If I had any doubts I was on the other side of the world when I arrived in South Africa near winter’s end almost five years ago, they were put to bed 48 hours later after a day of wine tasting. That’s when I discovered how topsy-turvy I was ― in South Africa, grape harvest takes place between February and April.
South Africa’s first vineyards were planted some 350 years ago by French Huguenots who brought vine cuttings with them from France. As of last year, the country is ranked seventh in the world by volume of wine produced. (Canada isn’t even in the top 30.)
It hasn’t been an easy ride to seventh place, however. The economic sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid regime nearly destroyed its wine industry and are still having an impact. Many producers sold their grapes to cooperatives that produced poorly blended bulk wine ― what became known as “supermarket wine.” The practice continued for several years after sanctions were lifted so that, even today, some 20 years later, the country is still trying to shed its reputation as a producer of plonk.
Like the BC winemakers after the FTA and NAFTA, South African winemakers knew they had to start over. They ripped out their vines and replanted to improve the quality of their grapes. Nowadays, these winemakers talk about their industry as having two eras: before Mandela and after.
Stellenbosch is one of three wine regions in the Western Cape wine region of South Africa. Its Mediterranean-like climate, with hot dry summers and cool wet winters, is well-suited for growing grapes, the most popular of which is Chenin blanc. Evidence of how far the region has come since apartheid: at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, Stellenbosch wineries earned 181 medals, of which two were international trophies, one was a regional trophy, and two were gold medals.
Immediately prior to my arrival in South Africa, I’d spent three months in France, imbibing in, well, let’s just say, a lot of French wine. Even so, I was extremely impressed by the wine I tasted in South Africa and was surprised by the number of vineyards we drove past during our day-long wine-tasting tour through Stellenbosch.
The first winery we stopped at was Meerlust. Established in 1756, it is one of South Africa’s oldest wineries and has been in the same family for eight generations. It is also of the few wineries that maintained its production of fine wine throughout the apartheid regime, despite the lack of access to world markets.
Bilton was our next stop, and we paid a little extra to pair our wine tasting with chocolate. After the tasting, we had lunch ― most of the wineries also have a restaurant on-site ― and I enjoyed my first taste of bobotie. A curried meatloaf with a custard-like topping, bobotie is to South Africa what poutine is to Canada.
Next was Warwick Estates, which dates back to 1771. In the 1970s, a South African and his Canadian wife ― a former ski instructor from Alberta ― worked hard to transform the farm into a winery of some distinction. That ski instructor, Norma Ratcliffe, is still making wine and is the only female member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. Today, Warwick Estates is considered one of the best wineries in the world, known for its Bordeaux-style blends regularly served at South African state dinners. Sadly, the wine is not available in Canada, despite the estate’s best efforts to crack the nut that is our country’s government-controlled liquor boards.
L’Avenir was our last stop of the day, its name a tribute to the French Huguenot heritage of the region. Along with Warwick, it was the prettiest winery we visited.
Stellenbosch is rimmed by mountains, and its landscape reminded me of BC’s Okanagan. The distinctive design of the Cape Dutch architecture, with its white, rounded gables, set the place apart from any other wine region I’ve visited, however.
After returning to Canada, I told my local wine seller that I was seriously disappointed with the selection of South African wine in Vancouver, at which point I was told, “there’s no market for it.”
And so, since then, I’ve been on a one-woman mission to create some demand for South African wine in this country.