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Change Comes to South Africa (November 18, 2004)

by Sheila Swerling-Puritt

South Africa's wine industry has a lot going for it. For starters, it boasts some of the most beautiful vineyard areas in the world. I've toured South Africa's regions of production three times and I can tell you they're a feast for the eyes. Vineyards dot a gorgeous band from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean in Cape Province and enjoy a wide variety of soil types and microclimates. That allows for an impressive range of vine types and wine styles.

South Africa has a long relationship with wine. Wine was being made in the Nile Delta as long as 5,000 years ago, and it's certain that some of it made its way south not long after that. The country's most famous wine, Constantia, was a huge hit in Europe in the 1700s. Royalty clamoured for tiny glasses of the red and especially the white versions of this "sticky" (dessert wine).

More recently, the country's wine industry has entered the modern era. For the last decade, international markets have woken up and smelled the Pinotage – not to mention the Shiraz, Cabernets, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and other liquid treats appearing in their wine stores. The names Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl are familiar to the world's wine drinkers, but Elim, Robertson, Orange River and others may not be familiar.

In most of the world's wine-producing regions, the biggest problem challenging producers is the weather. In South Africa, it's politics. During the nation's Apartheid era, wine production went on without the cooperation of the rest of the world. Some great wines were made, but we didn't get to taste them. International sanctions and a wine embargo directed against the regime blocked the flow of money, technology, vine material and know-how to South Africa and kept its wines out of much of the rest of the world.

If that wasn't enough grief, consider the KWV (cooperative growers association). From 1918 to 1988, this organization controlled grape production in South Africa and used its power to buy as much fruit as its members could grow. Great volumes of the resulting wine were distilled into brandy. The system pretty much prevented private production and served as a big drag on quality.

The end of the Apartheid regime made it possible in the 1990s for South Africa to engage international consultants, buy virus-free vines, and get a sense of what today's international consumers enjoy in the glass. It also made it essential to end the domination of the country's wine industry by a white and largely male elite and to empower the historically disadvantaged black majority. Without massive social, economic and political change, South African would drift aimlessly at the back of the pack of wine-producing countries.

The current South African government has done a great deal in a short time to bring necessary and often difficult reforms to the country's wine industry. A policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has guided the process. A government and industry partnership called the South African Wine Industry Trust (SAWIT) has been set up to increase black ownership of Cape wineries from less than 1% today (a smaller fraction than other exclusive industries like banking, mining and tourism) to 25% by the year 2010.

To date, SAWIT has obtained former KWV properties including Bouwland Winery, Fair Valley, New Beginnings, Freedom Road and one of the oldest vineyards in the Country, Boschendal. SAWIT has also sponsored ten young black winemakers to attend Stellenbosch University for bachelor's degrees in grape growing and winemaking. Joint ventures and collaborations are springing up.

Blacks (including women) are moving up at wineries including Fleur du Cap, Delheim, Cape Classics, Rustenberg, KWV, Longridge, Nederburg, Flagstone, Stellenbosch Vineyards and Distell. (Wines from all these properties are available in Canada.) Thandi, a BEE funded project, established vineyards and a winery in the Elgin Valley in 1996. It has become a shining example of BEE's potential to enhance wine production. Thandi's winemaker Patrick Kraukamp won a gold medal at the London Trophy Show for his 2003 Thandi Chardonnay, and the wine was served to Queen Elizabeth II and President Thabo Mbeki at a recent state function. Not bad PR for an industry so recently in big trouble. Lindiwe Wines is another BEE winner.

There are still some hurdles for South Africa's wine industry to clear. Funding for some BEE initiatives has drawn sceptical attention, and those who stand to lose power and money from change will try to keep their industry in the hands of wealthy elites, black and white. Real BEE must not be confused with window dressing in the form of token or non-South African blacks appointed to high positions at wineries. Historical inequities like poverty, illness and specific mistreatment of women must be addressed.

If South Africa's wine industry remembers that social change is the next most important ingredient in their product after grapes, their future looks bright.




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