DUTCH SETTLEMENT In 1652, the Dutch East India Company settled the Cape colony as a provision settlement for stops by its ships sailing the trade route between Asia and Europe. The first Commander was the 33-year old Jan van Riebeeck (pronounced “Yan fun-reebik), who had spent several weeks at the Cape on previous voyages to the Far East. Van Riebeeck arrived with three ships, the flagship named Drommedaris, some three months after leaving a wintery Holland. The newcomers built a modest fort of wood and mud at the sea’s edge, protecting themselves from the teaming wild animals and a small group of indigenous Hottentot people (the Khoikhoi), estimated to number sixty.
Trained as a ship’s doctor, Van Riebeeck quickly noticed fewer incidences of scurvy on the passing Portuguese and Spanish ships. He attributed this to the provision of port and sherry on the vessels. While the value of wine had been recognized by the Company, it took van Riebeeck’s eloquence to convince the Lords of the Company (known as Here XVII) to supply vines.
The first vines arrived in 1655 and four years later, van Riebeeck wrote :
“Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes...from the three young vines...yielding 12 mengels must from French and Muscadel grapes, the Hanepoot Spanish not yet ripe.”
Van Riebeeck received several cutting over the years, noting that the vines were consignments from France. There was never a mention of receiving grapes from Spain and it is thought he was referring to Muscat d’Alexandrie when he mentioned Hanepoot. A widely grown variety in South Africa today, Hanepoot is sold mainly for table grapes. Another variety that was introduced during Van Riebeeck’s tenure is Steen, which we now know is the French Chenin Blanc.
The first vineyards were planted in the Company Garden, which today is the heart of Cape Town. Still a peaceful garden park, the Houses of Parliament and a multitude of national galleries line the Company Gardens.
The first settlers were bonded servants to the Dutch East India Company, mostly from the lower ranks of the Company’s service. By 1657, the Company released about 50 men, granting them land under freehold title. They were known as Free Burghers. A few German settlers also made their way to the Cape in these early days. Neither the Dutch nor German farmers had any knowledge of growing vines or making wine. It was only when van Riebeeck was successful that he could convince them to grow grapes as a necessary staple to the sailor’s diet.
The Cape is a puzzle of micro-climates, in which the farmers tried several locations with little fortune. The vineyards at the foot of Devil’s Peak along the banks of the Liesbeek River took hold. In their ignorance, however, the farmers planted the fields too closely to be tended with animal-drawn ploughs. As a result of this and the growing needs of agriculture in the new Colony, some 200 slaves from Madagascar and Malaysia were brought to the Cape. The complex fabric of South Africa was thus partly woven by the introduction of vines.
Jan van Riebeeck, Commander of the Cape of Good Hope, 1652 - 1662
The last Sultan of Malacca, Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah, was captured by the Dutch in Sumatra and banished to the wild bush of Constantia. Not only the leader of a nation, the Sultan was a spiritual leader who was important in introducing Islam to South Africa. The kramat at the entrance of Klein Constantia was built on the spot where he was thought to have died in 1681. It forms part of the ‘Holy Circle” - six important Islamic burial tombs, or kramats, around the Cape Peninsula.
1679 - 1700
During his tenure (1679 - 1699), van der Stel was probably tolerated rather than liked. Interestingly, there are no surviving portraits of van der Stel.
SIMON van der STEL
It was the later Commander and Governor, Simon van der Stel, who placed the Cape on the wine map and established the Cape settlement as a self-sufficient colony. Van der Stel owned vineyards in Holland and, upon his arrival at the Cape, introduced new methods of planting, harvesting and vinification, including barrel cleanliness and fining. He also introduced the concept of crop balance to temper the fickleness of nature on the farmers’ fortunes and to ensure the permanence of the Cape Colony.
The seemingly impenetrable ‘Mountains of Africa’ frame the horizon to the east of Cape Town. It was to this boundary that both van Riebeeck and van der Stel ventured in search of fertile land. On his journey to the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, van der Stel imagined a town surrounded by vineyards and agricultural activities. And, thus, Stellenbosch was born. It was an important establishment in the history of the Cape for, until this time, the Dutch East India Company had to import food to sustain its base at the foot of Africa.
