Tim James: Looking back ten, twenty, a hundred years and more

By , 15 January 2024

1994 – the arrival of formal democracy in SA.

Anniversaries, usually focused on that magic divisible of ten when not on single years, are useful things. They remind us, by showing how we were then, about how we are now – so we can celebrate or mourn the change or, best of all when appropriate, simply learn something about both times.

The most dramatic anniversary for the South African wine industry in 2024 is, inevitably, the one that is dramatic for the whole country – 30 years since the elections which confirmed the collapse of the white minority regime and the arrival of formal democracy. World markets opened to Cape wine – curiosity at first was enough to ensure bounding sales, but the need for radically improved quality became abundantly clear. Chris Williams of The Foundry was an oenology graduate that year (other well-known winemakers leaving university in 1994 included Eben Sadie and Marc Kent). He confirmed to me that a sense of social excitement flowed into the wine world too, but also the shock, provided by travel as well as comparative tastings here, of coming to realise just how far behind South African wine was at the top end, as well as bulk production. The opening of the world’s great and exemplary cellars to ravenously ambitious young South African winemakers is a factor in the quality revolution here that can’t be overestimated.

If 1994 must be taken as the convenient date for the real start of the country’s modern wine revolution, it is neatly appropriate that it was the year in which the KWV abandoned the minimum price system that had for so long signalled the all-powerful wine body’s strategy of prioritising quantity over quality. The first crucial step in the arrogation of quasi-statal power to the KWV (founded as a company in 1918 and registered as a co-op in 1923) had, in fact, come exactly a century earlier. The Wine and Spirits Control Act of 1924 allowed the KWV to fix, annually, the minimum price to be paid to farmers for distilling wine (not yet for “good” wine). And there was a vast amount of pretty dreadful stuff for which distillation was the only viable route. Very many farmers’ livelihoods were saved by the efforts of the KWV, which also – to look further on the bright side – set about developing and improving the brandy industry.

So that’s the crucial centenary for Cape wine in 2024. As for 200 years back, I don’t know of a single event of particular importance. The wine industry’s perpetual determination to overproduce was already in full swing, encouraged by the new colonial power, Britain, having introduced preferential tariffs in 1813. Plantings proliferated wildly, and the 1820s was the time when some now-famous statistics revealed that some 93% of the Cape vineyard was planted to semillon. The tariff advantage was greatly reduced in 1825 and Cape wine was generally of such poor quality – Constantia and a few other wines notwithstanding – that a major decline of the market was inevitable.

Things were made worse for the farmers by another event whose 190th anniversary we should celebrate this year: the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony in 1834 (with a four-year transition period to follow). I’ve seen a contemporary claim that a farmer, who might earlier have had seven or eight male slaves, but by 1840 might have had just one paid labourer. And it wasn’t just a question of a labour shortage: the slaves had had a good deal of practical knowledge, especially of viticultre, that the farm-owners didn’t.

Back to modern times. And a look back to 20 years ago amply reveals what the ten years since the opening of the industry to the world had come to mean. It wasn’t just that the aforementioned Chris Williams became cellarmaster at Meerlust that year…. The dynamism of the time can be seen in the remarkable number of wineries for which 2004 is hugely significant: either as the date of their founding or the date of their maiden vintage, often both.

Established farms moving away from being just grape suppliers to bottle their first wines under their own labels in 2004 include Alvi’s Drift, Arendsig, Bosman, De Grendel and Grande Provence. Maiden vintages came from Constantia Glen, Edgebaston (David Finlayson), Pella (Super Single), Saronsberg, Silverthorn, Springfontein. Mvemve Raats and Julien Schaal were new names to conjure with. Wineries established that year included Benguela Cove, Dalla Cia, Lothian, Marianne, Van Biljon, and Waterkloof.

There are doubtless further names to adduce – but if that list of wines or wineries non-existent before 2004 doesn’t surprise you, well, I confess it did surprise me by its extent when I was establishing it (a task requiring me to acknowledge the Platter’s guide, without which it would have been virtually impossible).

So to looking forward rather than back: May you have a 2024 that is memorably good – even anniversariably so.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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