Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

No Sour Grapes as the Empire Strikes Back

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

No Sour Grapes as the Empire Strikes Back

Article excerpt

"They don't differentiate," the man says firmly. "It's all one big Dark Continent to them." My disbelief is impolite but genuine. This Florida-based South African wine importer is telling me that Americans see Africa as one place--one with a big desert, a lot of corruption, a complicated colonial past and a fraught history of slavery. He is generalising: he's talking about people local to him who express surprise that Africa makes wine.

Plenty of Americans will have a notion--or even a memory--of South African apartheid and the achievements of truth and reconciliation that followed; they'll know that the country, with all its problems, is something of a special case. Yet what interests me is the whiff of Victorian England: that lordly homogenisation must have been how our ancestors viewed their distant colonies. And it is still, Lord help us, how Britain views the world's wines.

South Africa is a good example of this. "Today, praise be to God," wrote a Dutch settler in 1659, "wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes." South African wine was revered until the 20th century, when it all started to go wrong. A production quota system prioritised hot regions and high yields: if you wanted to make Burgundy-style Pinot Noir on a nice, wind-cooled slope (Pinot hates excessive heat), you couldn't. Anyway, you couldn't mention Burgundy, because South Africa had signed an agreement to exclude all mention of French wine regions. In return, the French imported their lobsters. So there you were, a vigneron with a strong connection to France (it was French Huguenots, who arrived on the Dutch settlers' heels carrying cuttings, who first planted vines), made to feel less important than a crustacean.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

And I haven't even mentioned economic sanctions. No wonder it took the South African wine industry, post-apartheid, time to recover. …

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