ARRIVAL OF THE FRENCH HUGUENOTS
At the same time, religious fanaticism was rife in Europe. The Edict of Nantes was repealed by King Louis XIV in 1685, marking an end to 87 years of religious freedom. The French Protestants were forced either to convert to Catholicism or to flee. Many chose to leave. The Dutch East India Company offered them grants of land and a new life in the Cape. Most of these new 200 or so settlers arrived between 1688 and 1700.
For Simon van der Stel, the French Huguenots presented an opportunity to expand the Cape’s territories as well as to improve the pool of winemaking skills. Unlike the 600 Dutch free burghers, the Huguenots were educated and skilled in many trades. In fact, many of the Huguenots were experienced wine farmers. They also represented a more sophisticated cultural society than their free burgher counterparts. Van der Stel awarded land to the newcomers in an area which became known as Le Quartier Francais and today is known as Franschhoek, meaning French Corner. They named the land after their lost homes: La Motte, la Provence, Rochelle, Champagne. Their own names reflect how integrated into South African society they became: de Klerk, de Villiers, du Toit, Le Roux, du Plessis, le Grange, Serfontain and many others.
As Eastern goods became more and more fashionable during the 17th century, so trade between East and West expanded. This may have secured the importance of the fledgling Cap Town but it also increased its population and the demand for fresh provisions. Thanks to the expanding settlement in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Constantia, the Cape became self-sufficient.
To demonstrate his vinous teachings, van der Stel granted himself 2,000 acres. This he called Constantia. It was not long before he awarded a lease to himself for a further 20,000 acres - nearly the entire Constantia Valley. Van der Stel succeeded where the previous winemakers did not. He produced a fortified, sweet wine that received favorable comment frorm Holland. Van der Stel built a modest homestead, where he retired and tended his vineyards until his death in 1712. He was succeeded by his son, Willem Adriaan van der Stel in 1699.
The Dutch colonists settled in Paarl in 1687, followed by the French Huguenots in 1688. Their cultures and languages merged as the social fabric of the Cape formed.
1700 - 1800
Vergelegen & its camphor trees. Willen Adriaan's Gardener's Almanac is an infinitely comprehensive guide to agriculture, viticulture and horticulture. A brilliant mind, drunk with power and deluded by social grandeur, Willem Adriaan was exiled in 1708 by the Company to the rural back-country of Holland.
THE LAST OF THE van der STEL’S
Willem Adriaan van der Stel was educated in Holland and mingled in royal circles. In the Cape, he stretched the rules to excess. He was ruthless and self-serving. He was also a world class horticulturist. Willem Adriaan awarded himself 600 morgen in Somerset West. Using the slaves of the Company, he built a palatial estate to rival his European counterparts. The extensive gardens were renowned. There remain today five 300-year old Chinese camphor trees on this estate known as Vergelegen.
The tyranny of the younger van der Stel’s rule raised the ire of many of the wealthy free burgers. Now well established with strong social structures, the free burghers mounted a rebellion, sending a proclamation of dissatisfaction to the Lords of the Company in Holland. This so enraged van der Stel that he imprisoned the leaders of the rebellious group, eventually sending them to Holland for trial. Van der Stel must have been extremely surprised when the free burghers returned vindicated. The Lords had become increasingly dissatisfied with van der Stel’s lavish lifestyle financed from Company coffers. Agreeing with the free burghers’ arguments, the Lords reduced van der Stel’s powers, eventually recalling him to Holland and forcing him into exile in the remote Dutch countryside.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
The Dutch were forced to deal with problems closer to home as a series of European wars began to unfold. The military skirmishes between France, the Low Countries and England culminated in the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars. To the benefit of Cape wines, the French wars effectively cut supply of wine to her opponents.
The British gentry were great consumers of wine. When they lost access to French wine, they looked to the Dutch settlement in the Cape to fill their glasses. For the first time, Cape wines were poured in large quantities outside the small communities where they were made. The British capacity to consume a lot of wine ensured that the Cape wine farmers prospered. While it was a time of turmoil in Europe, it was a time of peace in the Cape. The farmers used their new wealth to lavishly decorate their homes. Scrolls and high Baroque detail were crafted on their grand homesteads. Fine furniture graced the rooms. These elegant manor houses today represent the Cape Dutch form of architecture.
