Ye Olde New World of Wine


The unedited version of my celebration of 350 years of SA wine that appeared in the Sunday Times on Sunday:

My career as a whisky copy writer was a short but merry one. Describing the mouthfeel of Johnnie Walker Gold as “smoother than a mink codpiece” passed muster but calling Johnnie Walker Red as “rough as a badger’s bottom” cost me my job. Badgers are shy nocturnal beasts with a gestation period of 352 days according to my toilet best-sitter The Book of Numbers: the ultimate compendium of facts about figures compiled by William Hartston (Metro, 2000).

The same source vouchsafes 349 as the number of languages into which the Bible has been translated and also the record number of pancakes tossed in two minutes. But of 350 there is no trace – an omission rectified by the observation that wine has been made at the southern tip for 350 years. So much for putting SA on the New World supermarket shelf along with New Zealand that has been making the stuff for a generation and Australia who got their first vines from Groot Constantia in the 19th century.

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In fact Groot Constantia is one of the ten oldest trademarks in the world and Van Riebeeck’s employers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), was also the world’s first limited liability company. Back then it was brave little ships of the VOC that battled storms, sea monsters and the very real possibility of falling off the edge of the flat earth, to advance global commerce. As a sideline, they established a comfort stop en route to the spicy riches of the East and such culinary treats as nasi goreng. In fact they were so spice mad, they later swapped the nutmeg island of Run for Manhattan with the English.

Today that proud trading tradition is carried on by KLM, so persuading the airline to only serve SA wine on its international network and inviting a few Hollanders to the birthday party for SA wine seemed like a good idea. We could even go Dutch and let them pay for themselves, the current favourable exchange rate between the rand and the Euro appealing to a nation whose menus all start with “borrow two eggs…”

While the VOC trademark is now owned by Australian Michael Wright – who also owns Voyager Estate in Margaret River (complete with its own mini Cape Dutch herenhuis, yellowwood armoires and riempies stoele) – perhaps the most appropriate successor to the erstwhile directors of the VOC (the Here XVII) would be Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange and his glamorous wife, Argentina-born Princess Máxima. They’d certainly be more fun at a birthday bash as Mr. Wright doesn’t drink.

The KLM in-flight idea never got off the ground and financial constraints downsized the birthday party to a “private celebratory event” at Groot Constantia which featured winemakers in togas and diplomats invited from countries that have contributed to the advancement of SA wine – like Argentina.

Of course Groot Constantia has a fair bit of historical chutzpah in hosting the party as those first grapes “mostly Muscadel, and other white round grapes, very fragrant and tasty” were grown by that most appropriately named chief gardener Hendrik Boom in the Company Gardens. At that stage Constantia was woeste veld (bush) and with the Gardens too small, Van Riebeeck tried his luck on the Greenpoint Common, the site of the new 2010 World Cup stadium.

This was the first connection between soccer and wine, a link resurrected by WOSA (Wines of SA, the exporters’ association) through their Fundi project, a brave attempt to train 2010 sommeliers in time for the kick off by selling Fundi branded wine.

Support for the initiative is not universal, with a columnist in this month’s edition of WINE magazine noting that the idea of training sommeliers “can’t do any harm” as “the soccer louts [who] arrive in 2010… would prefer their beer without too much of a ‘head’.” No support either from the New York Times who in January quoted food critic François Simon “the most feared and most read figure in France’s culinary world” on the subject of sommeliers: “we should drown them, to allow us to drink as we please.”

The VOC were keen on wine. As Louis Leipoldt noted in 300 Years of Cape Wine (Tafelberg, 1952) “at the time of Van Riebeeck every sailor was by regulation given his tot of wine. Wheat, wine and oil, after all, are the three basic foods; in combination they make a perfect diet, that needs nothing else, not even the much advertized quava tablets, to improve it.”

Van Riebeeck’s Greenpoint experiment was a fizzer, so he tried further out on the Liesbeeck River. A decision copied by Lady Anne Barnard who planted a vineyard in Newlands. It was “the largest field of vines in Africa, being ten acres, which undivided is a very large one indeed” as she confided to her diary on Thursday 6 March 1800.

Proof that history repeats itself comes in the next entry: “next year I fancy it will do wonders, and I shall take care to have no sulphured casks to spoil it to the English taste.” Two and a half centuries later, English wine writers are still complaining about burnt rubber flavours in SA reds and the industry spends a fortune flying out these rubber fetishists in an attempt to change their minds.

Lady Anne’s vineyard was resuscitated in November by the Petousis family, owners of the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, the site of Lady Anne’s cottage. Icon SA estates Klein Constantia, Meerlust, Simonsig, Warwick and Waterford were invited to contribute vines providing a physical reality to the name of the hotel.

But while Van Riebeeck may have been the first to make wine, he was a reluctant Bacchus and the true patriarch of the pots was his successor Simon van der Stel who was the first to grasp the viticultural potential of the Cape. Conducting the first soil survey, he pinpointed the Constantia valley as a special site and was granted a farm of 891 morgen – essentially the whole valley – in 1685. He wisely named the place Constantia after Constantia van Goens, granddaughter of the VOC official who gave him the land.

Van der Stel lent his name to the epicenter of SA wine – Stellenbosch – and retired at the top of his game to Groot Constantia, the archetypical SA wine estate, ornate gables all over the place and bushes trimmed to busy topiary, like his whiskers. After he died in 1712, his family emigrated and the farm was split into thirds and sold.

Hendrik Cloete bought the Groot Constantia portion in 1778 and his parties were legendary. At one to celebrate the wedding of his daughter “license reached such heights that Lady Anne had to hide behind a curtain” according to Margaret Lenta in Paradise, the Castle and the Vineyards (Wits University Press, 2001). Further confirmation of Groot Constantia as a rave venue for Máx and Willem-Alexander.

Even before Groot Constantia was established, German immigrant Catharina Ras was farming grapes next door at Steenberg by 1682, six years before the first Huguenot refugees arrived in Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines Ye Olde New World of Wine
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although the French had better spin doctors as most people think they founded the SA wine industry. Constantia was certainly the most famous appellation for centuries thanks to the Vin de Constance produced by Cloete and his heirs, the first SA icon wine.

To see just how much SA wine has changed over 350 years, it is only necessary to turn back the clock 50. Leipoldt wrote his vinous history between 1945 and 1946 but only published in on the tricentenary. Back then he noted “the total annual consumption of wine per head of population is in the neighbourhood of six gallons”, or more than 27 litres as opposed to the current teetotal figure of 7½.

Leipoldt assumed an SA population of 12 million to arrive at his 27 litres, which makes it even more remarkable as black people were forbidden wine. An apartheid legacy that still hampers the industry with fine wine consumption essentially a monochrome middle class activity that sets up the challenge for the next 50 years. To transform wine into the “national asset and communal boon” of Leipoldt’s dream.