SA wine history: The Cape’s first winegrower

By , 12 June 2018

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Jan van Riebeeck was not a very nice fellow. At best, the letters and journal he wrote detailing his decade as first commander of the Cape of Good Hope (1652-1662) show that he was an ingratiating little toady, constantly trying to find favour with his bosses (the Dutch East India Company or VOC) in the hope of securing a more prestigious posting in the East.

He never quite succeeded.

Unpopular even among the rough-and-ready soldiers of fortune who joined him at the Cape to set up a refreshment station (and who absconded or at least requested transfers in astonishing numbers), not to mention the indigenous Khoi people who soon found themselves cut off from their traditional grazing lands and water sources, Van Riebeeck did not deserve the adulation he received in pre-democratic South Africa.

Not JvR but Bartholomeus Vermuyden.

So much of what we were taught about him under Apartheid simply wasn’t true. It wasn’t even his face gracing our old paper currency! (The chiselled features and flowing locks seem to have belonged to a certain Bartholomeus Vermuyden, who never set foot on African soil…).

But one thing’s for sure: it was Jan van Riebeeck rather than Simon van der Stel (of Stellenbosch and Constantia fame) or the vastly over-hyped French Huguenots (of Franschhoek) who sowed the seeds of the South African wine industry.

Even before his appointment as commander, he was pushing for vines to be planted here. ‘Wine acts as a cordial, and strengthens,’ wrote the then junior surgeon in what was effectively his June 1651 job application.

On 13 May 1652, little over a month after arriving here, he wrote to his VOC directors requesting that he be sent cuttings of vines ‘that will grow against the mountains as beautifully as in Spain or France’.

The first recorded arrival of viable vine cuttings occurred on 22 July 1655, when the Leeuwin docked with a single tray of ‘wyngaerd’. It was followed by the Dordrecht with a tray of French vine cuttings and the Parel with three vats (‘tobbekens’) of cuttings.

Although there is no record of what the varieties were, it is generally accepted that they included Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat de Frontignan – and at least some of them took root and grew well in the Company’s Garden, for on 2 February 1659 Van Riebeeck wrote some of the most famous words in New World winegrowing history: ‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from the Cape grapes, and the new must fresh from the tub was tasted.’

Total yield was a ‘cleyn proeffieuof only 12 bottles, but Van Riebeeck had far greater ambitions. He had repeatedly tried to press vine cuttings on the first vrijburghers – men granted land along the Liesbeeck River from 1657 onwards – but found them to be ‘very indifferent’. So in August 1658, ‘during the waning moon’, he planted 1200 cuttings on the land he’d personally been given permission to farm – then known as the Bosch Heuvel or Bosheuvel, today the prestigious suburb of Bishopscourt.

In December 1658 he proudly recorded that his vineyard was looking ‘splendid’ and in March 1659 he reported: ‘Vines of various sorts are thriving excellently and promising well.’

Then came the first Khoi-Dutch war, during which vineyard was ‘completely destroyed’, but he planted a further 1000 cuttings in August 1659 and in September 1660 he was finally able to report that the vrijburghers were ‘nicely following suit’ and planting vines: ‘Hundreds of stocks are given to them, as they can be planted easily on the poorest soil, after the corn has been put into the ground, and without interfering with that work.’

Alas, nobody at the Cape had any idea about winemaking, prompting Van Riebeeck to write to his VOC directors repeatedly for assistance. On 22 February 1658, for example, he wrote: ‘We request you to furnish us with some information regarding pressing, etc, as well as some tools necessary for the same, and if possible, two or three persons understanding the business, for the prospects of an abundant growth of vineyards appear to be exceptionally good.’

On 19 March 1660 he tried again: ‘We are anxiously expecting further information from you regarding the pressing of wine.’

However, all he got in return was criticism for providing insufficient refreshment to visiting ships (based on complaints that he insisted were untrue) and a command to start preparing for his dismissal from the Cape.

Considering winegrowing was the least of his worries by that stage, he devoted a lot of time to it in his parting missive of 9 April 1662, despairing about the ravages of the birds but remaining optimistic: ‘Many vine stocks at the foot of the mountains … are thriving … this season very beautifully, indeed, six times better than those planted previously on the mountain summits.’

