From booming consumer demand to the negotiation of a tax-free export agreement with Europe, South Africa has seen an upsurge in international support for the fruits of its post-apartheid winemaking labors. But the keys to continued prosperity for South Africa’s wine industry will lie in its ability to adapt to the demands of the global market, an expanded output capacity without a loss in quality, and in sustained consumer support for its transformation efforts.

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