South Africa is one of the world’s leading wine producers today. Approximately a quarter of a million acres of land is under vine here in a country with an ideal mix of cool mountain climes found around Table Mountain and warm African temperatures. Consequently, it is easily one of the world’s ten largest wine producers, producing more than ten million hectolitres every year and being on a par with Argentina, Chile and Australia in terms of sheer volume. Here we explore how it all started in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under Dutch rule.
The Dutch Cape Colony and the Arrival of Vitis Vinifera
The Cape of Good Hope was first rounded by a European expedition when Bartholomew Diaz arrived in 1488, flying a Portuguese flag. At the time, Diaz christened it the Cape of Storms, but in an early act of marketing, the Portuguese government soon decided to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. After that, the Portuguese maintained sporadic settlements here, effectively supplying stations on the long journey from Europe to the small Iberian kingdom’s vast colonies in India and the East Indies.
The first permanent settlement was not established until the mid-seventeenth century, and when it was, it was under the auspices of the Dutch United East India Company. An expedition led by Jan van Riebeeck landed here in 1652 and went on to found what became known as the Cape Colony, or the Dutch Cape Colony, to distinguish it from the later British settlement of the same name.
The Dutch immediately realised that the Cape’s Mediterranean-like climate might prove ideal for grape cultivation, so vine-cuttings were sought from Europe. They quickly arrived, probably from France, and van Riebeeck oversaw their planting. Thus, in 1659, seven years after the colony was first established, the first ever South African wine was produced. However, the industry was limited at this time and hampered by the settlers’ lack of expertise. That would all change in due course once French settlers began arriving
The French Huguenots and the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685)
The circumstances that allowed French settlers to bring their expertise in viticulture to South Africa had developed over a century earlier. Following the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, many people in France began to convert to Lutheranism and Calvinism. However, the French political establishment and government remained largely Roman Catholic.
So it was that in the early 1560s, a series of wars of religion, which were in effect quasi-civil wars, broke out in France. They lasted for nearly 40 years and, in the end, were only brought to a conclusion when King Henry IV, who himself had previously been a Protestant but who converted to Catholicism to stabilise the situation, issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This decreed the primacy of Roman Catholicism in France but granted French Protestants, who had become known as the Huguenots, extensive rights to worship freely.
All was well for several decades, but in the 1640s, King Louis XIV ascended to the throne. Louis was the paragon of an absolutist monarch, a man who believed he was god’s representative on earth. The idea of having a decentralised Protestant church which was not under his control, irked Louis. In 1685, after years of considering the move, he issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which effectively rescinded the Edict of Nantes and ushered in a renewed period of persecution of French Protestants. The result was a massive exodus from France of its sizeable Huguenot population.
French Huguenot Settlement at the Cape and Role in Viticulture
France’s loss was the Cape Colony’s gain, and in the second half of the 1680s, several hundred French Huguenots arrived at the Cape. In a spot of good luck, many of these happened to have been viticulturists in France. Moreover, they had extensive skills, which the Dutch settlers lacked, who hailed from a nation not exactly known for its wine production.
As a consequence of this, the wine industry of the Cape Colony evolved considerably from the 1690s onwards. They were employed well in developing the Constantia winery in the eighteenth century. Indeed the influence of the French Huguenots is still seen today in the names of some of South Africa’s wineries and wine-growing regions. These include Haute Cabrière, La Bourgogne, La Petite Provence, La Motte, La Chataigne and La Roche, names which all attest to the influence of the French in their early development.
In addition, the Dutch authorities at the Cape granted extensive lands to the French Huguenot settlers along the Berg River in the Olifantshoek Valley. These would form the basis for some of South Africa’s most well-known wineries down to the present day. A tract of land named Vendome was given to Jean and Gabriel Le Roux, who hailed, unsurprisingly, from Vendome in France. Another piece of a territory named Boschendal was granted in the mid-1680s to a French Huguenot named Jean Le Long. The Laborie estate was first made to Isaac Taillefert from Poitou in France in 1691. These estates have gone on to have a heritage within the South African wine industry which has lasted over 300 years down to the present day.
