South African Wine History

South Africa’s dynamic wine industry is constantly changing and reinventing itself as it takes up the challenges of global competition.

Today, more than 100 000 hectares of vineyards are cultivated by 4 700 grape farmers and wine is made in more than 500 wine cellars and estates.


New World versus Old World

Conventional wine wisdom holds that Europe is the Old World, while SA, among others, is the New. By extension, the OldWorld is blessed with ‘old’ terroir. (Terroir, loosely, is the combination of vineyard-site-specific elements which affect the resultant wine.) The NewWorld makes do with terroir that is less venerable, less ‘authentic’ and ‘valuable’. It is a perception which condemns the NewWorld to perpetual subordination.

For, in winemaking, terroir matters — you need great terroir to make great wine. If there is a passionate winemaker who doesn’t believe this, I have yet to meet her or him. Less certain is the relative importance of the various elements that constitute terroir. Winemakers appear to agree on two — climate and soil — as having a special significance.

Climate is mercurial, cantankerous, it threatens, forgives, never rests. Soil is the bedrock of winemaking dreams; its age affects structure and fertility, in turn shaping the character and flavour of the wine. Through spectacular bumping and grinding below the bedclothes of time we in southern Africa have inherited some of the most ancient soil in the world, traceable back to the first super continent, 1 000m years ago.

Our geology is like a craggy, sun-etched Wild West gunslinger — impossible to cram more character into one face. In soil terms, we are the Old World — this makes our wines different. When you capture that spirit of place in a wine it resonates with authentic brilliance. The wine echoes around your soul; maybe even your DNA.

Terroir, it is sometimes said, is influenced by the history and culture of the people who work the land. Reason is because humans affect how nature transforms the elements into life and visa versa. (Ever felt tense before a thunderstorm? Or spoken to your plants?) Europe, with its ancient and magnificent farming traditions, makes the link between man and terroir plausible. And yet, even here the evidence suggests that parts of Africa were cultivated before Europe. So even in this sense the Old World probably cannot claim supremacy over the New.

Ensconced in the cytoplasm of our cells are small structures called mitochondria which help the cells use oxygen. Mitochondria contain specific, identifiable DNA. This DNA is passed only from mother to child, and only from a female to the next generation — mitochondria reside only in the egg (not the sperm) from which we grow. Because of the inheritance pattern of mitochondrial DNA, we can track — with certainty — our maternal genetic ancestors back to a common ur-mother, the Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in southern Africa around 150 000 to 200 000 years ago. Which means the first and longest lasting interaction between man, sun and soil happened here in the collective cradle of humankind — southern Africa, the true ‘old’ terroir.  

Bruce Jack, Somerset West