The History of Cape Wine and the Birth of the South African Nation

South Africa is known for its struggle for independence and its colonial occupation that lasted for centuries. One part of the country’s history that has stood out is its early connection to wine culture. The Cape wine industry was established in the mid-17th century by the Dutch East India Company.

The Company’s initial goal was to establish a refreshment station at the Cape to offer fresh food to the merchant fleet on their voyages to India and the surrounding areas[1]. Later, the purpose of the refreshment station evolved, creating a flourishing wine industry, followed by the birth of a nation.

The strategic geographic location of the region significantly contributed to the establishment of the wine industry. Cape was an important port for Dutch traders, making it an ideal choice for sailors to stop and recreation and refreshments. Similarly, the wine industry’s development is considered an integral part of South African history.

Jan Van Riebeeck was the first governor of Cape. He planted the first vineyard in 1655, and four years later, the first wine was produced from Cape grapes. His efforts and early successes encouraged other local farmers to plant vines on a large scale at Roschheuvel, or modern-day Bishopscourt, Wynberg. In the beginning, most local farmers were reluctant to embark on this new venture. However, Riebeeck plaid a critical role by encouraging farmers to plant vines on a larger scale.

Initially, there were challenges and setbacks due to farmers’ lack of skills in viticulture. Things improved when Simon van der Stel succeeded Rieneeck in 1679[2]. Stel was not only exceptionally knowledgeable, but was also enthusiastic about viticulture and winemaking. He began his venture by planting a vineyard on his farm, Constantia and producing wine. Later, the Cloete family acquired the farm and made the wine famous. Constantia is still recognized as among one of the finest wines in the world today. It is a result of the efforts of these pioneer vintners that South Africa’s wine has a place in the global wine industry.

Did You Know: The three most planted grape varietals in South Africa today are Chenin Blanc, Colombard, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The French Huguenots who settled in the area between 1680 and 1690[3] greatly influenced the early Cape’s wine industrial development. The group comprised of individuals with few financial capabilities, which forced them to lead simple lives[4]. They used their winemaking techniques to compete for a place in a society dominated by wealthy Dutch people. The Huguenots’ rich culture and processes left long-lasting impressions on the Cape wine culture.

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[1] 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.
[2] Ibid 896.
[3] 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.
[4] WoSA, Three Centuries Of Cape Wine, [Accessed on 2nd March 2022]

Categories: Colonialism, Country Profiles, New World, Wine History In-Depth, Wine RegionsTags: , , , , By Published On: March 26, 2022Last Updated: February 26, 2024

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