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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South African Wine Set for Growth

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Things looked up in South Africa's wine country after its best known resident, Nelson Mandela, left the neighborhood.

Mandela spent the last of his 27 years as a political prisoner in Victor Verster jail, incongruously set in the sublime Franschhoek valley outside Cape Town where the South African wine industry is centered.

Hostile world attitudes towards South African wine and practically everything else produced here began to erode in Feb. 1990, a climactic month when the white government lifted a ban on Mandela's African National Congress, and Mandela himself, triumphant fist held high, walked out of Victor Verster.

Soon afterwards, wine producers started punching the air themselves as they discovered that with the unlocking of Mandela's cell and the accompanying dismantling of apartheid, doors began opening across the world for South African wine.

Until then Cape wine had had a tough task finding its way into many countries' liquor stores and supermarkets: a high-profile, luxury item, wine was an obvious target for retailer and customer rejection when its country of origin was as politically incorrect as South Africa.

However the effect of Mandela's release, and the march to democracy that followed, was dramatic and exports that totalled 900,000 cases in 1990 took off as the apartheid stigma faded.

This year, overseas sales are expected to reach 3.5 million cases, according to Jannie Retief, chief marketing executive of KWV, a cooperative of South African wine producers that handles 70 percent of the country's exports.

That 1994 figure makes South Africa still very much a bit player in world terms, and an industry whose income from the 1993 wine crop was less than 700 million rand ($200 million dollars) is not about to threaten the big league.

But Retief draws particular satisfaction over the inroads that South African wines are making in what has always been their best market, Britain. South Africa now sells more wine in Britain than, for example, the United States or Chile, and is looking at overtaking larger exporters, such as Bulgaria and Australia.

Formerly hostile countries such as Scandinavian nations and Canada are now customers. "In the old days a lot of people thought they shouldn't, wouldn't, or couldn't buy our wine," said Retief. "But suddenly we're the good guy. It's a funny feeling."

Retief concedes that the success story is partly due to the weakness of the South African rand currency, which makes the wine cheap, as well as the quality that producers predictably brag about.

Looking around the serene grape and wine-producing centers of Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl -- scenically more dramatic than the northern California wine country to which they are often compared -- it is difficult to imagine that anything could ever have been amiss. But there is a dark side to paradise. The wine country until recently had the nation's most notorious labor practices, including the "tot system" in which laborers were paid in kind twice a day. Some farmers -- and laborers -- refuse to give it up.

The region still groans under the nation's highest alcoholism rate and domestic violence makes the Cape the bloodiest part of the country, with non-political murder rates surpassing New York. As far as the wine trade is concerned, the Cape has traditionally suffered from over-production, encouraged in the past by subsidies provided by a grateful government anxious to look after the interests of the white-owned companies that ran the industry.

Even the leap in exports has not soaked up the excess output, and the appearance of the Cape countryside is changing: some of the 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of vineyards have been turned into orchards as local business discovers that South African fruit has also become politically acceptable.

Retief adds that wine-drinkers are fickle and what he calls the almost unnatural demand for South African wine could disappear.

"It's a wave that will pass. The trick is to ride it as long as possible," he said.