How The Wine Industry in South Africa Started

South Africa is renowned for its varied topography, unique natural beauty, and cultural diversity. This southernmost country on the tip of Africa is home to many wine regions, most of which are concentrated around the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The majority of the wine regions have a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine and dry heat, perfect for grapes. Winters are often chilly and damp, with the possibility of snowfall at higher elevations.[1]

While many people think of South Africa as a wine-producing country in the ‘new world’, the truth is that the country has been making wine for centuries. Their winemaking traditions began when the Dutch East India Company, dealing in spices among other items, decided in 1652 to set up a halfway pit stop on the southern tip of Africa. The main purpose of this station was to supply their Native American merchant ships with fresh produce. Three years later, the first vines were planted by Governor Jan Van Riebeck near modern-day Cape Town. [2]

The first harvest of South African wine was recorded in 1659. The Dutch were so pleased with the result that they decided to plant vines at a much larger scale in Roschheuvel, today known as Bishopscourt and Wynberg. While most farmers were reluctant to plant vineyards, Van Riebeeck convinced many to try. Fortunately, they followed his advice and the region quickly expanded its reach beyond Cape Town. Because wine was thought to ward off scurvy among traveling sailors, this new settlement became a popular stop for traders traveling between Europe and India.

The industry’s success really took off and blossomed with the arrival of the French Huguenots between 1680 and 1690. Pushed out of their homeland, most of the Huguenots had little money, but they did have plenty of winemaking experience, something most of the Dutch lacked.

The 18th century was a bad moment for the new wine industry. The markets in European and the Far East were not eager to import Cape wine. Additionally, the quality level was falling behind much of the world’s wine. The bad quality wine can be attributed to multiple reasons, first, a barrel shortage made aging wines difficult. Some wineries even resorted to using barrels that had once stored brined meat. Second, the wine industry was still very new and no one was sure which grape varietals were bests suited to the area, nor the best winemaking techniques for the different climates of the area.

However, at the beginning of the 19th century, things began to turn around and the industry began to flourish. Due to the British occupation of the Cape, and their war with France, they began to start importing and consuming much of the Cape wine. Within 45 years, the number of vines on the Cape expanded from 13 to 55 million, and wine production increased from 0.5 million to 4.5 million liters.[3]

In 1886 things started going badly again.  Phylloxera, a grapevine disease, was first discovered in the area. This ferocious disease quickly swept through the vineyards, killing and weakening many vines. It was also a politically difficult time in the country. As the effects of the disease spread across the various wine regions, farmers began to look to other agricultural products to take the place of grapes; orchards and alfalfa fields were the most popular.

American rootstock was subsequently introduced to the region, and while it was also accompanied by some nasty diseases, South Africa was back on track as a wine-producing region.[4]  As with much of the world at the time, there were no standards or regulations for wine, and this led to an abundance of grape –and some rather horrendous wines. Some were so bad that they were even poured into nearby tributaries.

The Anglo-Boer War began in 1899, and wine became anything but a priority in South Africa. Aside from the war, and because of it, the wine industry was in chaos. A flurry of vineyard plantings led to an overproduction of wine, bringing about 25 years of hardship. Charles Kohler was the person who set out to change things. The Ko-operative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV) was formed in 1918 thanks to his efforts. The KWV provided stability to the sector, allowing it to develop and begin prospering. The groundwork paved the way for the successful wine industry we know today.[5]

Then, in 1948, South African wines took another devastating blow with the onset of the country’s apartheid policy, essentially cutting off their wines from the rest of the world. Although apartheid didn’t end until 1994, in 1973 the country introduced its own classification system, the “Wine of Origin” legislation.[6]

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On this Day

1655 – The first grapevines were imported to South Africa from Spain, France, and Germany.

1659 – The first wine was produced at the colony on the Cape. Governor Van Riebeeck wrote in his diary on 02 February: “Today, praise be to god, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.”

1886 – The vine disease, phylloxera killed millions of vines in the Cape area.

1918 – The Ko-operative Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) was formed, which helped turn around the failing wine industry.

1925 – Professor Perold created Pinotage (the famous South African varietal) by crossing Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut).

1927 – The first South African Pinot Noir was made by Georg Canitz of Muratie.

Want to read more? Try these books!

The Wine Industry of South Africa. A Sector Report The wines of South Africa- 9781913022037 (Classic Wine Library)

Wine Pairing Recommendation


[1] H. Johnson & J. Robinson The World Atlas of Wine pg 320–322 Mitchell Beazley Publishing 2005 ISBN 1-84000-332-4

[2]J. Robinson (ed) “The Oxford Companion to Wine” Third Edition pg 162–163 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0-19-860990-6

[3]Platter’s South African Wines 2011 Andrew McDowall 2010, pg. 47–48

[4]John Platter South African Wines 2007 Andrew McDowall 2010, pg. 59

[5]“Wines of the Rainbow Nation: The Rocky History of South African Wine.” 2016. October 19, 2016.

[6] Jancis Robinson (ed) The Oxford Companion to Wine Third Edition pg 528 Oxford University Press 2006

Categories: Country Profiles, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: October 31, 2022Last Updated: February 27, 2024

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