The most famed wine of the Cape in the late 18th century was Constantia. Not since Simon van der Stel had a Cape wine been lauded to such a degree. Constantia wine was made by Hendrik Cloete, a descendant of the Company gardener who arrived with Jan van Riebeeck. Cloete blended his wines, which was not a common practice. He also twisted the vines so that the juice from the grapes would be more concentrated. The famous wine was very sweet, appealing to the taste of the time. Constantia wine became the toast of European leaders, society and royalty. In particular, it was favored by Napoleon while exiled on St Helena. It also graced the tables of the King of Prussia, Otto von Bismark and King Louis-Philip of France, and was exalted in the writings of Jane Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire.
As their fortunes flourished, the free burghers reveled in their social autonomy, unconstrained by governing interference. The Dutch empire was crumbling. The wars strained Dutch finances and took their toll on any residual interest the Company might have had in governing their distant colonies. The free burghers misunderstood this disinterest as freedom and political autonomy.
The war between England and France in the 1780’s brought French rule over the Cape for four years. Holland, who sided with France, encouraged French occupation of the Cape outpost if for no other reason than to protect the important trade stop from falling into the hands of English control. The famous French architect, Louis Thibault, left military service to stay in the Cape, where his influence can be seen throughout the region.
FIRST ENGLISH OCCUPATION
In 1795, Britain occupied the Cape for the first time, taking control by force. The new rulers required every male to sign an oath of allegiance to the British king. Despite their animosity, the locals mostly kept their objections silent as they began to recognize the increase in trade, particularly of wine, with the British. Their daily lives were relatively unchanged from Dutch rule as the British used the existing governing infrastructure and retained the Dutch legal system.
1800 - 1900
The first occupation by the British ended in 1803 with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens. Brief control by the Batavian Government was the final rule by the Dutch. The second British occupation began in 1806 and lasted a hundred years.
ENGLISH OCCUPATION FOR THE 2ND TIME
Soon after Lord Nelson resoundingly defeated the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, the British fleets sailed to the Cape once again. Armed with 4,000 soldiers the British were assured success. The Cape colony fell to British rule. It was the only outpost in the Dutch empire where the British fought to gain control.
Napoleon may have jeered that the British were “a nation of shopkeepers,” but the English were not insulted by this arrogance for they understood the prosperity that trade could bring them. Equipped with their trading skills and market knowledge, they pledged to firmly entrench the industry of Cape wines. Encouraging words, for the fortunes of the Cape wine farmers were beginning to wane as the Napoleonic Wars tapered to their close.
The first measure the English introduced was the appointment of an Official Wine Taster to counter the claim that the quality of the wines was sometimes suspect. It was also forbidden to export wine from February through August, which closed the gap for unscrupulous traders selling the rough new vintages. England’s commitment to support Cape wine farmers culminated in 1825 when hefty tariffs were levied on French wines.
Like powdery mildew, Phylloxera vastatrix epidemic originated in North America. Phylloxera is an aphid that preys on the roots and branches of vines at various stages in its life cycle. Its voracity leaves the vine vulnerable to rot, which effectively kills the plant.
In north-east America, this near microscopic aphid survives in a symbiotic relationship with many species of local wild grapevines. The roots of these resistant species form corky layers in the wounds left by the aphid, thereby healing itself and preventing secondary rot.
Phylloxera was introduced to France in the 1860s, during grafting experiments to increase the resistance to powdery mildew by using the hardier wild root stock. The more delicate French cultivated vines lacked the protective measures.
Phylloxera eventually wiped out 75% of European vineyards. Cape vineyards were destroyed. It took nearly ten years to replant the vines grafted onto the resistant American rootstock.
EMANCIPATION AND THE GREAT TREK
Prosperity at the Cape lasted for a further forty years. The peace, however, was interrupted in 1834 with the emancipation of slaves. The division in society was as bitter and intense as that experienced in the United States some 30 years later. The hostility among the burghers was palpable: firstly they lost their country and now they were losing their labor force. Their rebellious spirit began to emerge. The Great Trek was their solution. This mass migration to the hinterland founded the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
By the middle of the 19th century, there were more than 55 million vines planted in the Cape. The devastation of French vineyards caused by North American powdery mildew was a mild problem for Cape farmers. By the time the fungus reached their shores, sulfur dusting was discovered to control the infestation.
Recovering from this natural disaster, the Cape reeled from the Palmerston Government’s repeal of tariffs against French wines. Within three years, exports had fallen to less than 25% of their previous levels.