He insisted: ‘We have no doubt about the success of the vineyards and grapes, if they are only properly attended to. They will in due course tell their own tale.’

Famous last words, indeed.

Bibliography

Leibbrandt, HCV: Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope (Riebeeck’s journal, parts 1-3, Dec 1651-May 1662; Letters despatched from the Cape, 1652-1662, parts 2-3), originally published by W.A. Richards & Sons, 1896-1905, digitised by University of California Libraries (https://archive.org)

Moodie, Donald: The Record; or Official Papers relative to the Condition and Treatment of the Native Tribes of South Africa, Part 1. 1649-1720, Cape Town 1838-39, digitised by the Internet Archive, 2015 (https://archive.org)

Van Rensburg, J.I: Die Geskiedenis van die Wingerdkultuur in Suid-Afrika tuidens die Eerste Eeu, 1652-1752. MA Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 1930

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.

Comments

34 comment(s)

  • du toit12 June 2018

    Vastly over-hyped French Huguenots – what contribution did the gibsons have to the wine industry ? Except your academic achievement of level 4 !!!!

    • Kwispedoor12 June 2018

      As a French Huguenot descendant myself, I don’t see anywhere that she’s insinuating that the Gibsons had some sort of contribution, of whatever magnitude. She’s merely commenting on the weighted influence, in establishing our wine industry, of the Huguenots vs Van Riebeeck vs Van de Stel. Fascinating piece.

  • Tim James12 June 2018

    Great piece – thanks, Joanne; I wish there was more interest in finding out about the details of the history of Cape winemaking. As to the Huguenots, and du Toit’s point (if it is one): Despite the assumptions made in most lazy, unresearched histories of Cape wine, it’s very difficult finding any real evidence that the Huguenots made a contribution to wine production here (beyond the increased number of farmers, of course). If anyone has anything approaching disproof of this, I’d be grateful to see it and have the opportunity to recant. There seem to be no contemporary accounts of any Frenchman being praised for adding to Cape viticulture or viniculture. And it goes wider than wine – while, for example, the Malay slaves had a lasting effect on culture in the Cape (certainly food), there seems to be no culinary or other cultural tradition going back to the Huguenots. Of course, they did strengthen the white, Protestant presence, as they were seamlessly and quickly absorbed into the Dutch-Germanic culture. Even use of the French language seems to have died out within a generation. Happily we’re left with all those lovely French farm names (the farms generally well known for their Cape-Dutch architecture!), not to mention the names of many farmowners.

  • Hennie Taljaard12 June 2018

    I also take offensive and I hope this post will be removed. and Joanne is not the only contributor that has made these kind of derogatory remarks toward a certain population group.

    • j.joubert12 June 2018

      Du toitskloof gave her 30grand , im also an over hyped huguenot , will definitely not buy my muscadel or sauvignon from du toitskloof again. Shame on them du toit is also huguenot .

