South Africa’s wine lineage can be traced to the Dutch East India Company and the establishment of a trading station at the Cape in the mid-17th century. Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape, planted a vineyard in 1655, and on February 2, 1659, the first wine was made from Cape grapes. Van Riebeeck strongly encouraged farmers to plant vineyards, but the Dutch had almost no wine tradition and it was only after the French Huguenots settled at the Cape between 1680 and 1690 that the wine industry began to flourish. As religious refugees, the Huguenots had very little money and had to make do with the bare essentials. They also had to adapt their established winemaking techniques to new conditions. But with time their culture and skills left a permanent impression on South Africa’s wine industry, and on life at the Cape.
In the first half of the 19th century, the British occupation of the Cape, in addition to Britain’s war with France, created a large new market for Cape wines. The vines at the Cape increased within 45 years from 13 to 55 million and wine production from 0,5 million to 4,5 million litres. However, 1861 brought disaster. Britain finally resolved her differences with France, and South Africa’s wine exports collapsed. In 1886, the disease phylloxera was discovered at the Cape and decimation of the vineyards followed.
The year 1899 saw the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War. The wine industry was in chaos. A proliferation of new plantings caused overproduction and 25 years of hardship followed. It was Charles Kohler who set out to alleviate the situation. His efforts led to the creation in 1918 of the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt (KWV). An umbrella for its farmer members, the KWV brought stability to the industry, placing it on the road to growth and prosperity.
The foundation was laid for today’s thriving wine industry, but a widespread focus on quality over quantity had not yet come to South Africa. But it would. As Jamie
“The big change was the end of white minority rule in 1994,” Jamie Goode wrote in his 2013 essay, A brief History of South African Wine. “This is effectively the start point for the modern South African wine industry, and the changes over the last 19 years have been quite dramatic. The KWV ended its quota system in 1992, dropped the minimum pricing in 1994, and was converted into a private company in 1997. It still exists, but only as a large wine producer, not a regulatory body. The wine industry was now free to grow, innovate and change, and it has been busy doing this over the last couple of decades.”
-Adapted from the Wines of South Africa website