Lost: The Wine Industry in 19th century South Africa


In my last post describing the early history of the South African wine industry (1655-1890), I lamented that very little has been written – or at least not easily found – explaining what happened between the late 1700s and the devastating phylloxera epidemic in 1886. Thanks to International Wine Review (iwinereview.com) and a recent comprehensive report on the wines of SA, I learned of a new book published in June called “Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution” by Tim James.

So before turning to the story of modern times, our lifetimes, I want to fill in the gap of what was a very tumultuous but important time in the country’s history that clearly shaped the modern world of wine we have experienced today. I can boil the essence of the lost century down to two factors: (1) considered a “European outpost” at the turn of the 19th century, the Colony of South Africa changed hands three times in 20 years, and (2) wine quality was – well – NOT! Problems existed all along the production chain from viticultural practices to winemaking techniques. It was frankly a mess.

An abbreviated recap of the key political and economic timeline during this period, with a sharp lens toward effects on the wine industry, provides context:
• Over a century of rule by the Dutch East India Company ended in 1795 with the first British occupation of South Africa.
• The Netherlands fought back to rule from 1803-1806.
• In 1806, the British answered this ping-pong match by re-occupying the colony which led to the ultimate cession of the Cape Colony to Britain in 1814.
• The population exploded to more than 40,000 Europeans living in SA by 1820.
• Preferential tariffs for European exports, so important in the early years to propel South Africa’s export market, began to wane in 1825. Prices plummeted.

There were periodic resurgences of profitable wine export trade from 1825 until 1885 depending on local crop conditions and British taxation policies. But no period of growth was ever enough to steady the trade industry or combat the problems of quality production that plagued the industry for decades. South African still wine and fortified Cape Brandy were primarily domestic products. Lacking a quality product for export, despite significant growth in local demand, the wine industry “boom” essentially fell apart by about 1835.

This erratic economic era snapped shut in 1885 when the once-prestigious Constantia farm on the Cape Town peninsula could no longer operate privately and was purchased by the government. The final “nail in the coffin” occurred in 1886 when the deadly phylloxera louse killed most grapevines in a global wave of misery that spread from the United States to Europe and to South Africa.

War and population growth had clearly been good for the wine trade. Plantings and production increased dramatically for nearly 100 years. Although problems with wine quality were well known, efforts to establish an export market were dashed when SA wines were rejected in European markets. It was a bust.

Yet, unbelievably, production continued unbridled. Wine farming, particularly in the southwest area around Cape Town, remained the prime agribusiness sector for years. Most farms were heavily mortgaged small producers growing high yielding vines. (It wasn’t until the 20th century that a global understanding emerged: low-yielding vineyards produce high-quality, complex and concentrated, wines.). Production surpluses in SA were reportedly dumped into rivers as waste product.

Author James gently tackles the history of the connections between slavery and the wine industry throughout these topsy-turvy years. Between 1770 and 1820, the slave population of SA increased four-fold to about 32,000. Owners of wine farms owned on average sixteen slaves. Although Britain officially ceased trading slaves in 1807, and further abolished slavery in 1834, the practices of slavery continued on.

Cape Colony farmers were faced with what history books describe as “a paradoxical situation”: they were encouraged by the British government to increase productivity with a declining labor pool. The incentives to uphold a terrible system of slave labor were embedded. But one example is needed to explain the paradox. The “Tot System”, also known as the Dop (Afrikaans for “alcoholic drink”) System, was a commodity exchange device that paid farm workers in a daily measure of cheap wine instead of cash. Workers were held captive, not so much at that point by physical force, but by addiction which destroyed many communities in South Africa. [This practice continued until it was banned in 1960, but carried on until the 1990s when Nelson Mandela’s democratic government enforced the ban.]

This is an admittedly brief summary of a long period of time and many socio-economic and political issues. I encourage further reading and research for more in-depth understanding of this period of time.

Photo credits: iaminamsterdam.com; thedrakevine.weebly.com.

One response to “Lost: The Wine Industry in 19th century South Africa

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