South African wine has a history dating back to 1659, and at one time Constantia, a famous wine region on the slopes of Table Mountain, was considered one of the greatest wine producing regions in the world. After apartheid, access to international markets unleashed a burst of new energy and new investment. Production is concentrated around Cape Town, with major vineyard and production centres at Paarl, Stellenbosch and Worcester. There are about 60 appellations within the Wine of Origin (WO) system, which was implemented in 1973 with a hierarchy of designated production regions, districts and wards.
On 2 February 1659 the founder of Cape Town, Jan van Riebeeck, produced the first wine recorded in South Africa. In 1685, the Constantia estate was established in a valley facing False Bay by the Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. His Vin de Constance soon acquired a good reputation. But it was Hendrik Cloete, who bought the homestead in 1778, who really made the name of Constantia famous, with an unfortified wine made from a blend of mostly Muscat de Frontignan (Muscat Blanc Petits Grains), Pontac, red and white Muscadel and a little Chenin Blanc – read more about Vin de Constance below.
The winemaking traditions of South Africa often represent a hybridization of Old World wine making and the new. Since the end of Apartheid, many producers have been working on producing more “international style” wines that can be successful on the world market. Flying winemakers from France, Spain and California have brought new techniques and styles to South Africa. In the 1980s, the use of oak barrels for fermentation and aging became popular. Today the focus in the South African wine industry has been on increasing the quality of wine production-particularly with the more exportable and fashionable red grape varieties. Traditionally South African red wines had a reputation for being coarse in texture with rustic flavours.
Pinotage – South Africa’s Signature Grape?
Pinotage, a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, has seen its plantings rise and fall due to the current fashion of the South African wine industry. Today it is the second most widely planted red grape variety in South Africa. While there are supporters who want to make the grape South Africa’s signature variety, critics of the grape note that hardly any other wine region in the world has planted the variety due to its flaws. In the early 1990s, as Apartheid ended and the world’s wine market was opening up, winemakers in South Africa ignored Pinotage in favour of more internationally recognized varieties like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Towards the end of the 20th century, the grape’s fortunes began to turn, and by 1997 it commanded higher prices than any other South African grape. It is a required component (30-70%) in “Cape blends”. Here it is made into the full range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also made into a fortified ‘port’ style, and even a red sparkling wine. The grape can be very dependent on the style of winemaking, with well made examples having the potential to produce deep colored, fruity wines that can be accessible early as well as age.
South Africa’s Greatest wine – on a World stage…
A wine to rival the best in the world “the natural sweet wines of Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance”.
“From these Elysian fields used to come one of the very greatest wines in the world” – the legendary Constantia, writes Hugh Johnson. Constantia was bought by European courts in the early 19th century in preference to Yquem, Tokay and Madeira. Kings vied for possession of this wine. Louis Philippe sent emissaries from France to fetch it, Napoleon drank it on the island of St Helena, finding solace in his lonely exile, Frederick the Great and Bismarck ordered it and in England the Prime Minister – who had sampled it with much delight at Downing Street – made sure that consignments from the Cape were delivered to Buckingham Palace for the King.
“The sweet, luscious and excellent wine called Constantia” soon became part of the literature of the 19th century. In Edwin Drood Charles Dickens tells of “…the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit”, while Jane Austen recommends that her forsaken heroine try a little Constantia for “…its healing powers on a disappointed heart”. While German poet Klopstock devotes an entire ode to the pleasures of this wine, Baudelaire transforms it into a sensuous image for his great brooding poem Les Fleurs du mal.
It was remarkable for a young country to produce a famous wine like Constantia in such a short space of time ‘from the wine making point of view that is’ which goes back for thousands of years.
In the 19th Century, Constantia was sent all over the world, to Denmark, America, India and Australia, to France, Holland and Germany where Frederick the Great, Bismarck and the King of the Holland all enjoyed it. Hugh Johnson notes that during Napoleon’s time, Constantia fetched prices as high as any wine in the world. During Napoleon’s five-year exile on the rocky island of St. Helena he was comforted by the delivery of 30 bottles of Constantia a month which mapmaker and geographer, Comte de Las Cases, had ordered for him. It pleased the Emperor so much that he kept it entirely for himself, and he is said to have asked for “a glass of Las Cases wine” just before he died. A startling quantity of Constantia was shipped to England “to soften the temper of Ministers and to sweeten the lips of Royalty itself”, says William Wilberforce Bird. Governors, admirals, judges, paymasters and whoever else had been nimble enough to get themselves in line received a cask or two. 100 half-aums were sent to the British Prime Minister in 1812, while 50 went to the Colonial Secretary. King George IV, was also eager to receive his share of the spoils, for in April 1827 letters were sent to and from Downing Street organising the delivery of 60 casks of Constantia which arrived in March and April “for the use of His Majesty”. Perhaps the most honoured guests were the emissaries who arrived in 1833 to buy wine for Louis Philippe, the King of France. They tasted the wines of Groot Constantia before deciding after a third tasting, that Constantia wines were definitely superior. An extremely good time was had by all and when the gentlemen returned, a trifle unsteadily, to their ship, they left a contract from the King which is still in the Manor House today.