South Africa Wine Country
For almost 50 years many parts of the world did not experience South African wines because of the Apartheid legislation that took away rights from non-white citizens and enacted segregation. Many countries banned the import of South African products to show their disapproval of this legislation. It wasn’t until the end of the Apartheid in 1994 when Nelson Mandela won the presidential election and the Democratic Party took over power that the export wine market began to grow.
In the last 25 years South Africa wine industry has experienced a renaissance. While Chenin Blanc is still the most planted grape, innovation in viticulture and winemaking has meant greater varietal diversity and higher quality wines. South Africa is known for the “big six”— Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage, as well as several blends.
It’s common to believe South Africa would be too hot for growing grapes, but most vineyards lie at the same latitude as the Central Coast of California in the northern hemisphere. But what makes it unique is it’s one of the only wine countries to sit between two oceans—it is bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the east by the Indian Ocean (MacNeil 2015). This ocean air provides a cooling influence and is why most vineyards are planted near the coast. Additionally, the region is mountainous which also helps reduce the temperature. For every 100m increase in altitude, the temperature decreases by 1.1°F.
More grape growers and wine producers in South Africa are moving towards organic and sustainable practices. As I wrote in a previous blog, a group of producers created Swartland Independent Producers (SIP) in 2010 to protect the area’s reputation by developing rules related to winemaking and viticulture. The grapes must be grown, vinified, matured and bottled entirely in Swartland, and there are restrictions within the winemaking process. Their goal is to minimize intervention in both vineyard and cellar. To carry the ‘Wine of Origin Swartland’ on its label, no adjustments like acidification, added tannin or chemical fining are allowed. While wineries are not required to take part, it has helped bring attention to these details with the intent to inspire higher standards moving forward.
Lastly, I’ll mention the newer wine region of Elgin, which is the coolest grape growing area in South Africa. Producers here are having success with wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Elgin is unique because it’s part of the world’s first biodiversity wine route called the Green Mountain Eco Route (Morgenthal 2018). This grape growing region includes a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the habitat for over 1600 plant species. Vines grow among the area’s indigenous plants and shrubs, as well as apple vineyards. It’s hard to fine wines from this region in the United States, but if you do, don’t pass it up!
After researching South Africa, I gained so much insight into the country’s landscape, wines, winemaking practices, as well as their history, culture, political and social struggles and triumphs. Wine is so much more than a beverage we consume… it’s what makes the experience of it magical!