South Africa’s Wine Heritage

Sep 23, 2021

On the 24th of September every year, South Africans have the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate our rich and diverse heritage. It’s an opportunity to look back and see how far we’ve come, but also to give some serious thought to where it is we’re heading as a nation and the legacy we’re leaving for future generations.

We recently gathered a panel of local and international thought leaders to unpack the complex concept of South African wine heritage for the latest edition of our Vinimark Webinar series.

Chaired by wine journalist and creator of HanDrinksSolo, Jono Le Feuvre, the panel included Greg Sherwood, international wine journalist and Master of Wine; Siobhan Thompson, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA); Evan Alexander, Vinimark Head of International Sales; Rosa Kruger, Old Vine Project founder, and world-renowned viticulturist; Jason Wilson, United States-based journalist and author of Godforsaken Grapes; and Michael Fridjhon, historian, writer, wine judge and entrepreneur.

Historical accolades

When talking about South African wine heritage, the Constantia valley would be a logical place to start. Not only is it home to Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in South Africa, but it’s also the point of origin for our first internationally acclaimed wines.

During his exile on St Helena Island, Napoleon Bonaparte requested the rare indulgence of a regular supply of Grande Constance (the French translation of Groot Constantia) dessert wine up until his death in 1821. Sweet wines from the Constantia Valley were also favourites of European royalty, such as Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and King Louis Philippe of France; and enjoyed literary references in the novels of, among others, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

For the modern South African wine industry to rest on these now ancient laurels would, however, be both inappropriate and unimaginative.

“It’s nice to claim that we were the first icon of the new world,” said Michael Fridjhon. “[But] I think, firstly, that sweet wines are not in fashion and if we’re going to try and nail our colours to a mast of dessert wine and a reputation of Napoleonic wars, Jane Austen and Old Constantia, we’re knocking at the wrong door. We’re missing the opportunity to show what we do so well in so many other fields.”

Claiming a calling card

Similarly, as the first proudly South African grape variety, Pinotage - a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (Hermitage) created by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925 – may seem like our most obvious flagship to send out into the world. However, its uniqueness is both a boon and a curse.

Fridjhon pointed out that, on the one hand, Pinotage is the heir apparent to South Africa’s wine heritage, as it has no global competitors.

“However, you can’t compete in a vacuum,” he added. “You need to be able to show that what you are doing is not unique but that it is markedly better or markedly different.”

This is where Chenin Blanc steps up to the plate as a prospective blue-eyed variety for the South African wine industry.

“Chenin is really a strong calling card for South Africa around the world,” Siobhan Thompson confirmed, adding that both Pinotage, and even more so Chenin Blanc, are performing well in China and the East.

Back in the early 1990s, it was Fridjhon who started championing Chenin, an oft-overlooked and embattled variety, among the who’s who of South African wine.

One of the reasons for this was its abundance – mostly thanks to the thriving local brandy industry – with Chenin covering nearly 30 000 ha of vineyards, at that stage. Another was the fact that some of South Africa’s oldest Chenin vineyards were producing wines so exquisite that viticulturalists in France’s Loire Valley – the traditional home of Chenin – sat up and took note.

“I realised that we need to save those vineyards before they get pulled out and replaced with Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,” said Fridjhon.

What our Old Vines can teach us about our heritage

A number of years later, in 2002, Rosa Kruger set out in search of South Africa’s old vines – those that have been around for 35 years or longer. This search was inspired by the beauty of the old vineyards she discovered during trips to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina and the unique character of the wines they seemed to produce. This search eventually evolved into one of the true gems addressing outh Africa’s wine heritage: The Old Vine Project.

“At the time, we had 2600 ha of vines older than 35 years in this country, we’ve now moved it up to 3700 ha,” said Kruger. “Whilst general hectarage of wine in South Africa is decreasing, old vineyards are increasing and that’s already a good start.”

Currently, South Africa has nine vineyards older than 120 years, among which Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Muscat Alexandri are the most prevalent varieties.

In particular, it has been the Chenin Blanc old vines and the wines they produce that have piqued the interest of viticulturalists across the globe – most notably the Loire Valley itself.

According to Kruger, the Loire Châteaux Association contracted four researchers to investigate South Africa’s old vine Chenin Blanc to establish what sets it apart.

“They found that there are clones or selections of Chenin here that are completely extinct in the rest of the world - they don’t exist in France anymore,” Kruger revealed.

Furthermore, they also discovered three old vineyards that are completely free from leafroll virus.

“If we can learn from these old vineyards, maybe in the future we can plant in a way that these vines stay naturally healthy,” said Kruger.

Leaning into authenticity

Apart from their age and tenacity, old vines also represent the type of old-world craft and authenticity that seem to be in short supply in an age of automation.

“The strongest selling point at my end of the industry – selling South African fine wine brands – is that we have this incredible authenticity because of our history and where we come from,” said Greg Sherwood. “We’ve got many points of difference and diversity. That’s what really appeals to my fine wine buyers - collectability, scarcity and ageability.”

Earlier in the conversation, Fridjhon touched on a related aspect when he said: “Craft is, in fact, the new luxury. Things that cannot be automated are in a sense the future of where wealthy money is going.”

So, the question is: how do we harness ‘craft’ and a sense of authenticity to establish a strong South African wine heritage for generations to come?

When it comes to craft, Kruger and Fridjhon agree that training of farm labourers and viticulturalists is absolutely crucial.

“Training is effectively, the single most important survival mechanism that is the missing building block to our old vine heritage and our ability to convert unfashionable varieties such as Chenin Blanc into expressions of place,” said Fridjhon.

From Kruger’s perspective, developing the skills of the people working in the field is essential to keeping viticulture thriving in South Africa.

“Our school rooms can be the vineyards, our tools are our hands and our secateurs and in every region we can form groups of people on the farms that bi-annually train people in the fields,” she said. “If we can train more people, it will be a win-win for everybody.”

“Then, maybe, in 50 years we can look back and say that in the most destitute of times things changed for the South African wine industry and people’s lives started improving.”

Telling our story

In terms of authenticity, Jason Wilson highlighted the importance of shifting our focus to storytelling as a means of educating consumers that are only just discovering South African wines.

“South Africa is mostly a blank slate in the United States,” he said. “The wines don’t have a bad reputation; they just don’t really have much of a reputation.”

This leaves a lot of room for wooing the US market – specifically those at the premium end of the spectrum – with the stories behind South Africa’s wines, rather than simply quoting facts and figures.

Evan Alexander noted that, in terms of Vinimark’s exports, the most exciting area of growth is indeed on the premium side of things with wines that have an unusual story to tell.

“These include the likes of The Chocolate Block, Boekenhoutskloof, Porseleinberg and Reyneke, all of which really speak to some of the most interesting viticultural projects happening in South Africa right now,” he said.

Of course, one of the things South Africa has going for it in terms of storytelling is a well-established wine tourism industry with multiple wine routes and an abundance of estates – each with their own set of fascinating people and stories.

“We have world class wine tourism offerings with premium experiences and have to bring people to South Africa to discover this first-hand,” said Thompson.

Moving with the times

Far from ending with a hard and fast definition of South Africa’s wine heritage, the webinar perfectly illustrated the fact that it is an ever-evolving and complex concept requiring constant reflection and interrogation, but also leadership with deliberate interventions in training and promotion. While part of our heritage may be where it all started, the most important aspect is to focus on where it is we are going and what we are leaving behind for future generations.

At this point in time, it is crucial for the South African wine industry to harness the lessons of the past in order to create a brighter future for all, to embrace our authentic stories and to keep preserving the legacy of our Old Vines.

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