Eight of SA’s first wine estates situated in Stellenbosch ward

Eight of SA’s first wine estates situated in Stellenbosch ward

50 years since the first 14 wine farms gained estate status on September 1, 1973. Eight of these are in Stellenbosch, continue to thrive, hold a significant place in the area’s wine heritage. The account of this anniversary was penned by Maryke Roberts.

Although the South African wine industry’s history dates to 1655 when the then Governor at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, planted the first vines, it is another occasion that is celebrated this year and specifically this month.

It is 50 years since the country’s first 14 wine farms were granted wine estate status on 1 September 1973. Eight of the estates that celebrate this milestone, are in the Stellenbosch wine district. They are Alto, Middelvlei, Muratie, Neethlingshof, Overgaauw, Simonsig, Uiterwyk and Verdun (today’s Asara). All eight are still part of the region’s rich wine history. The other six are from Constantia, Durbanville, Paarl and Tulbagh.

The Wine of Origin certification scheme (WO), administered by the Wine and Spirit Board, was officially instituted in 1973 and promulgated in accordance with the Wine, Other Fermented Beverages and Spirit Act of 1957. Among the trailblazers of the South African wine industry, the First 14 wine estates were subsequently granted wine estate status as documented in the Government Gazette nr 1388 on 10 August 1973.

The wine estates status specified that grapes must be picked, pressed and processed, aged and bottled on the estate. The legislation has changed several times over the past 50 years, but the estate reference on wine labels is for many international buyers a stamp of quality and origin.

Recognising the significance of the 50th anniversary of estate wines in South Africa, the estates convened last year to discuss how best to honour this milestone and unanimously decided to form a collective to celebrate this momentous occasion. Bennie Howard one of the first three Cape Winemasters, was chosen as chair of the committee.

Pioneers of the country’s esteemed wine industry and representatives of the First 14 registered wine estates joined in a celebration of South Africa’s rich winemaking heritage recently. Glasses were raised on the wine estate status, but also to commemorate 50 years since the introduction of the Wine of Origin scheme in the same year. This landmark initiative established the legal protection of South African wine-producing areas along with the regulation of wines made from a specific cultivar or vintage. The WO Scheme is internationally recognised as one of the best of its kind.

A panel discussion was held, with among others, André Matthee from the Wine and Spirit Board and Cape Wine Master and wine marketer Christine Rudman, as well as Johan Malan, CEO of Simonsig (one of the first wineries to bottle wines under their own label in 1968 and where South Africa’s first sparkling wine in the traditional champagne style was made in 1971).

The panel explored, amongst other topics, the importance of the Wine of Origin Scheme and wine estate concept and the way forward for the estate concept in South Africa.

André Matthee commented that the establishment of the Wine of Origin scheme was pivotal in preserving the identity of South African wines and improving their quality and noted that, “Without the First 14 wine estates, the South African wine industry would not be where it is today.”

Christine Rudman expressed during the panel discussion that, “The wine estate concept is in many ways a badge of honour.” She also added that the concept is still very much valid till this day as, “It is a way for the people, and in some cases even families, behind these estates to truly make a statement about what they produce.”

The W.O scheme not only gives wine buyers peace of mind about quality but is also a guaranteed certification system of traceability – in other words, where the grapes come from. With this scheme, South African wine producers were several decades ahead of the international trends of sustainability and traceability.

When the WO scheme was established, several important aspects were taken into consideration. Compliance with EU regulations was ensured, given the large volume of exports of South African wine to Europe. In addition, the system included principles such as honesty in business practices, adaptability to evolving industry standards and other factors.

According to the latest figures from SAWIS, around 368.8 million litres of wine were exported to 130 countries last year, with England being our largest export market. This represents a contribution of R9.9 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP). It also provides employment to more than 350 000 people.

It was highlighted that South African wine exports represent almost 50% of all wine produced in the country, making it the second largest exported agricultural product – after citrus.

This picture looked quite different in the early seventies and South African wines were mainly exported in bulk to Europe by cooperative cellars. Between 1970 and 1973 almost no wine was exported to England, because the quality of wine from independent cellars was still unknown.

There were various opinions around the panel discussion about how well the wine estate concept is doing among consumers and whether it really carries as much authority as estates want to believe.

Due to changes in the legislation that relaxed the original guidelines to allow greater production, this concept may have lost value among consumers, reckons the internationally renowned wine judge, Michael Fridjon.

The single-vineyard wines, where wines are made from specific blocks or rows of vines, may appear to be a better way to represent traceability in the future and thus be the guarantee of quality.

Bennie said it was important to consider the history of these schemes when planning for the future.

As South Africa prepares to raise a glass to 50 years of the Wine and Spirit Board and the Wine of Origin scheme, the First 14 wine estates stand united, proud of their legacy, and committed to continuing their contribution to the nation’s esteemed winemaking traditions whilst looking forward to the future of the success of all the Estate Wines and the South African wine industry.

The panel discussion was followed by a walkaround tasting, with many rare vintages – including some from 1973 – and limited-edition wines being showcased by all First 14 wine estates.

As part of the commemorative efforts, a specially designed logo was developed by Bravo Design studio, which has received approval from the Wine & Spirit Board for use on all wines designated as estate wines. This emblem will be proudly displayed on labels, marketing materials, and websites, signifying the collective commitment to quality, heritage, and the enduring spirit of the First 14 wine estates.