Lost and Found?: 20th Century Wine Games in South Africa

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It was the longest imaginable game of ping pong with no declared winner. 80 years.

Make wine freely, then control it, then free it up again. Make bad bulk wine, push briefly for quality, and then set policies that all but guaranteed more bad wine. Fortify the wine and jack up the alcohol level (brandy), kick it down a notch to produce a marketable semi-quality still wine, then kick it back up a notch to make bad brandy again. This dizzying process makes you wonder how on earth the captains of this particular universe pulled South Africa out of this tailspin.

But they did, eventually. Here's how the story goes from 1910-1994.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created by the political unification of two boer republics (Transvaal and Free State) with two British colonies (Cape and Natal). Almost immediately the wine industry became just another struggling agribusiness starved for capital. A solution was crafted in 1917 by a new Viticultural Union: the Cooperative Winegrowers' Association of South Africa Ltd. (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Beperkt or KWV for short) was approved as a "mutual society" in 1923. Its job was to control the sale and disposal of wine for its members to secure an adequate return for the product. (Notice there was no mention of vineyard or production quality control, which was at that very point was being developed as the modern system of appellations in Europe.)

Liquor control powers granted to the KWV the next year shifted producers' attention to pot-stilled Brandy and then Sherry. South Africa became one of the world's largest brandy producers. Quality still wine production took a back seat. Even though the Pinotage grape (Pinot Noir x Cinsault) was created at the University of Stellenbosch at about the same time, interest in fortified wines ruled the day. The most symbolic example is that government had all but abandoned the famous vineyards at Groot Constantia (from the 1600s), and its historic manor house burned down in 1925. Skipping ahead in my story, all is well in modern times. I will be visiting Groot Constantia on October 26th!

The next chapter of this story is particularly bleak. Quality was discouraged by a minimum pricing scheme, but in a perverse twist, production increased dramatically. This went on until about 1940 when the KWV was granted additional power to control transactions for the whole wine industry, including production limits. But even so, vineyard owners were farmers, not winemakers. They were paid for overproduction, so the practice continued. The wine industry expanded slowly to inland parts of the country where warmer climate and irrigation promoted high yields. There were no incentives to produce quality grapes for quality wine.

Things began to shift in 1959. The Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (government cooperative) was acquired by a private owner who infused the property with capital and new technologies, and launched a revolution in Cape wine with a semi-sweet Chenin Blanc called Lieberstein. It created a huge new domestic market, and thus "imitators" got to work within the constraints imposed by the KWV. More Chenin Blanc was planted. Cellars were modernized. The Cape tradition of emphasizing white wines was reinforced.

In a move that must be viewed as both terrible (political and economic motives) and terrific (equity), a piece of legislation in 1962 permitted the unrestricted sale of liquor to all races, but continued to restrict by race the locations where wine could be purchased. Overproduction was still a problem until KWV was further empowered to set production limits, and quality remained a problem because the regulations made no distinction between bulk and quality wines. Until 1992, when the quota system of production was abolished, the development of new wine regions was effectively vetoed by the KWV.

A series of events from 1970-90 began to reveal that South Africa's conservative and complacent approach threatened to leave it behind on the world stage forever. Among the defiant pokes at KWV were innovative private owners finding loopholes in the regulations, importing vines of the noble varieties (e.g., Chardonnay, Cabernet), and the competitive juices that started flowing on many continents after Americans prevailed in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Although the French appellation system was created in 1935, South Africa's "Wine of Origin" scheme was not developed until 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community, affecting the rules of production, quality and labeling for any country selling wine to European nations. Extensive research was conducted by the Enological and Viticultural Research Institute (Nietvoorbij) which had been established in 1969. New technical developments fueled a decade of innovation and experimentation during the 1970s, leading to a full-scale consolidation of these gains into regular winegrowing practices in the 1980s. Things were evolving to the point that a South African wine guide was created in 1980 by John and Erica Platter. (I am looking at the 33rd edition on my desk — thanks Mary Horn!)

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As author Tim James notes in Wines of the New South Africa, “(t)he end of the white majority regime in 1994 allowed for the remarkable changes in the South African wine industry that followed…political liberation at home opened the wine industry to the world.” The KWV was privatized in 1997.

Image credits: southafrica.net; online.wsj.com

Next installment: 25 years of the “new” South Africa

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