Life Before Chardonnay

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When this book was published, my first, in 1976 (can you imagine how proud I was, mistakes and all), there weren’t any Chardonnay vineyards in South Africa, bar a row of diseased vines planted at the Research Institute.

Cruchen Blanc was Riesling, Riesling was Weisser Riesling, grapes were sold exclusively by weight and every ton of first grade grapes brought the same price, regardless of variety.

There were 38 licensed cellars that you might call small or family-sized, half a dozen liquor wholesaling companies that bought and sold almost all of the wine and over 70 co-operative wineries that made nearly all of it. Just imagine, I wrote a book about 38 little wineries that made and sold about 1% of South Africa’s wine. And all of the copies were sold within a year.

Grape production was controlled by a quota system. If you bought a farm without a quota you could plant vines, but if you tried to make wine and sell it, you would probably get arrested. I didn’t meet anyone who tried.

People dreamt of new areas but experimentation wasn’t possible. No new vine locations were established between 1898, when the war between the British and the farmers (known usually as the Anglo-Boer War) broke out and 1992, when the quota system was abandoned and Nelson Mandela had been a free man for 2 years.

Today we have vineyards planted in every province and serious new wineries (usually with a version of the Taj Mahal for a cellar) are launched at the rate of two a week. We now have over 500 private or estate wineries. And Chardonnay is nearly everywhere. Some wines, generally red, fetch $100 a bottle the moment they’re released and yet Cruchen Blanc is still Riesling and Riesling is still Weisser Riesling. Well, at least it is to South Africans.

Australia seems to be the only other country that has Cruchen and there they also call it Riesling (Clare), showing that at least they got the mistakes in their wines from South Africa. Both countries are forbidden to export a drop of Cruchen. But the locals don’t care. Cruchen (Riesling) is cheaper than real Riesling. So the locals drink the imposter and the real stuff gets exported. Germans visiting the southern hemisphere get confused.

In our stormy corner (that’s what Stormhoek means), we haven’t got Riesling or even Cruchen Blanc. We’ve got some ancient vineyards of Chenin and Semillon. And I see with delight that the people who make the rules want to know where there is wine made in this country from vineyards over 20 years old. That’s over half of this place.

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