South African wine has a history dating back to 1659, with the first bottle produced in Cape Town by its founder Jan van Riebeeck. Access to international markets led to new investment in the South African wine market. Production is concentrated around Cape Town, with major vineyard and production centres at Constantia, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Worcester. There are about 60 appellations within the Wine of Origin (WO) system, which was implemented in 1973 with a hierarchy of designated production regions, districts and wards. WO wines must only contain grapes from the specific area of origin. "Single vineyard" wines must come from a defined area of less than 5 hectares. An "Estate Wine" can come from adjacent farms if they are farmed together and wine is produced on site. A ward is an area with a distinctive soil type or climate and is roughly equivalent to a European appellation.
The roots of the South African wine industry can be traced to the explorations of the Dutch East India Company, which established a supply station in what is now Cape Town. A Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, was assigned the task of managing the station and planting vineyards to produce wines and grapes. This was intended to ward off scurvy amongst sailors during their voyages along the spice route to India and the East. The first harvest was made on 2 February 1659 (as noted in Van Riebeeck's log) seven years after the landing in 1652. The man succeeding Van Riebeeck as governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Simon van der Stel, sought to improve the quality of viticulture in the region. In 1685, he purchased a large 750 hectares (1,900 acres) estate just outside Cape Town, establishing the Constantia wine estate. After Van der Stel's death, the estate fell into disrepair, but was revived in 1778 when it was purchased by Hendrik Cloete.
Many growers gave up on winemaking, and instead chose to plant orchards and alfalfa fields to feed the growing ostrich feather industry. The growers that did replant with grapevines chose high-yielding grape varieties such as Cinsaut. By the early 1900s, more than 80 million vines had been replanted, creating a wine lake. Some producers would pour unsaleable wine into local rivers and streams. The imbalance between supply and demand that caused depressed prices prompted the South African government to fund the formation of the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV) in 1918. Started as a co-operative, the KWV soon grew in power and prominence eventually setting policies and prices for the entire South African wine industry. To deal with the wine glut, the KWV restricted yields and set minimum prices that encouraged the production of brandy and fortified wines.
For much of the 20th century, the South African wine industry received minimal international attention. Its isolation was exacerbated by the boycotts of South African products in protest against the country's system of Apartheid. It was not until the late 1980s and 1990s when Apartheid was ended, and the world's export market opened up, that South African wines began to experience a renaissance. Many producers in South Africa quickly adopted new viticultural and winemaking technologies. The presence of flying winemakers from abroad brought international influences and focus on well-known varieties such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The reorganisation of the powerful KWV co-operative into a private business sparked further innovation and improvement in quality. Vineyard owners and wineries who had previously relied on the price-fixing structure that bought their excess grapes for distillation were forced to become more competitive by shifting their focus to the production of quality wine. In 1990, less than 30% of all the grapes harvested were used for wine production meant for the consumer market with the remaining 70% being discarded, distilled into brandy, or sold as table grapes and juice. By 2003, the numbers had been reversed with more than 70% of the grapes harvested that year reaching the consumer market as wine.
South Africa is located at the tip of the African continent with most wine regions located near the coastal influences of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These regions have a mostly Mediterranean climate that is marked by intense sunlight and dry heat. Winters tend to be cold and wet with potential snowfall at higher elevations. The threat of springtime frost is rare with most wine regions seeing a warm growing season between November and April. The majority of annual precipitation occurs in the winter months and ranges from 250 millimetres (9.84 in) in the semi-desert-like region of Klein Karoo to 1,500 millimetres (59.06 in) near the Worcester Mountains. Regions closer to the coast, or in the rain shadow of inland mountain chains like the Drakenstein, Hottentots Holland and Langeberg, will have more rain than areas further inland. In many South African wine regions irrigation is essential to viticulture. The Benguela current from Antarctica brings cool air off the south Atlantic coast that allows the mean temperatures of the area to be lower than regions of comparable latitude. A strong wind current, known as the Cape Doctor, brings gale force winds to the wine regions in the Cape which have the positive benefit of limiting the risk of various mildew and fungal grape disease as well as tempering humidity, but can also damage grapevines that are not protected.
During the harvest months of February and March, the average daily temperatures in many South African wine regions is 23 °C (73 °F) with spikes up to 40 °C (104 °F) not uncommon in the warm inland river valleys around the Breede, Olifants and Orange Rivers. On the Winkler scale, the majority of South African wine regions would be classified as Region III locations with heat summation and degree days similar to the California wine region of Oakville in Napa Valley. Warmer regions such as Klein Karoo and Douglas fall into Region IV (similar to Tuscany) and Region V (similar to Perth in Western Australia) respectively. New plantings are the focus in cooler climate sites in the Elgin and Walker Bay regions which are characterised as Region II with temperatures closer to the Burgundy and Piedmont.
The wine regions of South Africa are spread out over the Western and Northern Cape regions, covering 500 kilometres (310 mi) west to east and 680 kilometres (420 mi) north-south. Within this wide expanse is a vast range of macroclimate and vineyard soil types influenced by the unique geography of the area which includes several inland mountain chains and valleys. Within the Stellenbosch region alone, there are more than 50 unique soil types. In general, the soils of South Africa tend to retain moisture and drain well, having a significant proportion of clay (often at least 25% of the composition) with low pH levels around 4. The pH levels of the soils are often adjusted with lime and calcium treatment. Other soil types found in South Africa include granite and sandstone in Constantia, shale in Elgin and arenaceous shale in Walker Bay. Near the river valleys, the soils are particularly lime rich with a high proportion of sand and shale.