The roots of the South African wine industry can be traced to the explorations of the Dutch East India Company, which established a supply station in what is now Cape Town. A Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, was assigned the task of managing the station and planting vineyards to produce wines and grapes. This was intended to ward off scurvy amongst sailors during their voyages along the spice route to India and the East. The first harvest was made on 2 February 1659 (as noted in Van Riebeeck’s log) seven years after the landing in 1652. The man succeeding Van Riebeeck as governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Simon van der Stel, sought to improve the quality of viticulture in the region. In 1685, he purchased a large 750 hectares (1,900 acres) estate just outside Cape Town, establishing the Constantia wine estate. After Van der Stel’s death, the estate fell into disrepair, but was revived in 1778 when it was purchased by Hendrik Cloete.
Many growers gave up on winemaking, and instead chose to plant orchards and alfalfa fields to feed the growing ostrich feather industry. The growers that did replant with grapevines chose high-yielding grape varieties such as Cinsaut. By the early 1900s, more than 80 million vines had been replanted, creating a wine lake. Some producers would pour unsaleable wine into local rivers and streams. The imbalance between supply and demand that caused depressed prices prompted the South African government to fund the formation of the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV) in 1918. Started as a co-operative, the KWV soon grew in power and prominence eventually setting policies and prices for the entire South African wine industry. To deal with the wine glut, the KWV restricted yields and set minimum prices that encouraged the production of brandy and fortified wines.
For much of the 20th century, the South African wine industry received minimal international attention. Its isolation was exacerbated by the boycotts of South African products in protest against the country’s system of Apartheid. It was not until the 1990s when Apartheid was ended, and the world’s export market opened up, that South African wines began to experience a renaissance. Many producers in South Africa quickly adopted new viticultural and winemaking technologies. The presence of flying winemakers from abroad brought international influences and focus on well-known varieties such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The reorganisation of the powerful KWV co-operative into a private business sparked further innovation and improvement in quality. Vineyard owners and wineries who had previously relied on the price-fixing structure that bought their excess grapes for distillation were forced to become more competitive by shifting their focus to the production of quality wine. In 1990, less than 30% of all the grapes harvested were used for wine production meant for the consumer market with the remaining 70% being distilled into brandy, sold as table grapes and juice, or discarded. By 2003, the numbers had been reversed with more than 70% of the grapes harvested that year reaching the consumer market as wine.