Phylloxera arrived at the same time. The farmers’ fortunes were decimated. Most were forced to sell their homes. Many went bankrupt. It was during these desperate times that restrictions on any imported vines were introduced and stringent quarantine measures adopted.
A new breed of farmers were buying these dispossessed farms - the British, many of whom sailed to the Cape to stake their fortunes.
GOLD AND THE CIVIL WAR
In 1886, the inland regions that were settled during the Great Trek yielded their precious wares - diamonds and gold. The rush was on, luring English adventurers like Cecil Rhodes. It was not long before the Boers, who had rebelled against British rule, were to declare war on these fortune-seeking intruders: the British yet again. The Anglo-Boer War lasted for three years, when in 1902 the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State acceded defeat, losing their independence and becoming part of the expanding British Empire.
1900 - 2000
A DIFFICULT CENTURY
Cape Town and Paarl were the gates to and from the fields of fortune in the north. There was a buzz of excitement. For the wine farmers though, their fortunes were tempered by the hardships of the war and the wait for the new vines to produce. Now grafted onto imported rootstock, the number of vines planted had increased by 50% to some 78 million vines. Struggling through the last fifty years, the farmers looked to better times. By 1904, the new vines began to yield fruit. But exports were negligible and massive surpluses were recorded. The depressed state of the wine industry continued.
In 1906, the first co-operative was formed to bargain and market collectively on behalf of the individual farmers. The co-operative system also improved the economies of scale as the winery plant and machinery could be used more effectively and with less capital commitment. At about the same time, 10 million vines were uprooted in the drier regions of Robertson and Oudtshoorn to plant feed for ostriches. Between 1906 and 1913, ostrich feathers were a fashion item in Europe and the feather industry boomed. When it collapsed though, the farmers began planting vines again. Over-production of wine continued, further depressing the state of the local market. The years during the First World War also saw the price and consumption of wine decline.
The success of the KWV in the first few years after its formation in 1918 was questionable. In 1924, however, the Government ratified its powers thus creating what would become a monolithic savior to the wine farmers and, later, their nemesis.
KWV stands for “Ko-operative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika Beperkt” - meaning, Co-operative Winegrowers Society of South Africa Ltd. For the co-operative to work and thus protect farmers from manipulative merchants, all wine-grape growers needed to join. The objective of the KWV was “to direct, control and regulate the sale and disposal by its members of their produce, being that of the grape, as shall secure or tend to secure for them a continuously adequate return for such produce.”
The KWV was empowered to fix the minimum price to be paid to farmers for their distilling wine. These powers were extended in 1940 to cover the price paid for table wines - wines that were not destined for distillation. At the same time, KWV was granted control over the production and marketing of wines, with all transactions requiring the prior approval of the KWV and all payments transacted through them. Farmers were now required to obtain permits from the KWV to produce wine. The KWV determined how much wine a farm was allowed to sell and required that the balance be delivered without compensation to the KWV. This balance, or ‘surplus’ was processed by the KWV into their wines, brandies and spirits. The principles of surplus and price fixing were legislated in the 1950s and applied to all wine farmers, whether or not members of the KWV.
In spite of the controls introduced in 1940, overproduction continued to be a problem. It was thus in the 1950s that the KWV introduced the ‘quota system’, which limited the number of vines a farmer could grow. Farmers required the permission of the KWV to plant vines and their approval on which varietals, where and how many. Root stock and nursery vines were tightly controlled.
A NEW LIGHT
Two main factors led to the improvement in Cape wines in the 1990s - and we are only now beginning to experience the true potential. These important factors are the abolition of the KWV quota system in 1992 and the relaxation of sanctions. Until then, it was virtually impossible to obtain new clones for chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot or pinot noir. What was available in the country was often of poor quality or virus-ridden.
When sanctions were lifted, opportunities to obtain new vines became available. New varieties were introduced and many existing varieties were replanted with better quality vines. In addition, the global wine making fraternity became accessible. Local winemakers regularly spend time at foreign wineries, far more so than in the past. And, foreign winemakers and vineyard consultants are finding their way to the Cape. As a result of this extensive interaction, winemaking skills and wine farming techniques have been broadened significantly.
The new vines and new vineyards as well as new farmers and new winemakers have added dimension to South Africa’s wine industry. The quality of the wine being produced now is beginning to reflect the quality of new vines planted in the past ten years. It is, indeed, a very exciting time with some very exciting wines - much to our delight!