• Kim Rabe

Cape Wine History, the Dutch settlement


South Africa’s wine industry began with the arrival of the Dutch in 1652, then a leading maritime force in Europe with extensive interests in the East Indies. The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) sought to establish a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, a perfect mid way point for their fleet of merchant vessels to replenish their hulls with fresh fruits and vegetables before heading to their head quarters in Batavia (Jakarta) and elsewhere.

The first Commander at the Cape was Jan van Riebeeck, who set about establishing the Company’s vegetable garden at the foot of Table Mountain (a portion of the original garden still exists today and acts as a green lung in the heart of the city). Van Riebeeck had a medical background and noted that passing Spanish and Portuguese ships, whose sailors were given rations of port and sherry, had a much higher tolerance to scurvy. He used this reasoning to convince the Lords of the DEIC, to send vines post haste.

By 1659 the first wines were made from Cape vines, early varietals planted at the Cape include Muscat De Alexandrie (hanepoort )and Chenin Blanc (steen).

The first settlers had no experience in growing vines or making wine. It took much persuasion from van Riebeeck and much experimentation with different locations before they had any success. 1658 the first slaves arrived at the Cape, this new labor force helped farmers increase productivity but unfortunately the quality of Cape wine remained poor.


After van Riebeeck left the Cape the wine industry went into decline, until Simon van der Stel became Commander and Governor of the Cape in 1679. Van der Stel owned vineyards in Holland and was quick to introduced new methods of planting, harvesting and vinification, including leaving the grapes on the vine for longer, better hygiene and fining.

His own farm, which he named Constantia, was controversially awarded to him by a visiting commissioner from Holland. He produced a good quality fortified sweet wine but little did he know that in years to come his predecessors, Constantia wyn would become sought after all over Europe.

Van der Stel is also credited with establishing the agricultural town of Stellenbosch, followed by Franschhoek and Paarl, all of which have become synonymous with the Cape's wine industry.

His infamous son, Willem Adriaan van der Stel succeeded his father as Governor and soon developed a reputation as a ruthless self-enriching tyrant. His palatial estate named Vergelegen, which he built for himself using 600 company slaves at no charge is still in existence today and a popular tourist attraction.

Willem Adrian soon made enemies, who mounted a rebellion against him, notifying the Lords of the Company in Holland of his misconduct. He responded by imprisoning their ringleaders and had them deported to Holland to stand trial. However The Lords were frustrated with van der Stel’s extravagant lifestyle and sided with the free burghers, which led to van der Stel being banished instead.


Back in Europe, the Edict of Nantes was revoked by King Louis XIV of France in 1685. This forced French Protestants to convert to Catholicism or to flee across the border. The Dutch East India Company saw an opportunity to increase the number of skilled settlers at the Cape and offered some 200 Huguenots grants of land and a new life at the tip of Africa.

The French Huguenots were sophisticated, skilled tradesman, experienced winemakers and assimilated well with the Dutch. They settled in an area which became known as Le Quartier Francais , better known today as Franschhoek (French Corner). Many of the vineyards in Franschhoek still bare the French names given by these Huguenots and there French names have become an integrated part of South African society: Cronje, de Klerk, Jordaan, de Villiers, Le Roux, du Plessis and so on.


The French revolution and Napoleonic wars meant turbulent times for Europe, yet a time of peace and prosperity at the Cape. The French cut their supply of wine to their enemies which opened the door for the Cape wine trade to prosper. During this time farmers built lavish manor houses in the popular Cape Dutch style, many of which are still present in the winelands today. War in Europe left the Dutch East India Company bankrupt and their interests in the Cape vulnerable.

Simon Van der Stel’s farm, Constantia was sold and divided after his death. Constantia went through various owners and stages of prosperity or neglect until 1778 when Hendrik Cloete, a successful wine farmer bought Constantia and put Cape wines firmly on the world map. Cloete produced a sweet full bodied dessert wine which appealed to the taste of those times and was favoured by European nobility notably Napoleon, the King of Prussia, Otto von Bismark and King Louis-Philip of France. Famous writers and poets like Jane Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire have also written of its virtues.

More to follow...

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