A Tour of South African Wine

Lindsay Crouse explores South Africa’s vineyards, which reveal a history of inequity and innovation.

South Africa’s Winelands are devastatingly beautiful: sprawling vineyards, whitewashed villages, and lavish estates that rival their brethren in Napa and Bordeaux — all just 45 minutes from cosmopolitan Cape Town.

winelands

The most famous of the area’s towns, Stellenbosch, is the cultural heart of Afrikaner culture in the Cape — and the nucleus of the Winelands. Its streets are very old and very charming. Its sidewalks are lined with cheerful cafes, where patrons sip from generous wine glasses and graze on their national snack, biltong (meat strips cured with cider vinegar, pepper and coriander). Stellenbosch seems frozen in some indeterminate time, and happy that way.

Another highlight is Franschhoek (literally, “French corner,” for the influx of Huguenots fleeing the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the late seventeenth century). There, vintage Jaguars glide along mountain roads shuttling drivers in cashmere and pearls. The downtown exudes a leisurely East Egg nonchalance, with jewelry shops that steadfastly keep the north’s diamond mines in business, and Africa’s fanciest restaurant, The Tasting Room, a gastronomic homage to its hometown’s Gallic heritage.

Once sequestered under draconian trade sanctions, South African wines emerged on the international scene after the end of apartheid in 1994. Pinotage, the Cape’s pièce de résistance, is a rising star on lofty wine lists around the world.

Still, the country’s wine industry is only beginning to unravel itself from the vestiges of apartheid and colonialism, and to face the human costs of wine production head-on.

The story of South Africa’s Winelands stretches back more than three centuries — a legacy as long and fraught as the country’s complicated relationship with Europe and its descendants. In 1652, a mustachioed young Dutchman named Jan van Riebeeck became the first European to put down roots in the southernmost tip of Africa. As soon as his fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the exhausted party of Calvinists — 130 fewer than when they’d set out nearly a year earlier — made camp in the shadow of Table Mountain, in present-day Cape Town.

They were there on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, whose accomplishments included banishing an entire Indonesian island chain’s native population to make way for Dutch spice plantations. This time, the Company had sent the fleet on a mission to set up a rest stop for other Dutch ships as they traced their way along the spice route. The local people of the Cape, the Khoikhoi, met with familiar misfortune and were promptly put to work in the nascent settlement.

After weathering the Cape’s damp, chilly winter, the Dutch newcomers set out across the Western Cape, creating a constellation of towns along the way and laying the groundwork for the Cape Colony. Remaining at the helm, Van Riebeeck earned himself a hero’s status among his descendants, the Afrikaners, whose political parties centuries later attracted international attention for their belief that their country would be better off if the best parts were reserved only for white people.

In the process of settling the Cape’s towns, Van Riebeeck took stock of its unique climate: Mediterranean, with exceptionally fertile soil, similar to the wine-growing regions of Europe. So he also started the Cape’s first wine farms and promptly imported slaves from his parent company’s holdings in Malaysia, India, Madagascar, and North Africa to tend them.

Meanwhile, within days of the first slaves’ arrival, the new farm owners began to give them small portions of cast-off wine, which they called “dop.” The idea quickly caught on, and soon distributing wine to workers was standard practice throughout the region.

After slavery ended in 1834, little changed. White men continued to own the farms on which slave descendants — now part of a racial group known in South Africa as “coloureds” — worked and lived. Wine distribution persisted as well, steadily increasing its role in farm worker culture through the 19th and 20th centuries. Faced with the challenge of retaining their newly freed workforce, farmers added hefty amounts of wine to their workers’ wages, which already included meager housing and food rations — but strikingly little cash.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the routine had become institutionalized. Enterprising farmers even gave it a name: “the dop system” — along with its own code of conduct and regulation. Under the dop system, workers received five-ounce portions of wine five times per day, plus a whole bottle each night and on weekends. Employer-perpetuated alcohol abuse became a hallmark of the South African wine industry, with a litany of associated pitfalls: violence, poverty, low school attendance. South Africa’s Western Cape remains home to one of the highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world.

Though Nelson Mandela’s government banned the dop system in 1994, many of the 150,000 agricultural workers in South Africa’s Winelands were already dependent on alcohol. As some farm owners shifted over to cash wages, alcohol abuse on some farms actually shot up, as some addicted workers spent their wages on drink to the exclusion of other necessities.

But in the fifteen years since South Africa’s legendary political transformation, change has finally begun to trickle into the Winelands. On farms where families were once bound to the farms on which they worked, whether by servitude or alcoholism, paternalism or poverty, “empowerment” has become the new philosophy.

Many farmers have created programs to educate workers and their families, and to make sure they have a stake in their farms’ profits. Farm owners are increasingly seen as employers, instead of omnipotent masters. And winery owners are no longer exclusively white: wineries such as New Beginnings and Thandi are managed by people with diverse backgrounds, including blacks — and have improved their marketability in the process.

The improvement in worker conditions has been buoyed by the surge in global interest in the Winelands. After apartheid, as the world embraced South African wines, farm owners realized that their wines would struggle to be profitable if they could be linked to apartheid-style worker exploitation. As wine estates opened their doors to foreigners, the increased revenue enabled them to invest in their workers, and tourists in turn patronized establishments that demonstrated such commitment. While at times these changes could be superficial — farmers had been documented renovating housing visible from the main road, leaving less-visible housing unrestored — investment in workers on some farms triggered broader social transformation in the Winelands.

South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, a fact that has long played out in the Winelands. It has a turbulent history to overcome, but through a combination of new policies and new sensibilities on the part of farm owners and workers, it’s ready to put its best foot forward for the rest of the world.

Long after the World Cup has come and gone, this is a change we can all celebrate.


Photo by jomilo75.

Lindsay Crouse has spent her entire life living somewhere along Amtrak’s northeast corridor (first Kingston RI, then a brief stint in Boston for college, and now New York City). Her day job in global health keeps her out of the city more than she’s in it. Email her.