South African Wines Flourish

End Of Apartheid Spurs Growth In Production And Export Of Red And White Varietals


The year was 1652 and the Dutch East India Co., although thriving in trade, had a big problem: the scourge of the ancient mariner, also known as scurvy. With fruit consistently spoiling on the long voyages to the Spice Islands, known now as Indonesia, ships would dock with dozens of men sick or dead from the illness.

To attack the problem, the shipping giant dispatched Commander Jan van Riebeeck, a physician, to Table Bay at the Southern tip of the ``dark continent'' -- South Africa -- with the idea of establishing an agricultural foothold and re-supply port where ships would stop for fresh fruit. But, in the age of exploration, Van Riebeeck made his own discovery. Looking at the Spanish sailors drinking wine from other ships' pursers, he concluded that: ``Besides having much happier sailors than the Dutch, the Spanish had healthier sailors,'' said Robin Back, a South African vintner and partner in Fairview Vineyards, one of the country's most prominent vineyards today.

Van Riebeeck immediately ordered a shipment of vine shoots from Europe and planted the first cuttings in 1655. By February 1659, he wrote home, ``Today, praise the Lord, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time.''

Though during the next century South Africa earned an international reputation for its dessert wines nurtured by persecuted French Huguenots, eventually war and disease -- the unfortunate byproduct of the colonization that created the intoxicating elixir -- and then apartheid decimated the vineyards and ruined global trade. But nearly 340 years after Van Riebeeck tended his vineyard, the South African government has sowed the seeds of change and its wines have flourished again.

``I never thought I would have seen the changes in my lifetime. I've gone from feeling shame for being South African to feeling complete pride,'' Back said. ``As a country and an industry we've come further in 12 years than America has come in 100.''

Today, winemaking has become a dynamic force in South Africa's agricultural sector -- the 14 wards that surround Cape Town and make up the country's Southern tip where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. South Africa is the seventh-largest wine producer in the world -- just behind Australia and ahead of Portugal. From a single 17th-century experimental vineyard, 4,246 primary wine producers and 428 wine cellars have sprung, according to 2002 statistics from ``John Platter's South African Wine Guide.''

The primary reason for the proliferation of South African wines is without a doubt the end of apartheid, which resulted in the lifting of trade sanctions. But political action alone didn't improve sales. ``When democracy first took over, the wines were really bad,'' said Jim Kowalyshyn, the Connecticut sales representative for Vineyard Brands, the state's main distributor of South African wines. ``Most were very lean, acidic and earthy. They had a rubbery, jammy taste.''

To remedy this problem, South African vintners looked to the Old World for traditional techniques in refining their wines. Not possessing the delicate soils of Europe, however, they also embraced technology previously unavailable under sanctions, including remote sensing, Global Positioning Systems and satellite imagery to help them position their crops and maximize their harvest.

As a result of the drastic changes, South African wine has become one of the fastest growing sellers, especially on the West and East coasts. In Connecticut, Kowalshyn, who represents 15 South African labels, including Back's Fairview Vineyards, golfer Ernie Els' vintages and U2 lead singer Bono's Boekenhoutskloof, will sell 5,000 cases this year -- four times his sales in 1999.

``They [South African winemakers] turned it around quickly,'' Kowalshyn said. He estimates that nearly every fine liquor store in the state carries at least one South African brand.

Roots Of African Winemaking

A 20-minute drive from Cape Town, the nation's largest city, lies South Africa's answer to Napa Valley. The area is divided into regions, sometimes small wards, to differentiate between climate and soil type. A trip through the area provides not only an unparalleled wine-tasting experience, but also a lesson in the country's diverse history.

Many consider Stellenbosch -- an Afrikaner stronghold of the apartheid movement -- the finest wine area in South Africa, especially for reds. Nearly all the most famous South African wines grow in Stellenbosch -- more than 80 -- and the region has gained much acclaim for the wines from Engelbrecht Els, pro golfer Ernie Els' vineyard just over Helderberg Mountain in the heart of the Cape Peninsula. Englebrecht Els produces the Ernie Els signature bordeaux, as well as the Englebrecht Els traditional lineup of red wines and the $12 Guardian Peak, a cabernet sauvignon-shiraz-merlot blend known for its smoky, leathery undercurrents, a hint of wood and smooth tannins.

