It was in 1652 that Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, tasked with establishing a garden to provision VOC ships. The first vines arrived in 1655 imported from France, the Rhineland and Spain. Naturally, these were planted in the Company’s Gardens, six acres of which survive as a botanical garden in central Cape Town to this day.
Jan van Riebeeck’s diary entry of February 2, 1659 reads: “today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes, and the new must was tested fresh from the vat.”
Van Riebeeck also planted 1,000 vines at his own farm, Boscheuvel, while his successor, Simon van der Stel, staked his personal claim on the lower slopes of the Steenbergen in Constantia. Once these Governors showed that successful large-scale grape cultivation was possible, other free farmers followed suit. Until then grapes had served primarily as adornments for verandahs and stables!
This was the origin of the famously historic sweet wines of Constantia. Constantia vintners placed a premium on quality rather than quantity, attending their vines with care, and thus differentiating them from the somewhat rough and rudimentary wines produced elsewhere.
Fans of Constantia wines include Frederic the Great of Prussia while Danish foreign Minister Johann Sigismund Schulin’s cellar records of 1744 indicate a considerable stock of Constantia. Famous French poet Baudelaire was a fan, as were Napoleon Bonaparte and British author Jane Austen, who wrote about them in Sense and Sensibility.
French Huguenot refugees in 1688 settled in the Drakenstein Valley, an area better suited to vines than grain cultivation, providing a much-needed boost as a few of their number knew about wine and viticulture. In the early 1700s wine farmers found themselves stuck with a surplus of pretty poor quality wine – but production grew apace because of uncontrolled planting of vineyards.
By 1800 around 5 million litres of wine was produced annually. Wine farmers found themselves in a situation which was to last for centuries: a surplus of less-than-ideal quality wine that was difficult to dispose of allied to the reliance upon a fickle foreign market. Only when crops failed or Europe was at war were South African wines in demand. The exception, of course, was Constantia and sweet wines such as muscadel and hanepoot.
In the 1800s, British occupation meant a strong military and naval presence – and a consequent good demand for South African wines in Britain post 1813. However, it was fleeting, with preferential tariffs abolished in 1861 – leading once again to surplus. Added to this was the phylloxera epidemic which devastated plantings. First encountered in a vineyard in Mowbray in January 1886, it spread rapidly. Vintners were compelled to destroy millions of vines by uprooting and burning. Only the introduction of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock saved the industry.
At the turn of the 20th century, South Africa was itself at war, with Boer and Brit pitted against each other. However, wine and brandy sold well during 1899 and 1902 – but, following the cessation of hostilities, surpluses built up and prices dropped dramatically.
Perhaps one of the most significant events was the creation of the KWV (Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika, Beperkt) in 1918. It saved many wine farmers from ruin by uniting their producers’ interest under a single umbrella organisation, stabilising production and setting minimum prices. The country’s change of government in 1948 ushered in the era of apartheid and many former trading partners applied economic sanctions in protest. Lieberstein bucked the trend. Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery launched the semi-sweet white and backed it with an aggressive marketing campaign. By 1965 it was the biggest selling natural wine of its kind – worldwide.
However, the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the rapid – and peaceful – transition to democracy paved the way for sustained growth in the modern era. Along with the establishment of a dedicated export marketing body (Wines of South Africa), a new generation of young winemakers were able to work and travel abroad, returning with fresh skills, techniques and ideas.
International exposure and dramatic growth in sales led to a change in style of South African wine as well as a greater commitment to improving quality. This has been reflected in the slew of international awards claimed by South African wines since democratic elections were first held in 1994, a remarkable turnaround and achievement for an industry which is simultaneously 350 – and 15 – years old.
Go to http://www.southafricanwine350.co.za to view the array of wonderful events and promotions planned for the year to celebrate this commemorative day.
Article was written by Annareth Bolton, CEO Stellenbosch Wine Routes