Grapevines first arrived in South Africa in 1655 when the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town and planted vineyards for the crew to take on their long ocean voyages.
French Huguenots escaping religious persecution brought their expertise and the vineyards expanded.
And Governor Simon van der Stel established his Constantia estate in 1685 and soon after his sweet Vin de Constance, based on the Muscat grape variety, was being exported, and it became the darling of Europe's courts.
Today, most of South Africa's quality winegrowing happens in the Coastal Region near Cape Town where South Africa's wine history began, and areas like Stellenbosch and Paarl are now producing wines that compete on the world stage.
South African wines continued to rise in popularity until the scourge of phylloxera arrived in the latter half of the 19th century. Phylloxera, a devastating root louse, arrived in Europe and South Africa on vine cuttings from the United States and nearly wiped out the wine industry before it was discovered that grafting European vines onto American rootstocks alleviated the problem. To regain their footing, wine growers turned to high-yielding grape varieties for mass-production which had the negative effect of driving down prices for grapes and damaging the reputation of South African wines in general.
As a result, South African wine growers formed a powerful co-operative named the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, or the KWV, in 1918. The KWV fixed minimum prices for grapes. Sadly, surpluses and subsidies did not encourage high quality and the reputation for South Africa's wines sunk even further. Apartheid also hurt the international perception of South African wines. With the end of Apartheid in 1994 the KWV became privatized and started measures to improve South African wine quality and reputation, with dramatic success.
Today, Stellenbosch is South Africa's premiere red-wine producing area with a maritime climate similar to Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (South Africans use the Australian term for Syrah) and Merlot have been the most successful red wines, but Sauvignon Blanc and Steen (the local name for Chenin Blanc) have received accolades as well. The area of Paarl (meaning “pearl”) rivals Stellenbosch and has achieved similar success with some of the same grape varieties and perhaps produces wines with a fresher profile due to its higher elevation.
One wine oddity from South Africa that consumers either seem to love or hate is Pinotage. Pinotage is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault and was developed in 1925 by Professor Abraham Perold of the KWV. The goal was adapting the typically cool climate Pinot Noir to South Africa's relatively warm environment by crossing it with the hearty Cinsault grape of Southern France, but the results are mixed. Pinotage gives a deeply colored red wine with a rather pungent smoky aroma that has been described as everything from a campfire to a burning rubber tire. Although not quite “classic status,” Pinotage may one day prove to be South Africa's signature wine.
A few South African wines to look for in Omaha:
2011 Nederburg Foundation “Lyric”, Coastal Region, South Africa
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay from vineyards in the Durbanville, Stellenbosch and Paarl areas. Fermented in stainless steel tanks and made in a crisp and dry style with flavors of tropical fruit and citrus with hints of freshly-cut grass.
Available at Corkscrew Wine & Chesse, $13/bottle
2011 Tokara Sauvignon Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa
A fresh and aromatic style of Sauvignon Blanc with green herbaceous notes of freshly cut grass coupled with passion fruit, citrus and ripe peaches.
Available at Spirit World, $18/bottle
2010 Nederburg Pinotage, Western Cape, South Africa
A classic example of Pinotage with its typical smoky aroma. Black cherries, vanilla and campfire on the nose with full body and juicy blackberry-like fruit on the palate.
Available at Brix, $16/bottle