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The arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652 heralded the beginning of wine- growing in South Africa. For it was he who recommended to the Dutch East India Company that the Cape, with her suitable grape-growing climate would serve as a useful victalling station for the ships on their passage to the East.

 

The History of Wine in South Africa

Jan van RiebeeckThe arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652 heralded the beginning of wine-growing in South Africa. For it was he who recommended to the Dutch East India Company that the Cape, with her suitable grape-growing climate Early and rare Cape vintagewould serve as a useful victalling station for the ships on their passage to the East. Thus in 1655 a shipment of grape vine cuttings, mainly from France, arrived in Table Bay and soon after the first vineyards were planted. In 1659 the first wine was made by Jan van Riebeeck himself.

The Commander's successful attempt greatly inspired the Free Burghers, servants of the company who had been freed to farm their own land. Vine cuttings were distributed amongst them and they moved further inland to plant new vineyards and forge a future for themselves as wine farmers.

Neither Jan van Riebeeck nor the Free Burghers held much viticultural knowledge or produced wine of any fine quality and it was not until Simon van der Stel, the Governor of the Cape, demonstrated personally that it was possible to produce palatable wine, that the quality of the wine started improving.

Simon van der Stel bought Groot Constantia, made it into a model wine estate, reorganized the local farming community by introducing crop quotas and established Stellenbosch, the first settlement inland from Cape Town.

Willem Adrian van der Stel succeeded his father as the governor of the Cape and although despised by the Free Burghers for his tyranical style and corrupt practices, his useful contribution to improving the vineyards in the Cape cannot be disputed.

His Gardener's Almanac reflects a detailed account of the progress he made and is the first official record of a vineyard here in the Cape. The Free Burgher rebellion in the Cape abruptly ended his career as Governor and in 1708 he was banished to Holland where he spent the rest of his life in exile.

Groot Constantia, after a long period of neglect and dishevelment, regained its former glory and much greater fame when the Cloete family descended from Jan van Riebeeck's undergardener, bought the farm in the late eighteenth century. Such was their success that the Constantia wines came to fill the glasses of the famous: Frederick of Prussia imported it, Jane Austin mentions it and Napolean Bonaparte, improsoned on St. Helena, is known to have yearned for the sweet wines of Constantia.

The French Huguenots further expanded the art of viticulture, for on their arrival in the Cape in 1688, although they did not have direct wine making experience, they brought with them their culture and knowledge of vineyard and cellar practice. Most of the Huguenots settled in the Franschhoek Valley where the names of the farms today bear testimony to its French past.

Having gained from France's eviction of the Protestants, the Free Burghers one again prospered from the strife tearing through Europe during the eighteenth century. As a result of the wars the French wine trade was cut off from England who then looked to the Cape for sweet wine, ports and sherries and thus brought great wealth to the colony. With this affluence came the establishment of the elegant Cape Dutch Homesteads which today keep the nostalgic charm of the past alive in the winelands.

Gewurtzramminer GrapesThis, however, was a honeymoon period as political turmoil, economic distress with the loss of the overseas wine market and the removal of protective trade tariffs ensued, bringing great hardship to the wine farmers. The culminating factor occurred in 1885 when the devistating epidemic of louse-like aphids, commonly called Phylloxera, struck and destroyed most of the wines in South Africa and Europe.

Once research showed that North American vines were immune to Phylloxera and American rootstock was grafted onto Cape vines - an essential feature, which is still practiced today, the vineyards of the Cape were slowly restored. But with the restoration of the vineyards came disaster of a different kind. Ironically recovery was too fruitful, uncontrolled overproduction resulted and, without the overseas market to absorb the excess, millions of lgallons of wine had to be poured away. Many destitute farmers were left bankrupt and many migrated to the towns.

The romantic and idyllic lifestyle often associated with wine farming was a far cry from the struggles faced by the Free Burgher, a person rebellious by nature. The occupation of the colony by the British after the Dutch departed in 1806 perpetuated their plight.

