Political winds of change put South Africa in charge of its wine industry

Politics have been top-of-mind. And for obvious reasons. Seemingly benign public policies have been proven to have a far-reaching and often unanticipated impact on the future. Yes, history is full of lessons no one has learned. Take South Africa as a prime case study.

Stephan Charters, Master of Wine, presented an insightful look at the boom-bust-boom phenomenon of the South African wine industry in his "Wine and Politics" webinar as part of the French Wine Society's Continuing Education Program two weeks ago.

He took the audience on a virtual roller coaster ride of political decisions made manifest … for better or for worse.

As he explained, South Africa was settled by the Dutch in the early 1600s as a victualing station for their ships en route to the spices of the East Indies. Grapes were planted with the intention of making wine as an anti-scurvy tonic. But the Dutch settlers knew zippo about making wine and what they fermented was of such poor quality that it tasted nothing short of medicine. Which, in effect, it was.

Later that century, in an action seemingly unrelated, Louis XIV, king of France and devout Catholic, decided to persecute all the Protestants within his kingdom. This decision affected France for centuries and in ways the French could never have foreseen.

The Protestants left in droves. Many were winemakers, some settled in South Africa. The Dutch welcomed them and their skills and even gave them their own little community known as Franschhoek (French Corner). Wine quality improved immediately.

A hundred years later, when Britain and France were at war, the British turned to South Africa for its wine supply. And thanks to those disenfranchised French winemakers, there was a ready supply of good stuff to be had!

When the Napoleonic Wars erupted in the 19th century, the British decided to occupy South Africa. It was already on their radar screen. The Dutch colony was strategically located and it had vineyards. Wine commerce between the two nations continued to build.

And business was booming until the British government decided to emancipate slavery within its global empire in 1834. The South African agricultural base was built on slavery and the decree brought widespread unrest and forced an uneasy economic transition.

To make matters worse, Britain signed a free trade deal with France in 1861 allowing the duty-free exchange of cotton to France and wine to England. As a result…South African wine exports dropped from close to a million gallons in 1859 to 25,000 gallons in 1865. An industry was decimated because of peace between two countries thousands of miles away.

There were wars. The Anglo-Boer wars in South Africa. World Wars. Economic hardship forced the South African Government to step in and regulate the entire South African wine industry. Then came apartheid. And since the South African government was involved in the wine industry, the wine industry became associated with apartheid. There was a global boycott and the whole wine industry remained an island onto itself, isolated and insular, until the 1990s.

Now that the South African government has released its death grip on the wine industry and apartheid is a thing of the past, the world has opened its doors once again to South African wine. There is…well…hope and change.

But the learning curve is steep. For the first time, in a long time, the South African wine industry is navigating its own ship instead of being tossed around by the political winds of fate.

Makes you think twice about political decisions. Like ripples on a pond, their effects are far-reaching.

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