I am thrilled to be just weeks away from a fabulous trip to the Winelands of South Africa. Thanks to
Sue Flischel and
Lee Flischel, I am joining the first leg of their journey to Africa, indulging our shared passion for wine — no surprises there — before exploring and photographing animals on safari.
My complete wine experience always includes a deep dive into the history, culture, people, food (and language in many cases). It’s fun to compare notes on how modern wine industries developed in each country, often with remarkable global similarities.
South Africa’s (wine) history is a bit different than most countries, however. The year was 1652. Dutch East India Company intended to set up a refreshment station to provide fresh food for its merchant fleet’s long sail around the Cape of Good Hope. Instead, a robust trading station was established. The birth of a nation began to unfold when Jan van Riebeeck was installed as the first governor of the Cape. Every good governor needs to plant grapes, right? He did exactly that in 1655, and on 2 February 1659, the first wine was made from Cape grapes.
There were lots of setbacks early on, in part because the farmers didn’t really know much about vineyards. When van Riebeeck was succeeded by Simon van der Stel in 1679, things quickly changed. van der Stel planted the farm now known as Constantia, which is to this day world famous for its excellent wines, and will be our first tour stop after a day spent getting acclimated in Cape Town.
Except for van der Stel, however, the Dutch didn’t really know much about winemaking. Over the next two decades, French Huguenots began to settle as religious refugees around the Cape Town area, bring winemaking skills with them — of course requiring wine for sacramental purposes, which is the familiar story of how winemaking evolved in most parts of the world.
The Cape’s wine industry was largely domestic for the next 90 years. During that time, the most special wine of South Africa, a sweet dessert wine called Vin de Constance, was made from the grape Muscat de Frontignan, and became South Africa’s first wine export to Europe. Not much detail has been written about the ensuing 100-year period. Thus, the next major stop on South Africa’s wine timeline was 1886 when the phylloxera louse destroyed millions of vines. The disease had spread from America to Europe and eventually to South Africa as vines made the rounds from country to country without understanding the origin or death sentence associated with phylloxera.
Tomorrow: back on track in the 20th century.
Map courtesy of greatwinenews.com