After pegging an article about Barberas to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, I promised myself that I would never again use an international sporting event as a hook for a wine column—it seemed too predictable, too trite. But as the World Cup approached, I began to waver. If I didn't use this opportunity to write about South African wines, the next chance to peg a column to a major quadrennial athletic competition wouldn't come until at least the 2018 World Cup (location: TBD). Between now and then, the global sports calendar is decidedly thin on wine links. The 2012 Summer Olympics will be held in London; the 2014 Winter Games, in Sochi, Russia; Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup; and Rio de Janeiro will be the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. For a sports-besotted wine writer, this looks to be a frustrating decade. My resolve was already crumbling when I read a crazy story a few months ago about grape-eating baboons decimating some South African vineyards (with winemakers using vuvuzelas to chase off the predators), and now, 62 games and four full weeks into the World Cup, it has collapsed entirely, hence this column. And, actually, if the World Cup has been a celebration of the new, post-apartheid South Africa, the South African wine industry is a potent symbol of the nation's progress but also offers sobering evidence that there is still much work to be done.
South Africa has a long but checkered winemaking heritage. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a South African dessert wine known as Constantia or Vin de Constance, made from the muscat grape, was a prized elixir and enjoyed strong international demand. Mainly, though, the country produced a lot of plonk. That was especially true during the apartheid era. Stifling regulations, policies that favored large, swill-manufacturing cooperatives at the expense of smaller, more conscientious producers, and South Africa's international isolation left the wine industry moribund. The industry also exemplified the perniciousness of South Africa's racial segregation. The wineries were white-owned, of course, and there was a tradition of paying employees partly in alcohol—the so-called dop system—which contributed to social disorder in the communities in which vineyard workers lived and to a high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome among their children.
With the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa's wine industry was given a chance to reinvent itself, and it seized the opportunity. The ability—and need—to compete internationally, along with access to the latest in viticultural technology and know-how, led to a dramatic improvement in farming practices and finished products. Inferior vines were replaced, crop yields were reduced, and a serious effort was begun to match the right grapes to the right soils. (During the apartheid years, planting tended to be done indiscriminately.) Quality soared, and South African wines found a receptive audience overseas. In 1992, South Africa exported less than 50 million liters of wine; it now ships around 500 million liters abroad annually and ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer. The wines enjoy their biggest following in the United Kingdom, where they have around 12 percent of the market. American consumers have been slower to embrace them; South Africa has less than 1 percent of the U.S. market for imported wines.
South Africa's winelands, as they are known, are centered in the mountainous Western Cape, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet and a Mediterranean climate prevails. Stellenbosch, just east of Cape Town, is considered the country's top winemaking region and is home to a number of acclaimed estates. To date, South Africa has been spared the flavor-of-the-month syndrome—no one grape variety has caught on to the point where it has completely overshadowed all others, which is what happened in New Zealand with sauvignon blanc. Taking advantage of the Western Cape's diverse soils and microclimates, vintners have been free to experiment with a number of grapes, unpressured by any bandwagon effect. Chenin Blanc is considered the country's premier white wine grape, but there are also excellent chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. Among red wine grapes, pinotage, a local variety that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault, has been eclipsed by cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. The latter is widely regarded as the likeliest to emerge as South Africa's signature red grape, but the country also make very good cabernets. Some producers do well with the other cabernet, cabernet franc. There is even hope for the famously ornery pinot noir. By not becoming pigeonholed, South Africa has been able to not only gain recognition for the quality of its wines but also the variety that it has to offer.
For all its recent success, however, the wine industry hasn't entirely put the past behind it. Although people of color account for the vast majority of wine industry employees, very few vineyards are owned by nonwhites, and this is a source of enduring friction. Earlier this year, the state-owned African Exploration, Mining, and Finance Corporation withdrew a controversial bid to prospect for minerals in an area of the Western Cape that included some of the country's most prized vineyards. The decision came as a big relief to the threatened estates, but, according to an article in the current issue of the excellent British quarterly The World of Fine Wine, the push to excavate on vineyard land reflects underlying tensions between South Africa's black majority and a wine industry rooted in the colonial past and in which ownership remains overwhelmingly white. The article paints a troubling picture of the politics of wine production in South Africa. There is frustration among blacks at the slow pace of land redistribution, and the thriving wine sector is a potent symbol of that failure. South African vintners have made things worse for themselves by not reaching out more to black consumers, many of whom view the wine industry as an emblem of an abhorred era.
But Andre Shearer, a Johannesburg native whose company, Cape Classics, has been importing South African wines to the United States since the early 1990s, says that the mining threat has been overblown. The wine industry, which employs around 300,000 people, is sufficiently lucrative that the government is not going to let prestigious vineyards be dug up, particularly since there's lots of other land that can be exploited. Shearer does concede that South African viticulture has a race problem. "The industry is far too white," he says. He cautions, however, that there are no quick fixes to this problem. He says that simply creating more black proprietors without giving them the expertise and resources to succeed in such a competitive business would be counterproductive. "We don't want to set people up for failure," Shearer says. "The focus should be on education, mentoring, and the gradual transfer of ownership. I'm not interested in tokenism; I'm interested in seeing better juice."