Wine critic James Molesworth of Wine Spectator magazine has called the Els bordeaux a ``sleek thoroughbred of a wine, and the best I've had yet from this region.''

Nestling Stellenbosch to the Northeast is Franschhoek, or ``French Corner,'' the land given to the French Calvinist Protestants, the Huguenots, in 1688 by Dutch East India Gov. Simon van der Stel, a cultured man who was dismayed by the poor quality of the food and drink. The wines coming out of Franschhoek wouldn't disappoint the discriminating European today.

Even though white varieties still comprise the majority of vineyard plantings, red grapes have tipped the balance a little more in their favor, from 15 percent red in 1990 to about a third of overall wine production, according to Kowalshyn. In 2000, more than 80 percent of new plantings were red, with shiraz, cabernet and merlot taking top billing. South Africans have added to the mix of reds by creating pinotage, a cross of the pinot noir and cinsault grape, which delivers light- to mid-bodied wines with blueberry aromas.

Though most vintners in Franschhoek merely attempted to mimic French winemaking, Marc Kent, proprietor of the region's Boekenhoutskloof winery, took the vine by the branch by planting a grape previously indigenous to France. The syrah grape, known for forming the backbone of most Rh0ne blends, now stands alone as its own vintage produced by Boekenhoutskloof.

A bottle of Boekenhoutskloof, named for a rare wood used to make exquisite caned chairs, will set an American connoisseur back about $40 -- an apparent exception to South Africa's reputation for producing European quality wine at reasonable costs. But Scott Randall, the wine buyer at Woodbridge's Amity Wine and Spirit Co., calls Boekenhoutskloof ``an exceptional quality for the price.''

``It's a $40 bottle that tastes like a $75 bottle,'' Randall said. ``People who drink Australian wines, who pay $20 for a Penfold's shiraz, are now trying South African wines at $15 a bottle.'' Boekenhoutskloof also makes Porcupine Ridge, a more budget-conscious syrah.

''When gas prices hit $3 a gallon, people tend to trade down -- substitute Budweiser for Heineken,'' said Randall. ``In substituting South African wines, they're spending less money, but not trading down in quality.''

Amending Apartheid's Injustices

In the post-apartheid era, racial progress has sometimes seemed to be little more than symbolic. Before the 1990s, under the Native Land Act of 1913, black farm workers had no rights to the land they tended, and using the ``tot'' system, vintners could partly pay their laborers with the liquor they produced, creating continuous patterns of alcoholism and poverty.

But South Africa's wine industry has taken some significant steps toward black economic empowerment -- one of President Thabo Mbeki's main platforms. Sometimes known as the Cape Crusaders, people such as Charles Back, the current owner of Fairview Vineyards, and Alan Nelson, of Nelson's Creek winery, have chosen to give their black workers a stake in the business by handing over large tracts of land, or even neighboring estates.

In 2003, Charles Back purchased 18 hectares (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) for Fairview's workers, who created the independent label, Fair Valley, and started exporting it to Great Britain. Fair Valley exports an average of 25,000 bottles a year and recently won a contract for distribution in the United States.

``South Africa has a lot of programs to right the wrongs of the past, but it is a lot easier to change the political than economical. We realized we needed to do our part to change the economical,'' Robin Back said. ``As white South Africans, we've been unfairly advantaged by systems skewed in our favor, and realized we have a role to play -- that we can't leave change up to the government.

``I think people have embraced the new South Africa and that they want to make the new South Africa work and go forward.''

A New Threshold

With a booming domestic demand, a surge in American and European interest, and a sizable apartheid recovery effort, South African winemakers have crossed a new threshold. Even so, many in the industry expect the country's wines to remain a niche market -- and they're fine with that.

``When you look at the growth since South African wines have been in the States, you'll see we're growing at a huge percentage from a very small base,'' said Robin Back, who travels across the U.S. for wine tastings 35 or so weeks out of the year.

``If you look at the floral kingdoms of the world, the Western Cape in South Africa is one of the smallest yet one of the most diverse -- the only one that fits in the over 9,600 plant species. We tend not to have the ability to make a uniform wine, and we think our potential for diverse flavors, instead of for production of one homogenous wine, makes us special.''