South Africa rises to challenges

Eleanor Yates looks into the increasing role women are playing across South Africa’s wine industry.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the South African wine industry, and in particular the women behind it, it’s useful to gauge the scale of the country’s operations. According to South Africa Wine Industry information & Systems (SAWIS) 2023, an estimated 1.8m tonnes of grapes were crushed, producing 917 million litres of wine. In 2022, 18 million glasses of SA wine were consumed worldwide every day, with total sales of R31.7bn (£1.31bn), and in 2021-2022 there were 2,487 producers with 524 cellars.

Despite these figures, the industry is not immune to the challenges of today’s economical and physical climate. However, wineries are overcoming this and growing in value terms. Anneen du Toit, international sales & marketing manager at Boland Cellar, says: “Our wine industry is incredibly resilient and has made great strides in recent years. We are seeing increased specialisation and a greater focus on quality, from plant material to winemaking processes, and value being added across the entire chain.

“Producers are planting less but becoming more specialised in their varietal offering, informed by market trends and buying behaviour. We are definitely seeing a greater interest in high-value wines and quality over quantity,” Du Toit adds.

SA wine in general is “riding a wave of popularity at the moment”, says Wines of South Africa communications manager Maryna Calow. “Our white wines are in high demand at all price points. When it comes to our red wines, by all accounts they have never been better. Cap Classique as a category is also growing both locally and internationally and is very exciting as it positions quality and value very strongly.”

Health is wealth

In South Africa, regenerative agriculture is prominent in winemaking, and it is the “first country to introduce Integrated Production of Wine (IPW), the international gold standard of viticulture”, says Bruce Jack, of the eponymous winery.

By keeping sheep in vineyards, there’s no need for pesticides or herbicides to control weeds. “There’s a direct correlation between healthy soil and wine quality,” says Jack. “I wouldn’t say it affects the taste but it does affect things like longevity, persistence, concentration of colour and softness of tannin.

“Grape vines have histamines in their skins to protect them from wasps and other insects that might try to attack the fruit. When under threat, vines will have a reaction. In machine harvesting they will create histamines and those get into the wine because they are not broken down. So in big viticulture where they have lots of machine harvesting, you’re not treating them and you’re feeding them with a lot of nitrogen, that is going to negatively affect the taste. You also get tannin drop-out, colour instability and it’s not great for the consumer.

“I think more and more we’ve got to start harvesting where we care more about the soil first and therefore make better wine. As soon as you spray a chemical you’re messing with the system, and you create an imbalance with soil chemistry and create a weak vine which gets sick and you have to spray more on it,” Jack continues.


As Beyoncé famously says, “Who run the world? Girls.” And they certainly play a key role in the running of South Africa’s wine industry as Calow notes: “There are many women in the South African wine industry, and this is a picture that continues to change. From winemakers to labourers and everything in between, for the most part, women are generally fairly well represented in the SA wine industry, especially when compared to our international counterparts.

“Industry bodies continue to drive change, whether it is focused on transforming the industry through empowerment projects, training, mentoring and a range of other initiatives that focus on upliftment, or by creating awareness of equal opportunities,” Calow continues.

Not just looking at those who make the wine, there’s also a question of stigma surrounding the liquid itself. Rosé in today’s world tends to appeal more to women, for example, it’s a similar idea to Passion Fruit Martinis being seen as a ‘girly’ drink and beer as a hearty, manly drink – which obviously isn’t the case. Wine was once the drink of masculinity, according to Mallory O’Meara’s book, Girly Drinks: A World History of Women & Alcohol. Ancient Greeks saw wine as “the drink of a manly man, a soldier, a thinker”, while a drinking woman was seen as “an inhibited woman”.

Of course, their idea of wine was a little different to the liquid we know and love today but the point remains that women are now making the wine they were once banned from consuming.

Jack, whose winemaking team is mainly female and led by award-winning Marlize Beyers, says the ones who succeed in wine are “selfless, very generous in terms of their time, effort and knowledge and are embracing”. He adds: “Exclusivity does not do well in this industry. I think it’s a social media thing for some wine styles to be seen as more feminine or masculine. The majority of people who drink rosé drink the colour.

“If you start looking into the psychology of colour, pink takes an entirely different meaning and therefore so does rosé. We know there’s this big difference between the bright red rosés and the more pink rosés from Provence. People are definitely drinking the colour. I think there is that stigma but is it real? In my house I’ll definitely out-drink my wife with rosé but she’ll out-drink me with champagne. Who knows if it’s real or not but it’s definitely the perception.”

SA has many women climbing the ranks of the wine trade, but there’s always room for more. Malu Lambert, wine writer and judge, says: “There is always a need for more diversity in what is a traditionally male-dominated field. However, I am happy to report that South Africa has many women winemakers, and many of them are our top winemakers too.

“With programmes of mentorship within actual wineries, pickers in the vineyards can be taught cellar work for example, and climb the ranks from there.”

Nic van Aarde, winemaker at Oldenburg Vineyards, which employs an all-female pruning team, adds: “There’s been a big influx of women to the winemaking and vineyard side as well as the sales and hospitality side.

“Thirty years ago it was a mainly male run industry and now there are equal amounts of men and women studying winemaking. We have a team of five women tending to our vineyards. We find that our all-female team has great attention to detail and really nurtures the young vines.”

Continued investment in education and mentorship is “key to take the many women already working at grassroots level through the ranks”, adds Du Toit. “

Organisations like the Pinotage Youth Development Agency are doing stellar work, as well as Women in Wine, who are focused on the economic empowerment of women in the industry. The visibility and example of many women in high-profile positions currently will definitely inspire a new generation of young girls to pursue a career in wine.”