The crisis of a century ago

The creation of the Union of South Africa exactly 100 years ago, on 31 May 1910, inevitably had some specific as well as general effects on the Cape wine industry. Perhaps most importantly the Cape Colony was now just one of four provinces in the new British dominion – along with Natal and the two former Afrikaner republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) which had been defeated in their wars of independence against the colonial power, the world’s biggest and most brutal bully of the time.

So, while wine had been one of the most important industries and political constituencies of the Cape Colony, and therefore treated with care by the Cape government, it was now a vastly less important matter to the Union government – just one struggling, under-capitalised agricultural sector amongst others…. Why bother too much about a bunch of pretty unsuccessful farmers down in the Cape, when ever-growing power was centred on the goldmines of the north? It was relatively unproblematic to resist calls from impoverished farmers for a relaxation of duties on wine, or for abandonment of the race-based system of partial prohibition that reduced the demand for their mostly pretty awful product.

For the wine industry was in a parlous state at the time of the Union being declared. It was not just the phylloxera that had caused a great deal of damage to the Cape’s vineyards – which were still slowly (very slowly) being replaced by vines grafted onto American rootstocks, or simply abandoned. More important (to cut a long and complex story short) were the decline to almost nothing of the British market in the latter part of the nineteenth century, prohibition, and the economic depression which followed the Wars of Independence.

The decline had been getting more severe for decades by the time of union – the great pride of the industry, Groot Constantia, for example, had gone insolvent in 1875 and been bought by the government and turned into a combination of wine-farm, agricultural school and centre for producing rootstocks for the phylloxera-decimated winelands.

Various Cape government commissions of enquiry had looked into different aspects of the conditions in the wine districts in the first decade of the new century. A 1905 enquiry “established beyond a doubt that the Wine and Brandy industry is at present in an alarming state of depression”. A bigger 1909 Commission report gives a usful overview of the state of the industry just before union. The great majority of winefarms were mortgaged, the Commission noted. The labour shortage of a few decades earlier was no more: “the wages paid have decreased considerably, and the conditions of the labouring classes generally is a deplorable one; … the grower has been forced to confine himself only to the most necessary of work on the farm.”

And, as always, the producers were producing vastly more of their dreary and often scarcely drinkable wine than the market wanted – even though phylloxera had decreased the overall size of the Cape vineyard. The 1909 harvest was a poor one, and the Commission called this “a decided blessing in disguise, seeing that, as far as can be ascertained, considerable stocks of wine and spirits of the previous vintage were still on the hands of farmers, merchants and wineries”.

It’s interesting to note the varieties being grown at the time. Greengrape (semillon), once nearly everywhere, was down to about 40%. Steen (chenin), White French (palomino) and red muscadel are high on the list, but cabernet and sauvignon blanc are starting to be reflected in the official returns. (Shiraz is not listed, but it was planted at Groot Constantia in the 1890s, brought in from Australia, as was mourvedre.)

Most significant in terms of variety is the rise of Cinsaut (called Hermitage). It was brought here in about 1880, it seems, and by 1909 was already third only to the two leading white grapes – soon it was to become the most planted of all. The 1909 Commission interestingly connected Hermitage to the rise of racial prohibition that had grown in southern Africa. “Before the imposition of restrictions on the sale of liquor to Natives in the Transvaal, a large demand existed among the Natives on the mines in that country for Hermitage, sweetened and slightly fortified” – thus accounting for those plantings.

Incidentally, the Commission remarked that, contributing to the crisis, in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, “the sale or supply of liquor to any coloured person is prohibited”; an essentially similar situation prevailed in Natal, and “in most districts of the Cape Colony itself restrictions prevail against the sale of wine and spirits to the aboriginal native”. (As the dop system was still a vital tool of social control and low wages, the “Cape Coloureds” were still allowed to be given wine by their bosses.) These were all British colonies, and it hardly needs pointing out that racism did not spring forth only 40 years later when apartheid started being formalised by the National Party.

So we can look back on this centenary to a particularly grim period in the history of South African wine. And the seeds were being sown for the decisive features of the wine industry in the twentieth century until the revolution ushered in by even more momentous political changes, in 1994: the co-ops and the rule (misrule, really) of the KWV. The 1905 government enquiry had recommended that co-operative wineries should be established and, with substantial government support, nine-co-ops were started – the Drostdy in Tulbagh was the first, in 1906. Meanwhile, Charles Kohler was starting to work on his conviction that only a centralised, unifying body could resolve the crisis in the Cape – now South African – wine industry. The KWV was founded in 1918.

It’s been a long, long hundred years.

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