The Early History of the Constantia Winery
One winery stands out from all those established in the Cape Colony under Dutch rule. The Constantia estate was first planted with vineyards in Table Mountain’s foothills by the Cape Colony Governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1685. He probably named the farm Constantia after the Latin word for steadfastness or ‘constancy’. Over the next quarter of a century, van der Stel benefited from the French Huguenot winemaker’s expertise, who arrived in the Cape Colony shortly after he founded Constantia to develop several wines.
Four years after van der Stel died in 1712, a Swedish viticulturist, Oloff Bergh, purchased the estate. Still, it was under a German settler, Carl Georg Wieser, in mid-century and, in particular, the Dutch settler, Hendrik Cloete, from the 1770s onwards that the estate grew into its own. By that time, tens of thousands of litres of wine were produced yearly at Constantia. Much of this was made into sweet wines, which quickly garnered an international reputation.
By the end of the eighteenth century, these wines were considered second only to the Tokaji sweet wines of Hungary for their quality. This was no mean feat in a world which would take over another century before it began to take New World wines in general seriously. The Constantia estate would continue to grow under British rule in the nineteenth century and is one of the most revered wineries in the world today.
The End of Dutch Rule
Just as the Constantia wine industry was ballooning in the late eighteenth century, the Dutch Cape Colony’s history was about to end. [Text Box 2] In the early 1790s, following the French Revolution of 1789, most of Europe’s great powers, led by Britain, Austria and Prussia, went to war with France. The new French republic responded with aggressive conquests on its western borders. One of the regions affected was the Dutch Republic, which was formed into the new French-dominated Batavian Republic. In the process, the Cape Colony came under French influence.
The British had long coveted the Dutch Cape Colony, as it was an ideal stopping point on the way around Africa to British India in the decades before the construction of the Suez Canal. Accordingly, no sooner had the French conquered the Dutch Republic, but the British dispatched an expedition to southern Africa and occupied the Cape Colony. They briefly handed it back to the Dutch in the following years before occupying it again in 1806 in the depths of the Napoleonic Wars.
The British would not leave the second time, and when Napoleon fell for the first time in 1814, the British concluded a treaty with the Dutch, which ceded the Cape Colony to London. Thus, the region came under British rule. A century of conflict followed between the British colonial administration and the Boer descendants of the Dutch, French Huguenots and German Protestants who had settled here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Still, the wine industry of South Africa, bolstered by enormous wealth from the discovery of gold and diamond mines in the region, continued to flourish.
Text Box 1 – The Huguenot Diaspora
The Huguenot Diaspora, which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, was vast. Over half a million French Protestants left France by the end of the 1680s, heading largely to countries with a predominantly Protestant population, such as England, the Dutch Republic, Denmark and Sweden. Many of these countries were antagonistic to France at the time and welcomed these newcomers. However, some ended up heading for some unusual locations. For instance, many ended up in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country but under the rule of the British Protestant state at the time. A very significant number ended up settling in the Carolinas in North America and have left their imprint on the culture of both those states and places like Tennessee and Arkansas down to the present day.
Text Box 2 – The Cape Colony in the Eighteenth Century
By the late eighteenth century, the Dutch Cape Colony had become exceedingly successful. Several towns, in addition to the original Cape Colony (modern-day Cape Town), had been established at Stellenbosch, Graaff Reynet, Zwellendam and other sites. At the same time, the settler population was well more than 50,000 people, making it one of the Dutch Republic’s most extensive colonies. Moreover, recent research has affirmed that the colony’s community was affluent, albeit this wealth was generated largely on the back of the forced labour of the local Bantu people. Additionally, a distinct Cape culture, seen most clearly in the development of the Afrikaans tongue, had emerged and would form the basis for Boer identity in the nineteenth century under British rule.
Stefan K. Estreicher, ‘A Brief History of Wine in South Africa’, in European Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (July 2014), pp. 504–537.
Johan Fourie and Dieter von Fintel, ‘Settlers Skills and Colonial Development: The Huguenot Wine-Makers in Eighteenth-Century Dutch South Africa’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, Special Issue: The Renaissance of African Economic History (November 2014), pp. 932–963.
Erik Green, The Dutch Cape Colony (London, 2022).
Thera Wijsenbeek, ‘Identity Lost: Huguenot Refugees in the Dutch Republic and its Former Colonies in North America and South Africa, 1650 To 1750: A Comparison’, South African Historical Journal, Vol. 59 (2007), pp. 79–102.