With the new colonists came new legislation, the most controversial of which was the emancipation of slaves in 1834. For many Burghers already disgruntled with government, having their convenient source of labor undermined was the final straw and lead to their mass migration to the North - known in the historical annals as the Great Trek.

Amidst the turmoil and severe setbacks suffered in the country and more especially the winelands came a positive breakthrough which was to change the winemaking process forever and dramatically improve the quality of wine.

After analysing wine under a microscope Louis Pasteur, in 1863, discovered that because of wine's organic nature every stage of the winemaking process could be controlled. This major development in scientific viticulture later proved to be greatly significant in the history of South African wine as it inspired the well-known South African viticulturalist, Professor Perold, to experiment and cross Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (commonly known as Hermitage). In 1925 he successfully produced the Pinotage wine - South Africa's only local cultivar.

Meanwhile major inroads had been made in the history of South Africa. The Anglo-Boer War, fought in the North, culminated in the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902, when the Boer Republics lost their independence and became part of the British Empire. Eight years later, with the declaration of the Act of Union, both the Boer Republics and the Cape were incorporated into a new country to form the Union of South Africa.

In an effort to rescue the wine industry, crippled by over-production, the hardships of war and economic stress, the first co-operative was established in 1905. The co-operative system aimed to replace the traditional trend, where farmers competed amongst each other, with a system of collective bargaining and marketing. A further advantage was that machinery and technical knowledge could be pooled.

In spite of the distinct advantages of this system the problem of over-production still had not been entirely overcome due to the lack of authority held by the co-operative. In response to this problem the Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika Beperkt (KWV) was formed in 1918.

KWV is today a dynamic commercial organization which markets internationally while supplying products to domestic wholesalers acting as administrator of the wine industry at producer level and also offering a wide range of specialized services to wine farmers and the public.

The organization handles about 70 percent of South African wine exports. KWV represents 4,919 producers. Its objectives are to ensure long-term stability of the industry and to maintain a rewarding return for both the producer and the organization.

In 1935, the largest of the producing wholesalers, Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (SFW), was founded by an American doctor, William Charles Winshaw. Together with Mr Krige Jnr whose father had purchased a section of 'Libertas' farm on the northern bank of the Eerste River in Stellenbosch, Winshaw started producing wine on the farm they called Oude Libertas. As a former doctor and converted wine maker he concentrated mainly on natural wine as he believed it to be a healthier drink than the fortified wines consumed at the time. He gained great acclaim with the launch of the dry white Lieberstein wine, sales of which soared to record heights. Lieberstein became the world's largest selling branded wine.

Later, mergers and takeovers of other wholesalers such as Monis of Paarl, VH Metterson, Nederburg and Sedgwick-Taylor resulted in SFW become the producer and marketer of a large range of natural and fortified wines and spirits. The second biggest producing wholesaler, Distillers Corporation was launched in 1945. This company also expanded through mergers and takeovers of companies like the Drostdy Co-operative Cellars and South African Distillers. In 1974 Distillers Coporation formed Bergkelder, an original marketing concept which invited wine estates to make use of the corporation's bottling, sales and marketing expertise and maturation facilities.

In 1979 the most important merger in wine history occurred, and one which restructured the liquor industry as a whole. Distillers, SFW and its imported product subsidiary, Henry Taylor and Ries merged and became co-subsidiaries of a holding company, Cape Wine and Distillers (CWD).

In 1988 CWD was disolved and Distillers and SFW were listed separately on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. South African Breweries (SAB), Rembrandt and KWV each have 30 percent shares in these companies, while the public has access to the remainder. W & A Gilbeys is also a major liquor wholesale merchant in South Africa. Other independent wholesalers include Douglas Green Bellingham (DGB), Jonkheer Farmers Winery and Mooiuitsig Wynkelders.

 

Jan van Riebeeck may never have dreamed that out of the humble vineyard planted in his garden at the foot of Table Mountain would grow sprawling wine farms and complex corporations, and yet their raison d'etre remains the same. For nature has endowed the southern tip of the African continent, with a climate well-suited for grape growing and has over the centuries attracted people to exploit its full potential.

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