David Bristow: The history of Groot Constantia
By David Bristow, 25 February 2015
Although Steenberg is the oldest private estate in the Constantia valley, having been granted to Free Burghers Hans and Catharina Ras, Groot Constantia is really its grande old dame. It was Groot, or Grand, Constantia that put Constantia on the international wine map, as well as being its stand-out estate for more than 300 years. I love to take guests there and make them walk from the old entrance gates down the oak-lined avenue to the main manor, with the old werf (farmstead) buildings flanking on the right and vineyards sweeping away to False Bay to the left.
I know it has become a bit of a tourist trap, particularly the wine tastings, but I still get the thrill of living history whenever I visit. If the weather is good, and it often is, I’ll book a table al fresco at the Jonkerhuis for lunch and impress my guests with the fact that it is the oldest restaurant building in South Africa.
The wines of the estate are not at all bad for one that is run by a trust set up by the government, although some might find the prices of the standard range a bit on the audacious side. These are not undecorated in recent times however and one to look out for in particular is the Grand Constantia – this is the estate’s approximation of the dessert wine that originally made the area famous and is made from partially sun-dried Muscat d’Frontignan grapes. The reserve range wines under the Gouverneurs label (a Semillon-led white and Bordeaux style red) both have four and a half star track records in Platter’s .
Much of the appeal of the place lies in its history, 891 morgan (about 763 hectares) having been granted to the governor Simon van der Stel in 1685 by the Dutch East India Company for which he worked, on the promise that he would turn the virgin land over to viticulture, much lacking here at the time. Van der Stel was born to a Dutch father and Batavian woman (what we still call Cape Malay but is in fact Indonesian).
Working for him was Anna de Koningh, daughter of a freed slave Angela van Bengale, who married the commander of the Cape Town Castle, Captain Olaf Bergh. When the governor died, in 1712, Bergh bought the major portion of Groot Constantia, with the portions Bergvliet and Klein Constantia going to Pieter de Meijer. But one incident occurred here in 1705 that throws some light on the controversial Willem Adriaan, son of Simon who had succeeded his father as governor in 1699.
The year before the burgher revolt led by Huguenot Adam Tas, which caused Willem Adriaan’s demise and banishment from the Cape, his wife Anna de Haze, tried to commit suicide on her father-in-law’s property. It was Anna née de Koningh who saved her from drowning in the little fountain that is still a feature of the gardens above Simon’s Restaurant “around the back”. So, clearly there was as much amiss at home as there was about in the fledgling colony at that time.
When Bergh in turn died in 1724, Groot Constantia was owned for a time by a freed slave, his wife. Neither had been much interested in wine making, so the property was neglected. And so it remained until it was bought by wealthy Stellenbosch wine farmer Hendrick Cloete in 1778, when begins its golden years. Cloete had the manor remodeled in the neo-classical Old Cape style by the outstanding architect-craftsman of the day, Frenchman Michel Louis Thibault, and added a large new cellar, the pediment with its bacchanalian bas reliefs sculpted by famous Cape artist, German-born Anton Anreith.
In 1885 the estate defaulted to the state and in the 1920s the historic manor was being used by the Dutch Reformed Church as a hostel for male students. They repaid the favour by burning down the place. Thus followed the first major historical restoration of an Old Cape building, under the guidance of Franklin Kendall, business partner of the more famous Sir Herbert Baker.
In 1993 the entire werf was again given a facelift by favoured architect of the day, Revel Fox, and so it remains much the same today. The manor and historic wine cellar are fabulously appointed museums, the Jonkerhuis (where the eldest son would live when he married and before the old folks popped off) one of three restaurants on the property.
If you want to get a heady whiff of history, there is no better place – just try to avoid the modern tasting complex when the busloads of tourists arrive as they tend to dilute the normally genteel ambience.
David Bristow has written multiple books and magazine features on travel, nature and African culture. He also one of the Racontours.co.za guides.