On this Day
22 October 1685 – On this day in 1685, the Edict of Fontainebleau was issued in France by the government of King Louis XIV. Through it, the French government essentially revoked religious toleration for France’s nearly one million Protestants or Huguenots as they were known, which they had earlier been granted under the Edict of Nantes in 1598 had brought the French religious wars to a conclusion. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left France, settling primarily in Protestant places like the Dutch Republic, the territories of the British monarchy, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and parts of Germany. Some even headed overseas, settling in the British colonies of North America and the Dutch Cape Colony in what is now South Africa. Those who settled in the latter region were enormously influential in establishing the South African wine industry in the following decades. They brought expertise in the viticulture of a kind which only the French had in the late seventeenth century and soon developed South Africa’s wine industry to a sophisticated state. Indeed, their influence was that South Africa was the first wine-producing country outside of Europe to gain considerable acclaim for its product, with Constantia sweet wines becoming highly sought after during the eighteenth century.
24 June 1712 – On this day in 1712, Simon van der Stel, the last Commander and then the first Governor of the Dutch Cape Colony in what is now South Africa, died at Constantia at the Cape. Van der Stel was in charge of the colony for twenty years between 1679 and 1699. During that period, he began developing the nascent South African wine industry by supporting the migration of French Protestant winemakers to the Cape from Europe who were fleeing religious persecution in France following the revocation of religious tolerance for Protestants there in 1685. In his retirement, van der Stel was also a crucial early figure in developing the sweet wine industry at Constantia. By the end of the eighteenth century, the sweet wines produced here were regarded as the finest in the world, equalled only by those in Hungary.
 ‘South Africa’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlsson/2021/12/30/wine-production-in-the-world-in-2020-a-detailed-look/ [accessed 22/7/22].
 Erik Green, The Dutch Cape Colony (London, 2022).
 Richard Cavendish, ‘The edict of Nantes’, in History Today, Vol. 48, No. 4 (1998), pp. 35–45.
 E. T. Dubois, ‘The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: Three hundred Years Later, 1685–1985’, in The History of European Ideas, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1987), pp. 361–365.
 Warren C. Scoville, ‘The Huguenots and the Diffusion of Technology’, in The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 60, No. 4 (1952), pp. 294–311; Vol. 60, No. 5 (1952), pp. 392–411.
 Johan Fourie and Dieter von Fintel, ‘Settlers Skills and Colonial Development: The Huguenot Wine-Makers in Eighteenth-Century Dutch South Africa’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, Special Issue: The Renaissance of African Economic History (November, 2014), pp. 932–963; Pieter Coertzen and Charles Fensham, The Huguenots of South Africa, 1688–1988 (Johannesburg, 1988).
 Stefan K. Estreicher, ‘A Brief History of Wine in South Africa’, in European Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (July, 2014), pp. 504–537, esp. p. 511.
 ‘Constantia’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); https://grootconstantia.co.za/our-history/ [accessed 22/7/22].
 H. Muller, ‘The Acquisition of Cape Colony by the British’, in The Geographical Journal, Vol. 86, No. 6 (December, 1935), pp. 561–562.
 Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa (London, 2008).
 Susanne Lachenicht, ‘Huguenot Immigrants and the Formation of National Identities, 1548–1787’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2 (2007), pp. 309–331; Bertrand Van Ruymbeke and Randy J. Sparks, Memory and Identity: The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora (Columbia, South Carolina, 1988).
 Erik Green, The Dutch Cape Colony (London, 2022); Johan Fourie, ‘The Remarkable Wealth of the Dutch Cape Colony: Measurements from Eighteenth-Century Probate Inventories’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (May, 2013), pp. 419–448.
 https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-edict-of-fontainebleau-or-the-revocation-1685/ [accessed 21/7/2022]; Johan Fourie and Dieter von Fintel, ‘Settlers Skills and Colonial Development: The Huguenot Wine-Makers in Eighteenth-Century Dutch South Africa’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, Special Issue: The Renaissance of African Economic History (November, 2014), pp. 932–963.
 Wouter Hanekom, ‘The Simon van der Stel Festival: Constructing Heritage and the Politics of Pageantry’, in Historia, Vol. 58, No. 2 (January, 2013).