South Africa is certainly well-known for its citizens’ struggle for independence and the enduring history of Apartheid. One of the lesser-known yet defining elements of South African history is its early connection to wine culture. As early as 1659, the Dutch East India Company established refreshment stations at Cape Town providing fresh food and drink to merchants on their voyages to India and surrounding areas.
As Cape Town evolved, the purpose of the refreshment stations also changed, leading to a flourishing wine industry and, subsequently, the birth of a nation. Cape Town constituted a crucial port for Dutch traders; a well-loved choice for sailors to take a break and stock up on refreshments.
Most certainly, the key strategic location of the region contributed greatly towards the establishment of South Africa’s wine industry. In equal measures, the wine industry can be considered an integral part of South African history.
Jan Van Riebeeck was the first governor of Cape Town. He planted the first vineyard in 1655 and, four years later, the first local wine was produced. His efforts and early success encouraged other local farmers to plant vines on a much larger scale at Roschheuvel, the modern-day Bishopscourt, Wynberg.
Initially, local farmers were reluctant to embark on this new venture, concerned about viability of the new crop.
And, as expected, the farmers encountered numerous challenges and setbacks, primarily due to lack of skills and knowledge about viticulture. Things, however, improved when Simon van der Stel succeeded Rieneeck in 1679. Stel was not only highly knowledgeable but also enthusiastic about viticulture and winemaking.
His venture began when he planted a vineyard on his farm, Constantia, before selling his farm to the Cloete family who are globally recognized. Wines from Constantia are still considered to be some of the finest wines in the world. It is, therefore, the efforts of these pioneer vintners that truly put South Africa’s wine on the global map.
The early Cape Town wine industry was widely influenced by the French Huguenots who settled in the area between 1680 and 1690. The group was composed of individuals with few financial means, forcing them to lead simple lives. Consequently, they often resorted to winemaking techniques to compete for a place in a society dominated by the much wealthier Dutch.
The Huguenots’ rich culture and techniques left a great and permanent impression on Cape Town’s wine culture. This influence is still apparent to this day.
On This Day
In 1659: On this day, the first glass of wine was produced in South Africa by the Dutch East India Company at their trading Cape trading station. The first vines were planted by Cape Town’s governor in 1655 from which the first wine was eventually drawn four years later. This marked the beginning of a long South African wine tradition which would undergo major changes and growth in the years to come.
10 December 1679: On this day, Simon van der Stel become commander of the Cape colony. He was highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about viticulture and winemaking. Stel began his venture by planting a vineyard on his farm, Constantia, marking the beginning of wine industrialization.
On 31 December 1687: French Huguenots settled in Cape Town. They utilized their winemaking techniques to leave a lasting impression on the region’s wine production and culture.
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- Williams, Gavin, “Slaves, workers, and wine: the ‘Dop system’in the history of the Cape Wine industry, 1658–1894,” Journal of Southern African Studies 42, no. 5 (Sept. 2016), p. 895.
- Ibid 896.
- Stanwood, Owen, “Between Eden and empire: Huguenot refugees and the promise of new worlds,” The American Historical Review Vol. 118, no. 5 (Dec. 1st 2013), p. 1319-1344.
- WoSA, Three Centuries Of Cape Wine, https://www.wosa.co.za/The-Industry/History/Three-Centuries-of-Cape-Wine/. [Accessed on 2nd March 2022].