CC image courtesy of orkomedix.
Posted by Byron Crowe II on May 9, 2013.
Although wine may not be your first thought when you think of Africa, it is home to one of the top ten wine-producing countries in the world. South Africa, a large country on the continent’s southern tip, has a rich history of wine production. The first South African wines were made over 300 years ago by Dutch Colonists using wild grapes that grew along the southwestern coast. Today, South Africa has garnered international acclaim for the wide variety of fine wines produced in its unique, southern-Mediterranean-esque climate.
While white grape varietals dominated South African production as late as the 1990s, there is now a greater amount of balance between red and white production, with 45% of hectares planted being red varietals. The top white varietals include Chenin Blanc—referred to locally as “Steen”—Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.1 The most-planted reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, and Merlot.2
Of the reds, the varietal South Africa is most-widely known for is Pinotage, a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The varietal was first produced in South Africa in 1925. Cabernet, Shiraz, and Sauvingon Blanc, while not as widely associated with South Africa, are particularly well-suited to the hot climate and produce exceptional wines.
In South Africa, the designation of a wine’s origin is governed by the Wine Origin (W.O.) Scheme, which operates in a similar way to the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system in the United States.3 Much like the AVA system, where wines can be designated by a state, multi-state region, county, or AVA,4 there are four tiers of designations under the W.O. Scheme: geographical units, regions, districts, and wards. Geographic units are the broadest designation and are defined by the boundaries of the provinces. Currently, the only geographical units that have been officially recognized for use are Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The most important of these is the Western Cape, which contains the vast majority of South Africa’s vineyards and produces the country’s highest quality wine. Regions and districts are smaller, more specific designations that fall within a particular geographic unit. Wards are the smallest and most specific designation, but they do not necessarily fall within a district.
For a wine to be labeled as coming from a particular area, 100% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown there,5 and producers may only label their wines using officially-recognized geographic areas. In addition to designating a particular geographic unit, region, district, or ward, a producer may also designate the wine as coming from a particular estate or may label it as a “single vineyard wine.” However, to do so the producer must first register the area where the grapes were grown with the Wine and Spirit Board. Single-vineyard wines must have been made from a single varietal that is produced in the area registered with the board,6 and the area registered may be no larger than 6 hectares.7 Estate wines must be made entirely—including bottling—in the registered area where the grapes were grown.8 Also, if a particular varietal—or “cultivar” as the law defines it—is listed on the bottle, at least 85% of the grapes used in making the wine must have been of that type.9 This same 85% rule applies to designating a particular vintage year.10
Unlike some European countries, South Africa does not have any requirements for the process of making wines in a particular region—for instance, allowing only certain trellising methods or varietals. However, there are certain quality requirements. For a wine to be labeled as a particular varietal or as coming from a particular region, estate, or vineyard, it must also not display any “unacceptable quality characteristics,” which means the wine may not be turbid, contain excess sediment or crystals, have faulty/insufficient color, or display undesirable flavor characteristics.11 Among the several characteristics listed as unacceptable, a wine may not be overly tannic, thin or watery, or oxidized.
South Africa’s wine regulations are relatively detailed, but this helps ensure the consistent quality of its wine. American consumers should take note, and be sure to try some of South Africa’s world-class wines.
Byron Crowe is the founder and former president of the Society of Wine and Jurisprudence. He is a J.D. Candidate at Cornell Law School, we he is the Senior Online Editor for the Cornell International Law Journal Online. Byron holds a B.A. in economics from Tufts University and enjoys pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs.
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- 2012 Status of White Varieties, South Africa Wine Industry & Systems, Nov. 30, 2012, http://www.sawis.co.za/info/download/vineyards_status_2012_eng.pdf. ↩
- 2012 Status of Red Varieties,South Africa Wine Industry & Systems, Nov. 30, 2012, http://www.sawis.co.za/info/download/vineyards_status_2012_eng.pdf. ↩
- For more on the AVA system, see my previous piece, “An Introduction to Appellations.” ↩
- See 27 C.F.R. § 4.25(a)(1). ↩
- Liquor Products Act 60 of 1989 § 9(1) (S. Afr.), available at http://www.sawis.co.za/winelaw/download/Origin_Scheme_annotated_07_2012.pdf. ↩
- Id. at § 8A. ↩
- Id. at § 6A. ↩
- Id. at § 8. ↩
- Id. at § 10. This is more restrictive than what was previously allowed. Prior to 2006, a varietal could be listed if the wine was made with grapes, only 75% of which were the designated variety. ↩
- Id. at § 11. ↩
- Id. at Table 4. ↩