Most of South Africa's vineyards are clustered in the southwest in an area near the Cape of Good Hope. The region has a Mediterranean climate — warm, dry summers and rainfall during the mild winter months — and grapes love it. The scenery in South Africa's wine regions is among the world's most breathtaking, making it a popular stop for tourists.
In the eighteenth century, the Cape established itself on the world wine stage with its Muscat-based dessert wine called Constantia. It was much in demand at all the royal courts of Europe. Napoleon, it is rumored, even ordered it from his exile on St. Helena.
In spite of the wild success of Constantia, the wine industry went into a 200-year decline thanks to the arrival of phylloxera and overproduction. In 1918 a large farmers' cooperative (the KWV) was formed to control production and the market. It established prices for all wine and limited the number of vines per producer, hardly a system to encourage innovation. Apartheid didn't help the industry either as the international community imposed punishing sanctions.
Winemaking goes back to the early Dutch settlers. In fact, it was Dutch governor Jan van Riebeeck who, in 1655, planted the first vines. Four years later the grapes were pressed into wine. But it was really the French Huguenots — fleeing religious persecution back home — who brought a serious tradition of winemaking to South Africa.
Democracy Turns the Tide
With apartheid abolished in 1991 and sanctions lifted, the South African wine industry could turn its attention to improving its wines to compete in the world market. It imported better vine cuttings, expanded oak aging to commercial wines, and upgraded vineyard management, among other things.
Today, South Africa has only 1.5 percent of the world's vineyards, relegating it to seventeenth globally in area planted to grapes. In terms of wine production, however, South Africa is easily in the top ten.
White varieties account for about two-thirds of South Africa's grapes, with Chenin Blanc leading the charge. Called Steen in South Africa, it can be found in dry, sparkling, and late harvest styles.
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are quickly increasing in popularity, but most new plantings in South Africa these days are red varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red variety, followed by Pinotage and Shiraz.
South Africa's most famous wine regions are:
Stellenbosch — Just east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is home to South Africa's only viticulture and enology department, based at the University of Stellenbosch. Its fame is largely due to its red wines.
Paarl — Northwest of Cape Town, Paarl is home to the KWV and a large number of well-known estates.
Constantia — The closest wine region to Cape Town, Constantia is where the first South African vines were planted. Its fame stems from its eponymous dessert wine, but Sauvignon Blanc and several red varieties are bringing more recognition.
Walker Bay — A cool area with a maritime climate, Walker Bay is South Africa's Burgundy. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most exciting grape varieties here.
Pinotage is South Africa's contribution to grape breeding. In 1925 a professor from Stellenbosch University crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (called Hermitage in South Africa, hence, the name). The first international critiques of Pinotage wines were unkind. But, over time, the wines have earned respect.