  • Joanne12 June 2018

    I’m sorry Hennie and du toit have taken offence. Regarding Jan van Riebeeck, it seems impossible to talk about him without stirring up emotions, one way or the other, but there’s simply no way he can still be celebrated as a heroic figure who almost single-handedly brought civilisation to the southern tip of the dark continent.
    He most certainly DID succeed in providing refreshment for passing VOC ships, to the extent that the Cape soon ceased to be merely a refreshment station but a place that the VOC saw value in settling permanently (albeit only from 1657 onwards), and I must say that his early enthusiasm for the ‘loveliest and most beautiful’ Cape and for winegrowing in particular (despite not knowing the first thing about it) really touched me. I imagine that he probably ended up a fairly sad and disillusioned ‘Company Man’ who might have been much happier if he’d applied to become a vrijburgher himself, stayed at the Cape, and made wine with advice from a couple of ‘vine fanciers’ that the VOC did send eventually out (Pieter Adriaan van Aarnhem in 1664, for example; Hans Adam Cockenberger of Vienna in 1676).
    As for the Huguenots… After Simon van der Stel’s arrival as 10th commander of the Cape in 1679, he ‘frequently deplored’ the quality of the wine and was therefore assured that ‘vine cultivators as well as those who understand the manufacture of brandy and vinegar’ would be among the French refugees offered a new home at the Cape. Indeed, the arrivals did include a few ‘agriculturists’ but Van der Stel found that they were mostly ‘of the wrong stamp’. He complained: ‘The crotchety (wispulterige) nature of the French still adheres to them and they resemble the Children of Israel, who when fed by God’s hand in the wilderness still longed for onions.’
    Happily there were a few exceptions, including the ‘wijngardinier en hoedemaecker’ (wine gardener and hatmaker) Isaac Taillefert, whose farms Picardie and La Brie (now Laborie) went on to produce wines that the French traveller Francois Leguat described in 1698 as ‘not unlike our little wines of Champagne’. And then there were the three De Villiers brothers from La Rochelle in Aunis, namely Pierre, Abraham and Jacob, who arrived in 1690 with a glowing reference: ‘We are informed that these persons have a good knowledge of laying out vineyards and managing the same. You are recommended to give them a helping hand.’
    It seems the De Villiers brothers and Taillefert in turn gave Van der Stel a helping hand, instructing their peers on things like ‘neatness’, only harvesting grapes when ripe and not using dirty barrels (or face Van der Stel’s harsh penalties…).
    My point, I suppose, is that our early wine history is absolutely fascinating, and if we’re going to keep trotting out clichés such as ‘straddling Old World and New World’ then we should have the evidence to back it all up. THE EVIDENCE IS THERE AND WHAT’S MORE IT GOES BACK EARLIER THAN IS TYPICALLY TALKED ABOUT. As early as 1666, wine samples sent to Europe were deemed ‘contrary to expectation, very well tasted’ and by 1670 the Cape even had a leading winemaker, officially recognised. This was TEN YEARS before Simon van der Stel arrived, TWENTY years before the De Villiers brothers!
    For what it’s worth, I’m hoping to uncover – and share – more of this early history, and I promise I’ll try to do it sensitively.
    (Oh boy, just wait until we have to start talking about slaves…)

  • Corlien Morris (Conradie)12 June 2018

    And here I thought, what a lovely little piece of history laid out.
    After 7 generations in SA, I don’t think any of my farming family members would take any offence to any of the well researched statements Joanne made here. It had to start somewhere and all I read into this was that it was indeed not the Huguenots who “sowed the seeds” of our industry. Jan, love or hate the man, I certainly have no illusion about his distance from sainthood, did order the first plantings of vines. That’s all!
    I sense there might be a follow up article by Joanne taking this history decade by decade till we get to the Huguenot part and their contributions.
    Come on guys, this is simply history on paper, not politics.
    Thank you Joanne, I enjoyed the piece.

  • dante12 June 2018

    I hope – the vastly over-hyped French Huguenots – that still produce great wines in south africa 330 years later take note of this wine journo. Hopefully Franschhoek recalls its award to her.

  • Chris Wilson12 June 2018

    Fascinating read. Would be very interested in hearing more about how the wine scene developed in Cape post Van Riebeeck.

  • Hennie Coetzee12 June 2018

    Loved this – a fascinating history piece. The old Cape is a fascinating place, and I hope there’s more articles like this to come Joanne! I fail to see what there is to take offense about. It’s facts and history, not politics.

  • Roy Davies12 June 2018

    O my Joanne! Loved the commentary, this history is so fascinating, and the story gives context to our place in the world of wine. What I found interesting in my research was the early arrivals of vine stock came from Holland, Brazil, St Helena, India, Italy, Spain and the mind blow, Japan.

  • Johan du Plessis13 June 2018

    Judging by some of the comments here where people took ‘offence’ at the hugely informative article, Wine Mag should institute a Comprehension and IQ test on its landing page to make sure that prospective readers are competent and intelligent enough to continue reading the rest of the website.

    • Le Penseur14 June 2018

      Johan, interesting to note that you are advocating a comprehension and IQ test to ensure that readers are competent and intelligent. I’m not sure what is your basis for such statement other than total ignorance and stupidity. That places you squarely in the incompetent and unintelligent category which will prevent you from reading the rest of the website. Seems you are just a narcissist.

      Jonathan, being a self-appointed judge regarding supremacy ostensibly on the basis of your comprehension and intelligence smacks of irony in the extreme, doesn’t it?

      A very slippery slope you are traversing, be careful.

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