The South African wine industry has been booming for a select few wine professionals. Aaron Meeker is the national sales manager of Vine Street Imports, a company in New Jersey. He says that the wines today are not just good but also some of the best values. “I am convinced that South Africa makes the best wine on earth.”
Hadley Douglas, cofounder of the Urban Grape in Boston, is also on board. “South African winemakers] don’t have to follow a lot rules, so they can play around with their wines, resulting in these unique, interesting and great wines.”
South Africa is still a mystery to many American wine drinkers. They may think of it as a wine region that’s little known, or even worse, the home of the burnt-rubber Pinotage if they can imagine South African wine. South Africa is a mystery to many wine drinkers. Other far-off places like Australia are known for their cheap, cheerful critter wines.
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Robert Lozelle is a sommelier for Angler, in San Francisco. “Imaginatively for many of us, including myself, we know very little South Africans… and very, very few [Americans] who have been there.”
The data reflects this lack of knowledge. Drinks Market Analysis data for 2022 show that South Africa has the lowest volume share of wine imported to the U.S. compared to other non-European countries. This is significantly lower than other major non-European countries. The next lowest volume share is Argentina, at 4 percent.
Why aren’t there more American wine buyers and drinkers paying attention to South Africa? It produces exciting wines of high quality at a great value.
A Complex Histories
Molly Choi is the SVP for marketing at Broadbent Selections in New York City.
Apartheid is responsible for many of the problems that South African wine has in the U.S. The 30th anniversary will be celebrated next year, and “it’s still something we think about,” Douglas says.
South Africa’s government instituted Apartheid from 1948 until 1994 when it transitioned into a democratic government. As a reaction to South Africa’s system of government, the U.S. enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. This act imposed sanctions against the South African Government and prohibited exports to the U.S., including wine.
South Africa’s Wine Industry also operated in a highly regulated environment during that period. Jim Clarke is the U.S. Marketing Manager for wines in South Africa. The KWV, founded in 1918, was created to solve the production problems of the South African wine industry. However, because it developed close ties with the government, the organization became a controlling factor in the industry and ultimately stifled its growth. (KWV privatized its operations in the 1990s, so they are now a separate entity). In the 1970s, KWV focused on protecting grower’s prices. They tried to increase prices while South African Breweries cut costs aggressively to attract the South African Market. Clarke says that wine “really lost out.””
Although it has been nearly 30 years since the end of Apartheid, South Africa’s previous political climate still affects its wine exports. Photo credit: Wines of South Africa.
The South African wine industry suffered as a result of both the domestic and international markets. Douglas says that despite the rich history of South African wines, it all fell apart under Apartheid. The quality of wine at that time was really down. They were unable to keep up with the new technologies and ways of thinking. They couldn’t get new grape clones. “Everything [was affected].
Douglas: “We were supposed boycott all South African products in the U.S.” It takes time to change these buying patterns.
After Apartheid was over, the South African Wine Industry returned to the U.S. Market immediately. However, its return was not successful.
Clarke says that the U.S. had many importers who jumped on board immediately after the end of Apartheid. “For instance, Cape Classics is our oldest South African specialty importer. It dates back to 1992. Also, there was some investment by big companies such as Gallo. “There are several reasons why it didn’t go well.”
In the 1990s, 80 percent of South African vineyards planted white grapes like Chenin Blanc or Colombard. Clarke says that “the market demand at the time was for red wine.” There was a great deal of replanting. In 10 years, we shifted to the current balance: 55 percent of white grapes and 45 percent of red. “Many winemakers were forced to learn to make red wines, as they had no experience.”