Soccer, Wine and South Africa

Jun 11, 2010

Today marks the beginning of FIFA World Cup 2010. In Johannesburg, the competition opened between the host country South Africa and Mexico. It was an exciting match with Mexico favoured to win but the South African footballers had their game together and scored early in the second half. Shortly after Blanco came on the field, Rafael Marquez tied it up for Mexico and the final score sat at 1-1. 

I watched the game at my father's place this morning and though I'm not the biggest soccer fan in the world I had the chills when Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal of the game and the crowd in Johannesberg howled with excitement. It wasn't quite noon but I sipped some wine and smiled for the boys, for the country of yellow and green.

I also realized today how complex and beautiful soccer can be. When I was young, I enjoyed hockey and football but the arts became my favoured past time. I hardly watch North American sports but I found myself captivated by today's game. 

Soccer is a continuous game. The pauses are brief, the action is on-going. True, there are some slow points , a few dull turn-arounds, but like any good novel or film, the gradual shift in tempo from the moderate to the fast can be exhilarating. The best plays come off orchestrated, dramatic and timely as if they were composed in the balance of passes, headers and honed strikes. 

Like a good wine, soccer is about finesse and finish and today's game satisfied me in a way wine typically does. The two are linked in their ability to banish care and unite the world. 

This is the first time South Africa has ever held the World Cup. The euphoria there must be intoxicating. The rich and the poor, the black and white, once segregated by apartheid are all celebrating today's game. In the world of soccer, the fans are united by their team and nation. 

It amazes me the link between the sport and the seductive beverage of civilization. Wine first came to the country in the wake of Dutch exploration. Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape colony planted the first vines using varieties sourced from France, Germany and Spain. It was Riebeeck's belief that the crews of Portuguese and Spanish vessels had less incidence of scurvy because of wine consumption. After a failed first effort, the governor reported success on February 2, 1659 in a famous diary entry: "Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes."

In 1657 Riebeeck decided that employees of the Dutch East India Company should be freed of their duties and given land in order to get more agricultural output out of the newly discovered land. This decision was ultimately shadowed by the institution of slavery. Dutch ships carried enslaved men, women and children from the coastal areas of eastern African and Mozambique to the colony.

Simon van der Stel replaced van Riebeeck as governor in 1679 and established South Africa's second city, Stellenbosch (named after himself - 'the forest of Stel'). In the 1680s, French Protestants known as Huguenots fled their homeland, escaping religious persecution. Many came from Provence and brought their winemaking skills to a new settlement further inland aptly named Franschhoek (Dutch for 'French Corner'). By the end of the century, with the help of the new settlers, Van der Stel developed Constania, the first major winery just south of Cape Town. 

The British took over South Africa in 1795 but slavery didn't end until 1834. The troubles between races continued but on the bright side the British were able to open trade for the country.  Vines increased from 13 million to 55 million with 4.5 million liters produced annually. Vin de Constance, a sweet white wine made from Muscast de Frontignan grapes became the prized drink of Jane Austen, Frederich the Great and Napoleon who requested a bottle on his death bed.

There were other troubles fermenting. The climate of South Africa proved to be too ideal for grape growing and overproduction lead many growers and winemakers to bankruptcy. To save the industry, the KWV (Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Africa Beperkt) formed to restrict and regulate the type and quantity of grapes grown and set prices.

The KWV has often been compared to the centralized control of Soviet Russia (it was nicknamed the KGB). Quantity became more important than quality and growers planted and harvest high-yielding varieties.

In 1948, the tension between races came to a head and strict rules of racial separation were put in place. Civil Rights were revoked and everyone was put into racial categories - whites, black, mulattoes, Asian and Indians. Afrikaners, descendents of the first Dutch settlers, the men and women who first planted the vines and kept domestic and farm slaves were the criminals behind apartheid policy.

Wine amongst other South African products were boycotted around the world. Riled apartheid protesters smashed shop windows in Amsterdam where South African wines were sold.

Nelson Mandela couldn't be at today's game due to the tragic death of his great-grandaughter in a car accident, said to be caused by a drunk driver. For many football fans he was there in spirit, many of whom are crediting him for bringing the World Cup to South Africa.

In 1995, it was Mandela who helped ease race relations in the rugby World Cup. Black and white cheered on the Springboks and today, the racial divide was once again blurred following Tshabalala's goal. 

South African wine is no longer boycotted and enjoys a place at many tables around the world. Recently, Shiraz became the latest showstopping varietal.

Today I'm going to recommend South African wine. Pick up any bottle you like. History is taking place in South Africa and why not take the spirit of the country in by lifting a glass. Wine, like soccer is for everyone (well... maybe not youngsters... they'll have to wait) but drink responsibly.  


Taber, George M. In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism. Scribner, New York, 2009.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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